Review: Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell, The
3 / 5 Stars
Anyone who's ever seen Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men understands implicitly that courtroom dramas do not, as a rule, provide a particularly broad canvas for a film composer to work with. Most of the time, it's some main and end titles and a few little pieces of transitional material, with the lion's share of the soundtrack given over to the strains of bellowing actors and slamming gavels. Even worse, what little music is actually required is often of the low-key, music-because-silence-would-seem-weird variety.
Well, the good news is that Screen Archives Entertainment's release of Dimitri Tiomkin's score to The Court-Martial Of Billy Mitchell proves to be an energetic exception to this "dull courtroom" rule. It probably helps that the fact-based 1955 film doesn't get to the courtroom until halfway through. Directed by the illustrious Otto Preminger, Mitchell depicts a demoted General (laconic icon Gary Cooper) whose insubordination challenged the wisdom of the United States Army and bolstered our national defense system ever after. Tiomkin's sparse but robust score is presented here in its entirety, running about thirty three minutes in aging but punchy monophonic sound, with an additional forty minutes of the disc devoted to audio excerpts of the film's dialogue (a welcome, if slightly arbitrary, bonus).
"Main Title" wastes no time in presenting the principal theme for Cooper's Billy Mitchell, a driving and ennobling march with swelling strings and fierce brass. It segues directly (as do all the score cuts, oddly enough) into "Forward / 1921 Virginia", a brisk and exciting piece with hurtling strings and a martial snare drum rollout. It's clear by the overall tone of the music here whose side the filmmakers are on: Tiomkin's music gushes patriotically at the foot of Mitchell, even as he pits himself against the United States Government itself.
"General Guthrie's Order" and "New Orders" are among the longest cues on the album, and Tiomkin develops some strong thematic material which will be quickly and economically recalled later in the score, when brevity is of the essence. "Guthrie" passes the Billy Mitchell theme around the orchestra, easing comfortably in a homespun Americana vibe and on to yet another noble finish. "Orders" begins a pastoral, hushed and alternately playful take on the same theme and "A Military Toy!" attacks the listener with bleating, hyper-aggressive brass befitting the sinking of a battleship.
"Debating The Shenandoah" is a big album highlight, as stirring and exciting as Golden Age scores are likely to get. "That's Exactly What I Want / Charge Sheet" is another high-energy piece of action worth singling out. But in the score's second half, as the film settles into the courtroom, frenetic action begins to give way to the more restrained and quietly noble sounds of cues like "The Old School Ties / Arrival At Warehouse". Even still, Mitchell's theme shines brightly, unwavering and inspiring.
In general, Tiomkin's work here is all very major mode, macho and militaristic. The only downright mournful strains on this entire album are given to a lowly widow in the later "Reid Visits Margaret". Apparently in 1925 (when the story takes place), it was okay for a woman to feel an emotion other than the powerfully vanilla American pride Mitchell's theme often evokes. Oh, well. It's not a bad thing, but it does make you wish there were a few more layers to this onion. Overall, Screen Archives has done a bang-up job on this release. The packaging and liner notes are colorful and extensive, making this quite an attractive addition to anyone's Golden Age collection.
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