In 1925 the U.S. Naval Air Force's major new piece of military hardware was a zeppelin that had been built in Germany at the end of the First World War, which was given to the U.S as a reparation, and renamed the U.S.S. Shenandoah. The craft had a crack team running it, and it had an excellent head, Commander Zachary Landowne. It was in fair demand around the country, for most people believed that the future of long distance air travel would be in airships, not airplanes. So the Navy brass frequently sent the Shenandoah on public relations flights, rather than using it for military purposes or long distance flights.
It was sent to Ohio where local politicians wanted to use the zeppelin to impress voters. Unfortunately, there was a storm front with heavy thundershowers in the path of the zeppelin, and the zeppelin had recently had some damage to a fin on it's tale. There had been no time to repair the damage. So when the zeppelin crossed into the storm front, the zeppelin was ripped apart by the winds and crashed killing Landsdowne and fourteen men.
Landsdowne's close friend, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was exceptionally critical of the disaster. He blamed the politicians and military brass who ordered the flight. As Mitchell had been long a thorn in the side of these two groups, as he tried to push his views on air power and the need for a unified, strong air force, he was charged with insubordination and ordered to be court martial-ed.
Gary Cooper plays Mitchell well, as an honest, honorable man, who realizes that the future will be only safe for those who have a strong air arm. He is fighting old fashion ideas, mouthed by old fashioned army leaders like Fred Clark. He does have allies like his lawyer, a Congressman played by Ralph Bellamy, and like one of the judges (General Douglas MacArthur - who was the only one to vote for acquittal). But the issue goes down to the Mitchell's insubordination. And this leads to the dramatic high point, when Cooper is cross-examined by the malicious and clever Rod Steiger. Steiger is able to get Cooper to not only reveal his lack of respect for the brass but to reveal his mistrust of the Japanese. That he is correct in the long run does not save him - he is found guilty and suspended without pay from the army for five years.
Mitchell died in 1936, not in time to see his vindication five years later. But he is remembered now as the real founder of the modern American Air Force. The film is a pretty good retelling of his story, and reminds us how frequently a prophet is despised and rejected in his or her time.
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