The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is a 1955 American CinemaScope film in Warnercolor, directed by Otto Preminger, and starring Gary Cooper and co-starring Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy, Rod Steiger, and Elizabeth Montgomery in her film debut. The film is based on the notorious court-martial of General Billy Mitchell, who is considered the founder of the U.S. Air Force.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell
Theatrical release poster
Directed byOtto Preminger
Produced byMilton Sperling
Written byMilton Sperling
and Emmet Lavery
Dalton Trumbo (uncredited)
Michael Wilson (uncredited)
Ben Hecht (uncredited)
StarringGary Cooper
Music bycomposed and conducted by Dimitri Tiomkin
CinematographySam Leavitt, A.S.C.
Edited byFolmar Blangsted, A.C.E.
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • December 22, 1955 (1955-12-22)
Running time
100 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3 million (US)[1]


Brigadier General William Mitchell (Gary Cooper) tries to prove the worth of the Air Service as an independent service by sinking a battleship under restrictive conditions agreed to by Army and Navy. He disobeys their orders to limit the attack to bombs under 1,000 pounds and instead loads 2,000 pounders. With these, Mitchell proves his aircraft can sink the ex-German World War I battleship Ostfriesland, previously considered unsinkable. His superiors are outraged.

Politically vocal, Mitchell is demoted to colonel and sent to a ground unit in Texas. A high-profile air disaster occurs in which his close friend Zachary Lansdowne (Jack Lord) is killed, the crash of the dirigible USS Shenandoah. This is followed by a second disaster in which six aircraft flying from a base on the California coast to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, crash. They were poorly maintained because of lack of funds.

Mitchell at this point calls a press conference in which he harshly criticizes the Army. He is then court-martialed. The trial goes slowly for Mitchell's attorney and friend, Illinois Congressman Frank R. Reid (Ralph Bellamy), who tries everything, until he subpoenas President Calvin Coolidge. The court, consequently, decides to adjourn.

Clearly the military wants out of the limelight, but Mitchell refuses to sign a paper Reid has presented him in which he withdraws his criticisms in return for saving his career as an Army officer. Margaret Lansdowne (Elizabeth Montgomery), widow of Mitchell's dead friend from the Shenandoah, then appears in court. The previous barring of evidence demonstrating a justification for Mitchell's criticisms of his superiors failure to develop air power is repealed. Many witnesses are then called forward to corroborate Mitchell's criticisms, including Eddie Rickenbacker (Tom McKee), Carl Spaatz (Steve Roberts), Henry H. Arnold (Robert Brubaker) and Fiorello LaGuardia (Phil Arnold).

Finally Mitchell testifies and is cross-examined by Maj. Allen W. Gullion (Rod Steiger), a prosecutor specially brought in for the job. He stresses that Mitchell had disobeyed his superior officers. Gullion also ridicules Mitchell's attempts at foresight, even when accurately predicting both the Philippines and Hawaii would be attacked by Japan in 1941.

The court finds Mitchell guilty, but he has accomplished his goal of making the public aware of the state of American air power. As his pilots salute him, Mitchell steps out and looks up to see a squadron of four biplanes in flight. [Note 1]



Producer and screenwriter Milton Sperling began work on Mitchell's story in 1938, just two years after the general's death. In the successive years, he continued to seek out help from Mitchell's family until 1955 when production began in earnest. Under the direction of Otto Preminger, the first 10 days of principal photography took place on location in Washington, D.C. in the original sites involved in the story. The old War Department Building, Army-Navy Club and State Department buildings, among others, were featured in key scenes.[2]

Aerial sequences under the direction of second unit director Russ Saunders and aerial coordinator Paul Mantz took place at the Fletcher Airport in Rosamond, California. The aircraft that were used in the film included two Curtiss JN-4 biplanes, de Havilland DH-4, Grumman J2F Duck and Waco 10 biplanes.[3]


The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell had its national premiere in New York City on December 22, 1955 as the main feature along with the short 24 Hour Alert.[4] The films, subsequently, were paired with the longer feature shown first in major cities.[5] When The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell was released, Mitchell's sister Ruth, who served in World War II with Yugoslavian Chetnik guerrillas and later wrote a book about her brother, toured the U.S. doing publicity for the film.[6][Note 2]

See also



  1. The biplanes are replaced with a squadron of jets, demonstrating what Billy Mitchell's actions will result in for the future of the United States and its Air Force.
  2. A "gala" premiere was held on December 14, 1955 at the Liberty and Weller Theaters in Zanesville, Ohio, near the site of the USS Shenandoah crash.[7]


  1. "The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956.", Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957.
  2. Orriss 2018, p. 91.
  3. Orriss 2018, p. 92.
  4. Pendo 1995, p. 256.
  5. Paris 1995, p. 185.
  6. "Ruth Mitchell, sister of general, dies at 80." Milwaukee Journal, October 27, 1969, p. 11.
  7. Orriss 2019, p. 93.


  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Post World War II Years. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 2018. ISBN 978-0-692-03465-1.
  • Paris, Michael. From the Wright Brothers to Top Gun: Aviation, Nationalism, and Popular Cinema. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-7190-4074-0.
  • Pendo, Stephen. Aviation in the Cinema. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8-1081-746-2.
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