Artisan // 1955 // 100 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // January 16th, 2004
The true story of the most sensational military trial in our country's history!
The film is based on the true story of Billy Mitchell (played by Gary Cooper in the film), a Brigadeer General for the US Air Force, then in its infancy. The Air Force is considered by Army and Navy superiors to be nothing more than an experiment. Mitchell is convinced that airplanes are the weapon of the future and key to the survival of the nation. A test to see how effective the airplanes are in a war situation is arranged, but General Guthrie (a composite of several real life officers) makes sure the test will not succeed.
Mitchell decides to ignore orders to use one-ton bombs and upgrades to the more dangerous two-ton bombs (this is where the movie begins to change some facts for the screen; in real life, Mitchell had permission to use the bigger bombs). The test is a startling success and Guthrie begins the motions for a court martial. Defending Mitchell is Congressman Frank Reid (Ralph Bellamy), who discovers that his work is cut out for him.
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is a prime of example of Hollywood storytelling at its best. While it is true that some facts were changed for the film (in addition to the ones I listed above, Mitchell is made a bachelor when he was a married man, and some of the exact reasons for his demotion and court-martial are different), who really expects factual accuracy when watching a Hollywood-made biopic? This was the best film of 1955. Warner Bros. lent most of its support to another military themed picture that year: Mister Roberts. That was a fine film, but I think this film is better. Not only is it completely engrossing from start to finish (Maltin thought this was too slow?), but it goes that extra mile that allows it to be so much more than the standard biopics of the period. (The McConnell Story, also a 1955 Warner Bros. release, was probably the worst of these.) Excellent direction and performances are the key.
The film was directed by Otto Preminger, one of the most underrated directors to come out of Hollywood. Preminger staked his career on risky projects: The Moon Is Blue (1953) was the first film to defy the Production Code. Carmen Jones (1954) used an all-black cast in a major Hollywood musical. The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) showed the effects of drug addiction in a no-holds barred style. Advise and Consent (1962) frankly discussed homosexuality at a time when such talk was taboo. The list could go on. The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell was daring since it painted a negative portrait of military rules at the peak of patriotism in cinema. It asks difficult questions and even though he may not always get the answer, he at least gets points for trying.
Preminger always managed to get the best from his actors in each film he directed. The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is no different. Gary Cooper gives the best performance of his career as Mitchell. Mitchell is a difficult character to play. He can be both laid-back and aggressive; qualities Cooper captures to a T. Watch the unique quirks and textures Cooper gives in his performance; it's hard to imagine another actor doing better in this part. Charles Bickford is appropriately stubborn and vindictive as Guthrie. Despite his star billing on the case, Rod Steiger does not appear until the last twenty minutes of the film. His role is very small (a surprise addition to the prosecution) but he packs a wallop in his scenes with Cooper. Watching the two perform together is what great acting is all about. In her screen debut, Elizabeth Montgomery is effective as the widow of Mitchell's best friend. Ralph Bellamy steals the film as Reid. He adds a lot of humor, giving us a break from the drama. Also, keep a sharp eye out for Darrin McGavin (as Mitchell's top recruit) and Peter Graves.
When I received this disc, I quickly glanced at the back of the keep case to see what viewing format the film was presented in. When I saw the words "Full Screen Version" followed by the phrase "presented in the 1.33:1 format in which the film was shot," I let loose language so off color that my indoor plant withered away from the shock. "How dare they [Artisan] do this to CinemaScope!" I screamed. After I calmed down, I put the disc in the player. Well, dear readers, I'm happy to report that the information on the keep case is wrong. Artisan used the letterboxed Image laserdisc transfer for the DVD release. While the 2.20:1 non-anamorphic image is a far cry from the original 2.55:1 aspect ratio of CinemaScope, it retains enough of the widescreen flavor to make it an improvement over the hack-and-scan version that runs on cable.
It may be widescreen, but the image quality is pretty bad. The master print is in desperate need of restoration. The colors are washed out and faded, a side effect of the cheaper but less durable WarnerColor technique. A light blanket of grain is present throughout the 100-minute feature. There are lots of scratches, nicks, specks, dirt, and assorted blemishes in the image. A really nasty rip in the image occurs during the final cross examination. It goes by quickly, but you'll notice it. Edge enhancement creeps up several times throughout the film, in particular during the second half.
The sound is much worse. It's in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, which is the wrong choice since the film's soundtrack was recorded in stereophonic sound. But a mono mix can still be a satisfying listening experience. Unfortunately, this is also an area in need of restoration, pronto. The score and dialogue doesn't sing out of the speakers the way a 1955 CinemaScope production should. Instead, it's all rather flat and muddled, almost as if they placed an old sock over the sound equipment when creating the transfer. Also, the film shows signs of age with crackling sounds and "pops" at various points in the film. It reaches the breaking point towards the end of the film.
Since this is a typical Artisan disc, there are no extras. Not even a theatrical trailer is included. Last year, Warner Bros. released a decent special edition of Preminger's 1963 masterpiece The Cardinal. While the amount of extras might not have been numerous, at least Warner Bros. included some worthwhile material. Preminger's films often leave the viewer wanting to know more about the production. To see one of his best get the short end of the stick is sad.
I cannot recommend a purchase of this disc. Die-hard admirers of The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell will salivate at the thought of finally owning this classic in widescreen. However, they are much better off just renting the disc. The transfer is just too uneven and poor to justify spending $19.99. Also, they should start praying that Warner Bros. reclaims the rights to this forgotten masterpiece and gives it the restoration and treatment it deserves.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated