June 19, 2015
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has intervened on behalf of Lance Cpl. Monifa Sterling, who is appealing her court martial to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Sterling was court-martialed after posting Bible verses in her government work space and refusing orders to remove them.
Pruitt claims the military court erred by refusing to afford Sterling protections of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and contends the case could impact the religious freedoms of military citizens living in Oklahoma, reported The Associated Press.
Although an important issue, this is not exactly the high drama we have come to expect from court martials depicted in Hollywood movies. This is not to diminish the gravity of Sterling’s case, but four pictures that do “justice” to military trials are “The Caine Mutiny,” “Paths of Glory,” “Breaker Morant” and “A Few Good Men.”
“The Caine Mutiny” was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Herman Wouk. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1954. Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, was relieved of his command at sea. The alleged mutineers were court martialed. Jose Ferrer played the capable defense attorney who reluctantly dismantled Captain Queeg during one of Hollywood’s most dramatic cross-examinations.
Paths of Glory, released in 1957, was based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb. The novel was loosely based on the court-martial and execution of four French soldiers during World War I. Kirk Douglas played Colonel Dax, a unit commander, who was a lawyer in civilian life. He defended the soldiers charged with cowardice after they refused to continue a suicidal attack.
The trial was a predetermined exercise to set an example for the rest of the French army. Colonel Dax, well aware of his clients’ fate, memorably told the court, “Gentlemen of the court, there are times that I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion.”
“Breaker Morant” was an Australian film released in 1980. The movie was also based on a true story. The movie explores, in detail, the court-martial of three Australian soldiers, carrying out unwritten orders to kill Dutch prisoners of war during the Boer War in 1902. The movie won a Golden Globe for best foreign film. The courtroom action is entertaining as typified by this exchange during the examination of a prosecution witness:
Prosecutor: How did Lt. Handcock look?
Witness: Like he was thinking, sir ... like ... I can’t think of the ...
Prosecutor: Did he look like he was agitated?
Witness: Agitated? Yes, that’s it, sir. Yes, sir, he looked agitated.
Defense Attorney: Objection. Major Bolton (prosecutor) is leading the witness.
Prosecutor: I will rephrase the question, sir. Tell me, how did Lt. Handcock look?
Witness: Agitated, sir!
The final film, “A Few Good Men,” was released in 1992. Originally written as a play and adapted for the big screen, the movie is based, in part, on a real incident that occurred at the Guantanamo Bay naval base.
Two Marines are on trial for carrying out a Code Red order that resulted in the death of another Marine. The code was ordered by the base commander to bring a wayward Marine into line. The movie’s well-known ending, with Tom Cruise as Lt. Kaffee and Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup, lights up the screen with one of film’s all-time great cross-examinations.
The lead-up to, “You can’t handle the truth,” is so well underplayed that it is often forgotten. As Lt. Kaffee’s examination seems to unravel, Colonel Jessup goads him into the decisive confrontation, “Now, are these the questions I was really called here to answer? Phone calls and foot lockers? Please tell me that you have something more, Lieutenant. These two Marines are on trial for their lives. Please tell me their lawyer hasn’t pinned their hopes to a phone bill.”
If you haven’t seen them, all four films are worth watching. If you have seen them, they’re worth another look.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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