Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The biopics American Sniper and Unbroken have us thinking back on other true stories about soldiers.
Early anamorphic lenses, like the ones used to make the CinemaScope movies of the mid-1950s, were no good at close-ups. If an actor got too close to the camera, their face would stretch like a toad’s—a flaw in the optics, known in the industry as “the mumps.” Hence the stately, presentational look of classic American widescreen: long takes, disproportionately deep and over-lit sets, and compositions that never get tighter than from the waist up. The screens were literally wider back then, too—about 2.55 times as wide as they were tall.
Plenty of filmmakers hated it; Howard Hawks and Fritz Lang made only one anamorphic production apiece—Land Of The Pharaohs and Moonfleet, both released in 1955—and disliked the experience so much that they never tried the format again. Others turned CinemaScope’s limitations into expressive qualities; unable to execute full-on close-ups, Nicholas Ray would instead surround characters with suggestive empty space that made them seem more intensely isolated.
The Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell is the only movie Otto Preminger made in 2.55:1 first-generation CinemaScope, and it’s something of a master class in the format. It’s also something of a testament to Preminger’s ability to make a riveting movie on any subject. It’s a courtroom drama without a crime and an Army movie without a war. Most of the action unfolds in a shabby brown room full of men in drab brown uniforms, almost all of whom are sitting down—and yet it’s never anything less than engrossing.
Written by a five-man team that included Dalton Trumbo, one of the iconic blacklisted Hollywood Ten, the movie focuses on air power advocate and Milwaukee airport namesake Billy Mitchell (Gary Cooper) and his 1925 court-martial for insubordination. The real-life Mitchell was short-tempered and flamboyant, but in the film, he’s presented as a quintessentially Cooper-esque figure of sober resolve, a soldier’s soldier who is only interested in what’s best for the American military and for his men, faced with a system that doesn’t care about whether he’s right or wrong, only whether he was out of line.
The trial is, explicitly, a matter of principle—one man’s battle against a mindset, compellingly staged and composed around diagonal lines and in headroom-heavy wide shots that mask the flaws of early CinemaScope while simultaneously underscoring the movie’s central themes. Four years later, Preminger would return to the courtroom to make the definitive entry in the genre, Anatomy Of A Murder.
Availability: The Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Amazon and your local video store/library.