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Movies and Court Martials

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Snapped during the Col. Mitchell court martial proceedings today - Col. Sherman Moreland, judge advocate, and Lt. Col. Joseph I. McMullen, ass't. judge advocate (Oct. 28, 1925), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Snapped during the Col. Mitchell court martial proceedings today – Col. Sherman Moreland, judge advocate, and Lt. Col. Joseph I. McMullen, ass’t. judge advocate (Oct. 28, 1925), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

Home with a cold this spring, I was re-reading a mystery novel which centered in part around the fate of a British officer in World War I.  In the novel, the officer had been executed for cowardice which made me begin to think about movies which portray incidents of military justice.  Although fellow staff members suggested a wide array of possible movies, I decided to focus on three movies that looked at military justice as they depict different aspects of the procedures.  Spoiler alert – I have not included A Few Good Men as it has already been widely reviewed and discussed.

Jim Martin suggested Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory” which is based on real events in France during World War I.  I turned to my colleague Nicolas Boring, our expert in  French law, for explication on the movie and  French military law.  As it turns out,this is one of Nicholas’ favorite movies of all times and he has provided a discussion of the movie for this post.

The movie, based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, tells the story of three soldiers, chosen at random, who are tried and executed for “cowardice” following a failed attack.  The charges are completely unfair, of course, and the soldiers are merely scapegoats for the incompetence of a general who ordered the suicidal attack purely for the purpose of advancing his own career.  The main character in this story is the soldiers’ commanding officer, Colonel Dax, portrayed by Kirk Douglas, who takes on his soldiers’ defense during the court martial.  Dax, who was an attorney before the war, tries his best to get the three men acquitted and to place the responsibility for the fiasco on the shoulders of the general who ordered the attack, but the entire system is stacked against his men.

This story was loosely based on real events.  Almost all of the belligerent armies of World War I executed soldiers for acts of desertion, abandoning their posts, refusal to obey orders, self-mutilations, and similar offenses.  Yet these executions left a very deep cultural mark, particularly in France and in the United Kingdom.  The reason seems to be that many of these executions were deeply unfair – the result of sham trials, arbitrariness, scapegoating – and perfectly symbolized the disregard that the general staffs were perceived to have towards the “cannon fodder” troops.  The website of the French Centre national de documentation pédagogique (National Center for Educational Documentation) has an excellent paper, Pour mémoire: les fusillés de la Grande Guerre about  French soldiers executed during the Great War, including those on whom the movie was based.  For a more historical account of the topic, Peter Judson Richards’ Extraordinary Justice  contains a chapter on French military justice during World War I.  Shot at Dawn, by Julian Putkowski and Julian Sykes discusses similar executions in the British army.  Finally, for those who can read French Nicolas Offenstadt’s Les fusillés de la Grande Guerre et la mémoire collective, 1914-1919 and General André Bach’s Fusillés pour l’exemple provides additional information on military justice during World War I.

Breaker Morant concerns the court martial of three Australian soldiers during the Boer Wars (1899-1902).  Although the Boer Wars are little known today, the movie has captured attention through its compelling depiction of a court martial towards the end of the conflict.  The movie depicts the court martial of three Australian soldiers, Lieutenants Morant, Hancock and Witton, who are accused of killing seven Boer prisoners and a German  missionary.  They are represented at the trial by Major Thomas who is at the least underprepared, and possibly inexperienced.  Looking at the film I became curious about the British court martial system.  The British National Archives website provides information about the British court martial system.  It appears there were four types of court martials: the General court martial; the Field general court martial; the General regimental court martial; and the Regimental court martial.  The General court martial was the army’s highest tribunal, and heard all cases for commissioned officers and “the most serious cases” for the other ranks.  When in this court was convened “at home” at least 13 commissioned officers had to hear the case, but when the case was brought in the British colonies then only 5 officers were needed to make up the tribunal.  I had assumed that Lt. Morant and the others had come before a Field general court martial which only required three officers and was generally restricted to wartime but the movie shows 5 officers sitting over the hearing.

The final climax of the movie is Major Thomas’ summing up speech to the court which both charges the army with  hypocrisy and argues that war changes men, stating that: “the barbarities of war are committed by normal men in abnormal circumstances who cannot be judged by civilian rules.”  The movie also depicts the English high command as being complicit in organizing the court martial as a show trial to demonstrate to the Boers that the British will discipline their own, up to and including the execution of soldiers who were arguably obeying the rules laid out by their commanders.

The last movie is Time Limit which takes place during the Korean War.  Richard Widmark plays an Army colonel, William Edwards. who has been assigned to investigate charges against Major Harry Cargill, played by Richard Basehart.  This movie does not portray a court martial but rather looks at the investigation which proceeds the decision as to whether  or not a court martial should be convened.  As the movie unfolds, it seems clear that Major Cargill did indeed cooperate with the enemy while he was a POW in North Korea.  This charge is a court martial offense under Article 104 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  Although Cargill simply wants to admit his guilt, be tried and sentenced, Widmark’s character insists on following the rules.  He cautions the major about his rights under Section 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  This section as it appeared in 1957 states in part:

No person subject to this chapter may compel any person to incriminate himself or to answer any question the answer to which may tend to incriminate him.  (b) No person subject to this chapter may interrogate, or request any statement from, an accused or a person suspected of an offense without first informing him of the nature of the accusation and advising him that he does not have to make any statement regarding the offense of which he is accused or suspected and that any statement made by him may be used as evidence against him in a trial by court-martial.

Colonel Edwards’ investigation eventually establishes the Major Cargill’s guilt but along the way uncovers other information regarding the situation in the prison camp, including the breakdown of a general’s son, and the movie ends with Edwards’ vowing to mount a proper defense for Cargill’s trial.  This is important because under article 104 of the UCMJ (also found at 10 U.S.C. 904), carries a possible death sentence.  This movie also questions various presumptions about war and the conduct of the a soldier.  Towards the end of the film Cargill makes an impassioned speech, asking how a man should be judged – on his last act or his acts over his lifetime.

All three of these films raise complex questions about how actions taken by soldiers in wartime should be judged.  None of the films offer simple formulas as answers and all three depict, to some extent, both sides of the question.  Movies are made to entertain, but they can also help us think about issues outside of our day to day routines.


  1. Enjoyed the review of the three courts martial movies. I do think “Paths of Glory” is an underappreciated movie. I would, however, be interested in the other suggestions advanced by your fellow staff members. Has anyone thought of putting those together in a compilation. Or has the LLC published something else of a similar nature?

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