The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)



Director:    Otto Preminger.

Starring:     Gary Cooper (Gen. Billy Mitchell), Charles Bickford (Gen. Guthrie), Ralph Bellamy (Congressman Frank Reid), Rod Steiger (Maj. Allan Guillion), Elizabeth Montgomery (Margaret Lansdowne), Fred Clark (Col. Moreland), James Daly (Col. Herbert White), Jack Lord (Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne), Peter Graves (Capt. Elliott), Darren McGavin (Russ Peters), Robert F. Simon (Adm. Gage), Charles Dingle (Sen. Fullerton), Dayton Lummis (Gen. Douglas MacArthur), Tom McKee (Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker), Steve Roberts (Maj. Carl Spaatz), Herbert Heyes (Gen. John J. Pershing), Robert Brubaker (Maj. H.H. Arnold), Ian Wolfe (President Calvin Coolidge), Phil Arnold (Fiorella La Guardia).

The advocate of the dramatic impact of air power on future war, Billy Mitchell gets himself court-martialed to prove his case. 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

October 28, 1925.  The trial of Colonel William Mitchell. 

"The First World War had just ended in total victory for the United States and its Allies.  Now war was a thing of the past.  America disbanded its army and sank its navy.  It's air force was still an unwanted child."

"In 1921 off the coast of Virginia, the high command of the army and navy gathered to consider a revolutionary experiment."

General Billy Mitchell comes on board a naval ship and is greeted by General Guthrie.  Guthrie in turn introduces Mitchell to Admirals Sims and Gage, as well as Commander Zachary Lansdowne.  Mitchell is in a dispute with the navy.  The navy takes the position that airplanes cannot sink battleships from the air.  Mitchell says they can.  General Mitchell invites Gen. Guthrie out to Langley Field to see a demonstration.  Mitchell's pilots demonstrate by dropping heavy sacks onto an area marked out on the ground in the shape of a battleship.  He then shows Guthrie some 2,000 pound bombs that will be flied at 1,000 feet  and dropped on the Ospreyslan battleship.  Guthrie tells Mitchell that the airplane is an unproven weapon.  Mitchell complains that his pilots are dying by having to fly antiquated planes.  Guthrie tells Mitchell that he will have to fly at 5,000 feet and drop 1,000 pound bombs for an acceptable test.  Mitchell protests, but Guthrie insists. 

Congressman Reed is at the test.  He is one of the few Mitchell supporters.  The others seem to be skeptics.  The first test is a failure.  All the bombs miss the ship.  Mitchell asks again to use 2,000 pound bombs, but again is refused.  As if this were not bad enough, Mitchell's pilots are considering quitting.  They tell the General that they are not getting any place.  It seems so hopeless.  They ask him if they should resign from the service.  Mitchell replies:  "Quit if you want to, but don't ask me about it." 

Mitchell goes to visit Zachary Lansdowne and his wife Margaret.  He complains about his men wanting to quit.  Mitchell says that he has to open the eyes of the services to the role of air power.  He rushes off.  He has Margaret call his men and tell them to be there to meet him at the airfield.  When he arrives at the airfield, he tells his pilots that he has figured out a way to land the 2,000 pound bombs on the battleship. 

The next day the pilots sink the old German battleship.  Guthrie is extremely angry with Mitchell for having used the 2,000 pound bombs.  Mitchell is demoted from General to Colonel and is removed from the air services.  He is stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.  There Congressman Reed pays Mitchell a visit.  Mitchell asks the Congressman if the army has bought any of the Ford trimotors.  No is the answer.  Reed adds:  "It's disgraceful what they're doing to you."  Reed says that Mitchell's father was a senator and perhaps Billy might want to run for the senate from Wisconsin.  Mitchell does not want that. 

Mitchell goes to Washington, D.C. to try to see General Pershing.  Pershing's secretary says the General is a busy man and just doesn't have the time.  Mitchell says that he himself is trying to save lives, not time.  Since he can't get in to see Pershing, he waits for him outside.  But when he starts to speak to Pershing, the General tells him:  "I have nothing to say to you, Billy." 

Billy goes to visit Zach and Margaret.  Zach is going to have to take the blimp Shenandoah up to a state fair.  Margaret asks Mitchell to tell her husband not to do it.  Zach admits that the blimp is a "death trap".  Mitchell responds:  "Don't take it up."  But Zach can't not take it up.  He doesn't want to throw his career away.  Billy tells him:  "You're risking the lives of your crew to protect your career in the navy."  He leaves.

The headline in the paper is that the Shenandoah goes down.  Commander Lansdowne is killed along with his crew.  Mitchell asks for an emergency leave to attend Zach's funeral.  His commanding officer says he will have to check with his superiors to get confirmation.  So Billy withdraws the request.  The next big military news is the crash of six planes over Mexico.  The planes were from the famous Billy Mitchell squadron which in 1921 sank a battleship during a trial run.

Mitchell is so upset by the death of his comrades that he talks to the press.  He says:  "These recent disasters are outside the range of normal accidents."  They are due to incompetence, criminal negligence and an almost treasonable administration of our national defense by the Navy and the War Department."  Mitchell decides to get himself court-martialed in order to get his case before the public, the army and the navy.  For his comments Mitchell is arrested by the army. 

Mitchell meets his new defense lawyer, Lt. Col. White.   He tells White that he will plead not guilty.  He admits he did this whole thing deliberately.  Gen. Guthrie will be the president of the military court and there is not a flying officer among the judges.  Mitchell goes to see Congressman Reed.  Reed tells him that he is proud of him.  And he is all ready to go to court for Billy.  Mitchell is accused of conduct prejudicial to the conduct of the army.  Reed wants to go on the attack against the services, but Mitchell tells him he doesn't want to wreck the services.  He just wants a chance to have his case heard.  Reed wants to kick Guthrie off the court, but Billy wants him to stay. Reed is a bit frustrated but says that although Billy has hand-cuffed him, he will try to get him off.

The court trial takes places in a converted warehouse.  Colonel Moreland will be the prosecutor and he will face Reed and White.  The first witness for the prosecution is a newspaperman who confirms that Mitchell made the comments reported by the press.  This is confirmed by another newspaperman. 

Reed wants to prove the truth of Mitchell's statements.  But this is what the court will not allow.  All the defense witness are denied.  Mitchell says he will testify before the court.  Reed needs to stall for time since he thought the case for the prosecution would have taken longer to present and now he is not ready.  The Congressman tells the court that the defense will ask Calvin Coolidge to testify at the trial.  The court adjourns.  The newspapers are all a twitter over the news about calling the President to testify.  Reed offers a deal to Mitchell, but Billy merely says:  "I can't retract what I said. . . . There's the whole future of this country in the air."  Reed replies:  "A man should be buried by his friends.  I'll stay for the funeral." 

Reed wants Margaret to testify.  This is the other half of the case  -- the case against the navy.  Will they left her testify is the question.  Reed says that no court on earth could refuse to put her on the stand. But when Reed actually asks Margaret she says no.  Reed explains to her that her husband died for a cause.  And Billy Mitchell is fighting for the same cause as her husband.   Margaret cries and then agrees to testify.  On the stand she admits that very strong pressure was put on her.  But it was to not testify.  Navy friends of her husband's told her it is the duty of a navy wife to protect the navy.  She says that if Zack we're alive he would he would have testified.  He did everything he could to be heard.  He knew it wasn't safe. She concludes that Zach and his men were sent to their deaths by indifference. 

The judges meet in private to discuss whether to strike Margaret's remarks or allow them.  Some argue that they should listen to her and other witnesses for the defense.  Others says that the publicity would be very bad for the services.  The judges come back into court to overrule the prosecution.  The defense may proceed with their witnesses.  Major Hap Arnold testifies that 517 pilots have been killed in the antiquated planes as compared to 12 in the modern planes.  There have been dozens of requests for safety improvements, but they have all been ignored. 

World War I aviation ace Rickenbacker testifies that the army sends up pilots without parachutes.  He adds that the USA is in eighth place in aviation. 

Major Spots testifies that out of the around 1,800 airplanes in the army, only 9 of the planes are ready to fly.  And 0 of the 9 are equipped for war service.  As many as 1,400 of the planes are museum pieces.  Most of the others date back to 1917. 

Congressman La Guardia testifies as to the intransigence of the military services as regards change.  Admiral Sims says that the navy has no policy about air services.  It just bumps along from day to day.  The navy is ignoring the plane.  Maybe if they don't notice it, it will disappear.  The President of the US does not testify, but he does talk to the prosecutor.  He tells him that the trail is making the American armed services look bad.   He says that the sooner the trial is over, the better.

Congressman Reed visits Billy,.  He had a bad headache. He is suffering from another recurrence of his malaria.  Reed tells him that he cannot go on the stand like this.  Billy says he hasn't won yet.  Not before we get an air force.  He will testify.

On the stand Billy testifies that he was torn between duty to the army versus his duty to his country.  There is a desperately urgent problem  -- the need for an air force.  And then there is the problem of safety for American fliers. 

The prosecution unleashes another lawyer on Billy.  He tries to cut the man down to size.  The lawyer says that Mitchell is here out of a sense of grief over what happened to his comrades in the air service.  He wants to prove that Mitchell has no justification for accusing the army of negligence and incompetence.  The lawyer then quotes a lot of the ideas of Mitchell (that in hind sight we know were correct).  Mitchell said that one day airborne troops would jump from planes into combat; that the country is at risk from attack by air; that there should be an academy for the air force by itself; air power will control the Pacific; Pearl Harbor has no adequate defense against air attacks; the Hawaiian Islands could be reduced in a matter of minutes from the air;  that the planes could be launched from aircraft carriers some 150 miles from Pearl Harbor; and that the enemy would be Japan.  The prosecutor finishes by saying that Mitchell should admit that he overstated his case.  Mitchell replies:  "Most certainly not."

The military court finds Mitchell guilty.  He is suspended from rank (without pay), command and duty for five years. 


Interesting movie.  I saw it as a youngster and always remembered it.  Here was a man who risked everything to wake the army up to the possibility of air power and the risk of attack on the nation from Japan.  It has always been a rare thing for the USA to be prepared for war or even attack.  Even in 2001 the USA was asleep concerning threats from the Middle East.  The armed services are very conservative institutions and they defend their reputations regardless of the merits of the criticisms against them.  That's the way it will always be it seems.  And the USA will always get got napping.  An enemy is not going to attack in a way that they know you have prepared for.  And this is where the USA is weak.  The USA is a conservative nation and it doesn't allow leftists anyway nears it intelligence agencies even though leftists are the ones who could help the intelligence agencies anticipate different ways of thinking and acting.  If the intelligence agencies are stacked with rednecks and near-rednecks, then the place is not going to be very flexible in its thoughts.   If you have an agency where the people are all anti-Muslim and blindly pro-Israel, it is likely they're going to be caught napping because of their prejudices.  Nevertheless, it's interesting how far ahead Mitchell was in his thinking compared to the heads of the armed services.  And he was an extreme patriot compared to the false patriots of the conservative and stuffy military people always trying to cover their asses and protect their institutions.  Remember reading about the Dreyfus case?  The French army would not admit that they had framed a Jewish man for being a spy because of their institution's anti-Semitism.  And the French army would not bend and admit that Dreyfus was an innocent man.  I guess it never occurred to them that racism, ethnicism and other prejudices might be more harmful to the army than any spy case. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

Born to a wealthy Wisconsin senator.

Enlists during the Spanish-American War. Because of the influence of his father, he gets a commission.  Does tours of duty in the Philippines and Alaska.  

He is assigned to the General Staff.

1916  -- at age 38, he learns how to fly.

1917  --  helps design American plans of action in World War I. He is made a brigadier general and commands all American combat units in France.

1918  --  leads nearly 1,500 allied aircraft in the air phase of the Saint Mihiel offensive. He is given the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as several foreign decorations.

1919  --   becomes deputy chief of the Air Service.

He begins to push the idea that airpower is being underrated.  He thought airplanes would come to dominate naval warfare on the high seas.  But he goes beyond this and says that surface fleets will be obsolete, an idea which alienates many in the Navy.

1921 & 1923  -- bombing tests sink battleships.

1925  -- gets himself pushed back to colonel and transferred to Fort Sam Houston, Texas by fighting with superiors Charles Menoher and Mason Patrick.

He deliberately provokes the senior officials to give him a court-martial when he charges the Army and Navy senior leaders with incompetence bordering on treason for the crash in a storm of the Navy dirigible "Shenandoah" (which had many of his former subordinates on board).

The decision to go to trail was probably a miscalculation for Mitchell.  In the trail he had a very poor defense lawyer.  He is found guilty of insubordination and suspended from active duty for five years without pay.

1926  --  Mitchell resigns. He goes on speaking out against the senior officers, seeking vindication, but all in vain.

1936  --  Mitchell dies.

(Source: Air and Space Power Chronicles website at


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