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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

With November and the Veteran’s Day holiday upon us again, I thought I’d go back to movies about military justice for this month’s review. As always when I write on this topic, I confess to having never been in the military, so my knowledge of the process is limited[1]. We’ll start with a movie about a military rebel who was a real person, then we’ll talk about a fictional movie about a real issue, racism, that we still encounter in the justice system.

the_court-martial_of_billy_mitchellWilliam (“Billy”) Mitchell was an American Army officer who was an early and fierce proponent of the value of air power in war; he’s sometimes referred to as “the father of the U.S. Air Force.” At the end of World War I, Mitchell was in charge of all military air combat forces in Europe and was a highly regarded officer. After the war, he advocated strongly for a powerful air force, and he became embroiled in intra-service disputes between the Army and the Navy. Mitchell claimed that defense dollars would be better spent on airplanes than on battleships and, more radically, that bombers could sink battleships with little difficulty. Mitchell was a man who expressed his opinions in blunt terms – and publically. Those blunt and public statements eventually led to his being charged with insubordination and court martialed.

sergeant_rutledgeIn 1955, Warner Brothers released The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, which told a somewhat fictionalized version of Mitchell’s story. The film was directed by the great Otto Preminger, and one of America’s iconic leading men, Gary Cooper[2], was cast as Mitchell (which should give you an idea of how the story would go.) Other then or future A-list actors like Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy and Rod Stieger were in the cast, too[3]. The movie generally shows Mitchell as a prophet without honor, railroaded by politicians and generals who didn’t possess Mitchell’s vision of what was necessary to keep America’s military strong, perhaps not surprising, since the film was released at the height of the Cold War. The court-martial scenes are especially troubling for lawyers, since it’s clear that Mitchell will not get a fair trial and will only be acquitted if he gives up his public fight for air power. Mitchell will not do that and is, of course, convicted[4], but the ending of the film is intended to show the viewer that Mitchell was ultimately correct about air power and ultimately the winner of his fight.

We’ll next take a look at a John Ford[5] western, Sergeant Rutledge (Warner Brothers, 1960.) The movie centers around an African American cavalry trooper at a fort on the western frontier. The trooper, played by Woody Strode, is wrongfully accused murdering his commanding officer and of the rape and murder of the commanding officer’s daughter. Rutledge is eventually brought to trial before a panel of bigoted officers who will be happy to see him hang. A young officer, Lt. Cantrell (Jeffrey Hunter) is assigned to defend Rutledge and in spite of all the potential for a miscarriage of justice, succeeds in proving that Rutledge is not guilty. The movie’s structure is interesting, since it’s told in flashbacks, which reveal what really happened at any given point in the story.

The movie is, in my opinion, another attempt by Ford to examine issues of racism and prejudice in American society[6], while allowing Ford to tell a story in one of his favorite settings, a cavalry unit on the American frontier[7]. It’s interesting to note that Sergeant Rutledge was released the same year as To Kill a Mockingbird, which features a very similar basic plot – and is also a courtroom drama. Ford’s film is less focused and its trial scenes certainly are not as memorable; you’ll never confuse Lt. Cantrell with Atticus Finch. But the underlying concept of how racism can corrupt the process of seeking justice comes through clearly.

Sergeant Rutledge suffers from some flaws, including some plot turns that make no sense and generally weak performances from the two main actors. Strode was an ex-football player who’s acting is serviceable at best; it’s hard to wonder why Ford cast him instead of Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, who were preferred by the studio. Hunter was a blue-eyed, square-jawed American hero type, who had an extremely checkered career. He had co-starred with John Wayne in Ford’s The Searchers, but really put a crimp in his career by choosing to play Jesus in King of Kings (1961). He ended his career making low-budget movies on Spain and Italy and died at age 42 after falling at his home and fracturing his skull.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and Sergeant Rutledge both remind us that the principles of justice, farness and due process of law belong in every American courtroom, be it a civilian courtroom or a military one. We are a nation founded on respect for the Rule of Law, and any reminder of that is worthwhile.


[1] I’d welcome it if any of you with JAG experience want to weigh in on my reviews of military justice movies. So, Mike Roake, Charlie Rose, Chris Behan: be my guest!
[2] See, for example: The Virginian, Sergeant York, The Westerner, Pride of the Yankees, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and most memorably, High Noon. Cooper was a two-time Oscar winner and one of the most popular movie stars ever.
[3] Future TV stars Jack Lord (Hawaii Five –O) and Peter Graves (Mission Impossible) appeared as well – as did Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) in her first movie role.
[4] The actual court-martial board included future WW II commander Douglas MacArthur, who would later say that he voted to acquit Mitchell.
[5] I know Ford had his flaws, but he’s still the director of many of my favorite movies.
[6] The Searchers (1956) was much better at this. As I’ve said before, it’s my favorite movie.
[7] See Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy”: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950).

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