The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell

Docudrama | English | 100 minutes | 1955


Following World War I, Brigadier General William (Billy) Mitchell is determined to have the Air Service set up as an independent unit. With the approval of the Army and Navy, Mitchell conducts a demonstration showing one of his planes destroying an ex-German battleship deemed to be unsinkable.   The military requested that Billy use bombs under 1,000 pounds at an altitude of 5,000 ft.  Instead Billy used 2,000-pound bombs at an altitude of 2,000 ft. Even though his plane successfully sank the battleship,  his superiors were outraged. Actively vocalizing his position of a separate Air Force, Billy is demoted to colonel.  When  six aircraft crash because of lack of funds to maintain them properly,  Mitchell harshly criticizes the military at a press conference. He is court-martialed. His friend and attorney, Frank R. Reid, represents Mitchell. Anxious to avoid the limelight, the military offers to restore Mitchell’s rank if he withdraws his criticism. Mitchell refuses. Testifying on behalf of Mitchell are such notables as Eddie Rickenbacker, Henry Arnold, and Fiorello LaGuardia. Mitchell testifies but is effectively cross-examined by Major Allen W. Gullion. Gullion pounds away that Mitchell was insubordinate, disobeying orders from his superiors. Mitchell was found guilty but he made his point: the public and the media were now aware of the importance of developing American air power

Gary Cooper (Billy Mitchell) / Ralph Bellamy (Frank R. Reid) / Rod Steiger (Allen W. Gullion) / Tom McKee (Eddie Rickenbacker) / Robert Brubaker (H.H. Arnold) / Phil Arnold (Fiorello LaGuardia)
Why Stream This Film?

Today, one would wonder how the military dismissed the importance of having a separate and fully-funded Air Force. Brigadier Billy Mitchell not only had the foresight and the determination to convince his superiors, he risked his career doing so. Now, doesn’t that have the makings of a great film? It certainly does!

  • Rotten Tomatoes Score (Critics Consensus): 100%
  • Academy Awards: Nominated, Best Screenplay
  • New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Nominated, Best Director (Otto Preminger)
  • The  film received a perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes score

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Dealing with real-life events of 1925, the film spotlights the official rigidity, red tape and intellectually hardening of the arteries in the brains of aging military bureaucrats. The film is a real kick in the shins for the cult of blind military obedience.


Based on fact, Otto Preminger’s impressive film is about an American general who, in 1925, accused the military of incompetence and criminal negligence for their lack of interest in building up an air force and was court-martialed for his views. With Cooper as the crusading officer, one is never in doubt as to the correctness and sincerity of his views while Steiger puts in one of his inimitably flashy performance as the prosecuting attorney.

Time Out (UK)

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