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Friday, February 8, 2008

The Courts-Martial (originally published 6/02)

Playwrights have always been drawn to the portrayal of trials. The most likely explanation for this, it seems to me, is that trials by their very nature are structured like dramas. Playwrights, after all, spend their lives taking life in all its complexities, contradictions, and nonlinear unruliness and trying to mold it into clearly defined conflicts that move toward clear-cut resolutions. Most of the time, it's devilishly difficult work.

But dramatizing a trial is another matter. Trials are predicated on conflict, and they move from the exposition of relevant information to the struggle against opposing forces, and then to a climactic and decisive resolution of that struggle. If you're a playwright, what's not to love? And if there's anything more fun to write than a civilian courtroom drama, it must surely be its hard edged, spit and polish cousin, the military courtroom drama. If you enjoyed "High Crimes," the latest release in this genre, here are a few earlier titles to look for on home video.

"The Caine Mutiny" (1954). Director Edward Dmytryk's film of Herman Wouk's novel and play is the granddaddy of the genre. Humphrey Bogart is outstanding as the psychotic Captain Queeg, whose junior officers see fit to remove him from command in a crisis situation. Queeg's nervous habit of rolling a pair of steel balls in his hand when upset or preoccupied has become as much a part of the Bogart mythos as Rick's Café in "Casablanca." But Bogart doesn't give the only memorable performance. Jose Ferrer is equally brilliant as the defense attorney who must expose Queeg's instability. The scene in which he takes Queeg apart on the witness stand is world-class theater.

"Paths of Glory" (1957). Stanley Kubrick's grim anti-war film is set during World War I. In the lead role, Kirk Douglas defends three men who are being tried for cowardice under fire. In point of fact, the men are scapegoats for commanding officers who are unwilling to admit that they ordered a pointless, suicidal raid on a clearly impregnable position. Kubrick relentlessly contrasts the cigar smoking, wine sipping officers with the wretched, mud drenched foot soldiers, leaving no doubts as to who he thinks ought to be on trial. This was the film that unmistakably marked Kubrick as a major force in world cinema.

"The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" (1955). Stoic Gary Cooper portrays the controversial general who commanded the airplane squadrons during World War I and went on to become a leading advocate of air power as a military priority. When his recommendations regarding the urgency of developing a credible air force went unheeded by his superiors, he went public with his grievances. This earned him a court-martial for insubordination and a five year suspension. The reason Mitchell's court-martial makes for good drama is that almost all of his predictions regarding the importance of air power to future warfare were subsequently proved accurate. This film will therefore resonate with anyone who has ever had to deal with an intransigent boss who wouldn't listen to reason.

"Sergeant Ryker" (1968). Lee Marvin stars as a Korean War soldier who was ordered to carry out a secret intelligence mission by temporarily pretending to defect to the enemy. Returning to U.S. lines, he is caught in an enemy uniform and tried as a traitor. Unfortunately, the general who gave him the assignment has died in the meantime, having mentioned the assignment to no one, and having left behind no written record of it. This film began its life as a television show, airing as a segment of "Kraft Suspense Theater." They simply added a few exteriors that weren't in the TV budget and released the newly enhanced version to the theaters. Fortunately, the expansion did little to impair the tightness of Seelig Lester and William Gordon's script, which packs a lot of storytelling into 85 minutes.

"Sergeant Rutledge" (1960). Legendary Western filmmaker John Ford deals with the issue of military justice and the black soldier in this remarkable film. Woody Strode stars as an African-American cavalry sergeant falsely accused of a double murder. Released a quarter century before "A Soldier's Story," at a time when the civil rights movement was still in its infancy, this moving study of racial prejudice in the military is one of Ford's most remarkable films. It's a pity that it isn't better known.

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