5 January 2007 | J. Spurlin
TV performers better known for lighter fare perform brilliantly in this compelling drama based on a real court martial
One of the many pleasures of this compelling court martial drama, adapted from Saul Levitt's 1959 Broadway play, is seeing actors we associate from with lightweight TV shows doing something meatier.
Lt. Col. N.P Chipman (William Shatner) is the Army prosecutor, Otis Baker (Jack Cassidy) the defense attorney and Gen. Lew Wallace (Cameron Mitchell) the judge in the trial of Henry Wirz (Richard Basehart), the Confederate officer who ran a prisoner of war camp in Andersonville which saw 14,000 Union prisoners die from cruel neglect. Witnesses include Lt. Col. Chandler (Harry Townes), who was assigned to inspect the Andersonville prison; Dr. John C. Bates (Buddy Ebsen), the physician at the camp horrified by his experience; Ambrose Spencer (John Anderson), a plantation owner who can testify that food offered to the camp by nearby residents was refused; James Davidson (Michael Burns, whose liquid blue eyes are an asset to his performance), a haunted 19-year-old prisoner who claims a fellow was torn apart by dogs; Jasper Culver (Lou Frizell) another prisoner who has a story about a man named Chickamauga; Sgt. James Gray (Albert Salmi) who testifies that Wirtz killed a man with his own hands; and Dr. Ford (Whit Bissell), the one witness for the defense. Martin Sheen has a bit as a Union officer; Alan Hale Jr. (the Skipper on "Gilligan's Island") plays one of the court-martial board members, though he has no lines.
My favorite among the supporting cast is Buddy Ebsen, who as Jeb Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies" always gave the part far more than it seemed to deserve; here he gives his small role tremendous force with a low-key performance. I also enjoyed John Anderson, who I know from "Twilight Zone" episodes and his role as a used car salesman in "Psycho"; his performance here is typical but welcome.
Jack Cassidy has the same oily charm that serves him so well as a "Columbo" villain; but his character also has a strong sense of justice and credibly charges hypocrisy in his opponent. William Shatner, forever to be associated with "Star Trek," is not the perfect choice for a righteous crusader undergoing his own moral struggle: genuine sincerity always eludes him. But he still gives a richly textured performance and finally is successful in his role. The richest performance by far is from Richard Basehart as the German-accented Confederate officer who chose to follow orders from his military superiors while vetoing his own conscience. The parallels between him and Nazi war criminals is made clear; and Basehart brings out every subtlety to the man in a big, but not overdone or showy, manner.
George C. Scott, who had Shatner's role in the Broadway production, directs admirably well. The play is based on the transcript of the actual trial, with significant changes made for dramatic purposes; for one, Wirz did not testify on his own behalf, as he does here. This is highly recommended to anyone looking for a weighty drama, or a fascinating glimpse at American history.