Judgment: The Court Martial of Lt. William Calley (1975)





Director:     Stanley Kramer.

Starring:     Tony Musante (Lt. William Calley), Richard Basehart (George Latimer), Olive Clark, Oliver Clark, Harrison Ford (Frank Crowder), Ted Gehring. Roland Bob Harris, Linda Haynes (Calley's Girl), Bo Hopkins (Prosecuting attorney), Geoffrey Horne, Bruce Kimball (Juror), Stanley Kramer (Host), William Lucking (The Captain), Frank McRae (Mr. Langham), Jan Merlin (Capt. Briggs), Steve Mitchell (Head juror), Ben Piazza, Rob Reece (Witness), Leon Russom, G.D. Spradlin (Military Judge), Fredd Wayne, Darrell Zwerling (Maj. David).

March 16, 1968, the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam



Spoiler Warning:

My Lai, Quang Ngai Province, Republic of Vietnam.  There are dead men, women and children on the road massacred.  March 16, 1968.

A television reporter says that this is a courtroom in Fort Benning, Georgia, 17 November, 1970.   For the dead at My Lai, one man stands trial:  Lt. William Calley.

The judge comments to the gentlemen of the jury that all of them are combat veterans, five of whom have battle experience in Vietnam. 

The prosecuting attorney is Captain Daniel.  He stands up and reads off the charge:  "The accused with premeditation did murder a group of unnamed human beings, Vietnamese."  Calley pleads not guilty.  The defense attorney, George Latimer, tells the judge that Lt. Calley will take the stand in his own defense. 

The first witness is Captain Briggs and he tells the court that the mission of the First Platoon of C Company was to move easterly into the village and neutralize it.  Then they were to come along the trails and a ditch south of the village to set up defensive positions in case of any counter attacks.  In the village the soldiers were to search and destroy:  knock out all bunkers and tunnels, capture weapons, and burn all hooches (houses).  They were also to kill all livestock and render all wells unfit for use. 

The next witness, a black soldier says the unit's purpose was to engage the 48th Viet Cong battalion and destroy it once and for all.  They, however, didn't encounter any Viet Cong.  Only civilians.  

Another black soldiers tells how he came upon a group of dead bodies at where the east-west and north-south trails crossed.  They were laying there on the ground, all bloody and ripped up by bullets. 

A white soldier says the dead were men and women, all ages, from old men down to kids.  Even infants. 

The combat photographers testifies that he saw the Vietnamese at the key intersection being watched by army guards.  He just walked past them, but then he heard firing and turned around.  Two men were doing the firing.  The photographer photographed the bodies. 

Lt. Kent was an army helicopter pilot in Vietnam.  He landed near the site of the massacre.  He found from 50 to 100 dead people, women, children, babies, old men.  Some were still alive.  They took one child, muddy with blood all over him, and air-evacuated him to a hospital. 

A doctor testifies that the wounds on the dead bodies were produced by M-16 rifle fire. 

A white soldier testifies that he Lt. Calley herded Vietnamese into a ditch.  Calley then gave Frank Crowder an order and they both started firing their M-16s into the ditch.  He adds the Crowder was crying the whole time.  Calley asked him to use his machine gun and fire into the ditch, but the machine gunner refused.  Under cross-examination, George Latimer, asks Mr. Peters if he really disobeyed a direct order from Lt. Calley?  Peters says no.  Calley asked him if he could use his machine gun to fire into the ditch.  Peters also reports that he saw Crowder crying the whole time he was shooting. 

Later, Peters finds Calley and apologizes for testifying against him  Calley says it's all right. 

Calley is at home drinking with three of his old army buddies. They are having a good time until one of the guests asks Calley's girlfriend what she thinks about the current situation.  She starts to answer, but Calley calls foul.  He tells the guy that he will answer any question they ask him, but leave his girl out of the discussion about the trial.  He doesn't want to drag her into the trial.  The guest apologizes to "Rusty" (Calley).  After the guests leave, the girlfriend sits with Calley on the sofa.  He says to her that he told her from the start that he would be nothing but bad for her.  Everywhere she goes, she will be known as "Calley's girl".  The girl says she doesn't mind, but Calley says she should mind.  She starts to tell him that she can withstand it all, and so Calley changes the subject. 

 Mr. Driscol testifies that Calley order the killing of the civilians and actually saw Calley killing Vietnamese civilians, but his testimony is shady because all Driscol cared about was chasing women, even skipping out on participating in combat missions.  His attitude in the army left much to be desired. 

A black soldier named radioman Langham says to the court that he heard Calley tell Crowder to waste the civilians. He also testifies that he saw Calley blow-off half the head of a Catholic priest.  A little later, a child came running out of the ditch headed back to the village.  Calley caught the child and threw him back into the ditch.  He shot the child with one shot.

Mr. Kingston estimates he saw from 90 to 100 people shoved into the ditch.  He saw a woman coming toward him with her hands up.  Calley shot her down.  The defense objects and the  prosecutor says he brings this up to deal with the problem of the varying accounts of how many dead there were in that ditch.  The estimates vary so much because Calley's actions took place over an hour and a half period.  Eye witnesses that arrived early didn't see so many dead, but eye witnesses that came much later saw many dead.  Calley was killing the civilians as they were brought to him.  The judge has the part of the woman with her hands up stricken from the record, because the defense never heard anything about that before this day. 

The defense now brings up its witnesses.  It is a defense of how hard it was in Vietnam to tell the enemy from friend  -- that even civilians could be armed and kill Americans. 

Frank Crowder, a reluctant witness, is called to the stand.  He testifies that Calley told him: "You know what to do with them".  Frank says he assumed that he meant for him to guard them.  Calley then left.  When Calley returned he said:  "How come they're not dead."  He said to waste them:  "I want them dead."  Calley ordered Crowder to fire into the ditch, so he did.  He also testifies that the captain said they were all Viet Cong in the village and they were to kill everyone, including women and children.  At the shootings, the Captain came along and he didn't try to stop the shootings, so Frank considered he was doing the right thing.  He also saw other soldiers shooting civilians that day.  Crowder breaks down crying. 

George Latimer is now against putting Calley on the stand.  He feels it could be disastrous for Calley 's case.  But Calley keeps insisting that he wants to take the stand.  The defense lawyer tells Rusty to at least think about it.  Calley says okay. His girlfriend tries to discourage him too, but that just makes Calley mad and he shouts out loudly that he does not give a hoot or a holler what the defense attorneys say.  He catches himself and says his girl is the last person he should be yelling at.  Calley uses the defense that the Vietnam War was one where the combatants couldn't tell the difference between enemy and foe.  He will take responsibility for murdering the civilians, but from now on the army must never bring up a charge of murder against anyone else during this or any other type of guerilla war.   He says this is what he's going to tell the court. 

The next day Calley takes the stand.  The host says that Calley was shorter than normal and was lower in intelligence than normal.  He had a lot of different jobs: car dryer in a car wash, short order cook, dish washer, worker on the railroad.   Then on his second try, Calley got into the army.  Calley tells his attorney that he did see a lot of terrible sights during the war.  For instance, he saw six combat boots with the feet still in them.  Sights like this made him feel sick to his stomach.  He was also afraid and angry.  Furthermore, the captain has said at the briefing about My Lai that the whole village must be destroyed and this included the killing of women and children. 

Calley says his men were shooting into the ditch, so he joined in on the shooting.  He butt stroked a priest, but did not shoot him.  He denies that he caught a runaway child, grabbed him, threw him in the ditch and then shot him.  Then Calley says he told Crowder to waste the civilians because those were his orders from his captain.  After the massacre, he heard the captain say, well, it looks like I'm going to prison for 20 years. 

Now Captain Daniels cross-examines Calley.  Calley says he didn't notice differences among the people of the village.  To him they were all the enemy.  Later he asks Calley whey didn't he report to the company commander any of the details of what had happened at My Lai?  Calley answers:  "Because it didn't seem like any big deal, sir."  He then asks Calley what did he think was the reason for him being sent home from Vietnam?  Calley replies:  ''I thought I was coming home to be decorated and promoted, sir."

Now the company commander takes the stand.  The captain says he told the men at the briefing that no you do not kill women and children, unless they have a weapon and are trying to engage you.  He does admit that he killed a Vietnamese woman, but says he thought he saw her move and so shot her twice. The captain says he didn't say to waste the civilians. 

The defense attorney harshly cross-examines the captain.  The captain says he never reported what happened at My Lai.  He adds that he didn't want to disgrace the army.  The defense attorney asks the captain to read his evaluation of Calley after the massacre at My Lai.  In the report the captain praises Calley. 

Talking to the jury, the defense attorney says that they singled out Lt. Calley for punishment because he was an easy target to be marked as the scapegoat.  The attorney says the captain should have been charged with the massacre of the Vietnamese at My Lai.    He asks the jury:  "Let this boy go."

The prosecutor says the jury must find Calley guilty, because even if the captain had given an illegal order for Calley to kill the civilians, Calley had the duty and right to refuse to obey the order.  The choice is not between the captain and Calley.  Calley had no right to slaughter the Vietnamese civilians.  Such conduct has never been justified by the United States armed services and never will be justified.  The jury is the conscience of the army, and the men must insist conduct such as Calley's can never be sanctioned. 

It takes the jury takes days to make the decision.  The jury finds Calley guilty of the charge of murder.  Calley gets a chance to see himself as a martyr.  He says he was put under impossible conditions, and the army must never again try another person who might do what Calley did.    

The guards give Calley a minute to say goodbye to his girlfriend. 

The host gives a little speech about liberal guilt.  He says all Americans are guilty because in creating the situation in Vietnam, they set up the tragedy of Calley. 


Good movie.  There had to be something wrong with Calley for him to kill perhaps 100 Vietnamese civilians.  I know if I was there, I would not have obeyed an order to kill old men, women, children and babies.  Calley never took the responsibility for the atrocity that he committed.  He saw himself as a martyr and a scapegoat.  Never once did he say he felt guilty for killing innocent people.  Never did he ask for any kind of forgiveness.  No, Calley was a different kind of man than the "average" man in the army.  He willing ordered the deaths of the civilians, and later said it was just no big deal.  He even thought he was going to be praised and promoted by the army.  He only felt sorry for himself, but never felt sorry for what happened to his victims.  I was definitely around for the Vietnam War and for once I was proud of the U.S. Army because they found Lt. William Calley guilty.  Later, Calley was freed. 


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



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