Military Justice in Film
Summary and Keywords
Military justice films occupy a unique space in film and legal studies, marrying two popular genres—courtroom dramas and military-themed films. This article examines the military justice film as a distinct genre in popular culture depictions of crime and punishment. First, it provides a brief overview of the history of the military justice film, from Classical Hollywood to the present. It then examines what sets military justice films apart from civilian courtroom dramas—the context, hierarchies, procedural rules, and broader implications of justice in the military context. It discusses why military justice films remain an enduring genre, with their appeal to universal themes and archetypal narratives. It further describes how military justice films have paralleled military history and serve as a critique of military, political, and national security policies. The article concludes by examining contemporary depiction of military justice in film, analyzing how the genre has changed since its inception, and discussing how military justice films may continue to evolve to keep pace with shifting norms of both law and warfare.
Historical Background and Overview
With its inherent dramatic tension and universal appeal, the courtroom drama has been a staple for filmmakers worldwide over the last century. Although some commentators question whether military justice films reflect the same themes as traditional courtroom films, they are still typically categorized as a subset of the courtroom drama, rather than as a distinct genre (Greenfield, Osborn, & Robson, 2001). Nonetheless, the military justice film addresses issues of crime, punishment, and justice through a unique lens that merits its own study within the broader context of media and law.
The depiction of military justice in film marries two enduring genres—the courtroom drama and the war film. These two genres are natural companions in many ways, due to their overlapping tropes and archetypes. Both the courtroom and the battlefield exhibit rigid hierarchies and defined protagonist/antagonist relationships, although dramatic tension often arises from the blurred line between the “good guys” and “bad guys.” Indeed, the courtroom itself is a figurative battleground, where plaintiff and defendant engage in bloodless combat. Moreover, the built-in narrative structure of both courtroom and military drama serves as a foundation upon which the filmmaker can layer more nuanced story, relationships, and commentary. Thus, it is no surprise that courtroom dramas, war films, and their offspring, the military justice film, find their roots early in film history.
Before tracing back the history of military justice film, it is important to define the genre. For purposes of this discussion, “military justice film” primarily refers to films where the main narrative focus is a formal or informal trial in a military context. Thus, a film like A Few Good Men (1992) would exemplify this genre, as it portrays a court-martial of active-duty Marines, with almost no peripheral storyline. However, this definition of military justice film would also include a film like Casualties of War (1989), where the plot focuses on a soldier’s attempt to stop fellow soldiers from raping and killing a Vietnamese girl, and the ensuing court-martial merely depicts the aftermath of his decisions. But, for these purposes, “military justice film” would not include Anatomy of a Murder (1959), where the defendant is an army lieutenant, but the crime and trial are wholly unrelated to the military.
Courtroom dramas inherently rely on dialogue to propel the narrative. Although visual form does play a role in legal plot (for example, the grand columns of a courthouse or the scales of justice), dialogue is paramount; the lawyers’ examination and arguments typically shape the storyline. Thus, military justice films did not fully emerge as a genre until the Classical Hollywood era (Bordwell & Thompson, 1993, p. 471). One early example is Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), starring Clark Gable and depicting the court-martial of the H.M.S. Bounty’s mutineers. Unlike other war films, however, military justice films were largely absent during the Second World War (1939–1945). As further discussed below, the military justice film often serves as a vehicle for antiwar sentiment or for exposing military corruption. Neither of these intentions was congruent with the mostly patriotic motives of Hollywood during the Second World War. Military justice films depict soldiers accused of wrongdoing; with few exceptions, this structure typically casts soldiers and warfare in a negative light.
The postwar era, however, saw the production of several military justice films that set the standard for the genre. The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), Carrington V.C. (1955), and Paths of Glory (1957) are classic court-martial films. Each of these films addresses the common theme of ideal justice, as embodied by the individual, set against the inflexible, unforgiving, and sometimes immoral military system. In The Caine Mutiny, Lieutenant Maryk makes what he believes is the morally right choice to defy the paranoid, martinet leader, Captain Queeg, and is court-martialed for those actions. Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory wages a futile defense of three soldiers facing execution as scapegoats for their commander’s battlefield failure. A less than rosy view of military and warfare may have reflected American ambivalence to the U.S. involvement in the Korean War (Crabtree, 2003), as well as the after-effects of sustained warfare on American veterans (Goldwyn & Wyler, 1946). Regardless, by 1960 the military justice film was an established genre, with its own tropes and archetypes separate from both war films and courtroom dramas.
In the ensuing decades, military justice films followed a trend of dealing with wars and conflicts in recent history, while avoiding contemporaneous examination of the ongoing conflicts. For example, no military justice films of the 1960s or 1970s addressed the Vietnam War. Rather, the sixties commenced with one of the most memorable post–Second World War courtroom dramas, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). In this film, the U.S. military and the American lawyers are portrayed in a positive light as they prosecute four German judges for their complicity in Nazi war crimes. To the extent that this film serves as a criticism of war, it is an indirect critique, focused on the effects of war on the noncombatant population and the use of civilian authorities to carry out the will of the leader of a totalitarian regime. The other military justice films of the 1960s focused on a broad historical range, from the 18th and 19th centuries (Mutiny on the Bounty ; Sergeant Rutledge ) to the First World War (King and Country ), the Second World War (Town Without Pity ; Man in the Middle ), and the Korean War (Sergeant Ryker ). However, with the exception of Judgment at Nuremberg, these films did not significantly add to the enduring legacy of the military justice films of the previous decade.
By the 1970s, U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War was, directly or indirectly, the backdrop of the military justice films of the decade. From 1972 to 1983, the commercial and critical success of the television show M*A*S*H* (Writers Guild of America, West, 2013) paved the way for several other made-for-television military justice films: The Execution of Private Slovik (1974) (depicting the only U.S. soldier of the Second World War executed for desertion); Judgment: The Court-Martial of The Tiger of Malaya—General Yamashita (1974) (portraying the war crimes trial of a Japanese general accused of thousands of civilian deaths in the Philippines during the Second World War); Judgment: The Court-Martial of Lieutenant William Calley (1975) (recounting the trial of the U.S. Army lieutenant responsible for the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam); and The Court-Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1977) (imagining that Custer survived the Battle of Little Big Horn and stood trial for negligence). With the exception of Judgment: The Court-Martial of Lieutenant William Calley, none of these TV films depicted the conflict in Vietnam. Nonetheless, these films did explore the themes that by this point had become staples of military justice genre: the futility of war and the moral struggles of ordinary people under the strain of combat.
A direct depiction of Vietnam-era war crimes and an ensuing military trial would not come about again until the 1980s, with the 1989 Brian de Palma film Casualties of War. This film is based on actual events involving the rape and murder of a young Vietnamese woman during 1966. Although most of the film’s action surrounds the incident in Vietnam, a significant portion depicts the court-martial of the culpable soldiers. Another significant and critically lauded military justice film of the 1980s is Breaker Morant (1980). Although set in a different time and location than Casualties of War—the Second Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, at the turn of the 20th century—Breaker Morant dealt with a similar issue of soldiers accused of murdering captured enemy combatants and an unarmed civilian. However, Breaker Morant presents a more nuanced and morally ambiguous depiction of war crimes than Casualties of War. Both films, however, exemplify the period of uneasy reflection on the atrocities of war that the Vietnam Era brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness.
The early 1990s heralded both the end of the Cold War and the release of arguably the best-known military justice film of the modern era, A Few Good Men (1992). Indeed, this film more than any other made the term “JAG” (Judge Advocate General) synonymous with military lawyers, helped along by the popularity of the eponymous television show inspired in part by the film (Karlen, 1995). The all-star cast, led by Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, and the tightly written Aaron Sorkin script (based on his play of the same name), garnered A Few Good Men both popular and critical acclaim. The famous quote “You can’t handle the truth!” has risen above the military justice genre to become emblematic of courtroom genre as a whole (AFI, 2005). Perhaps because this film redefined the military justice film in such a significant way, no other military justice feature film was released in the United States during the 1990s. The JAG television show, however, did depict military justice in every episode, often in the form of courts-martial, and enjoyed a ten-year run (1995–2005). Additionally, a lesser-known television movie, Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker (1994), depicted the racially motivated court-martial of one of West Point’s first black cadets.
Thus far in the 21st century, only a handful of films have emerged that could fairly be described as military justice films. Rules of Engagement (2000) depicted a court-martial of a Marine colonel who ordered his Marines to fire on a civilian crowd while guarding a U.S. embassy in Yemen. Like A Few Good Men, Rules of Engagement takes place in a 1990s post–Cold War environment, underscoring the difficulties of conducting military operations other than war and the lack of clearly defined rules of engagement, as the title suggests. As is typical with military films in general, the passage of time also allows the film to depict more freely violations of the law of war in the Vietnam conflict in an incident that provides a backdrop to the main narrative.
The year 2002 saw the release of two feature films depicting military justice. In Hart’s War (2002), a law student turned U.S. Army lieutenant defends a soldier accused of murder in a Second World War German prison camp; although the court-martial is an elaborate ruse to distract from the prisoners’ attack on an ammunition plant, several themes traditional to the military justice drama (e.g., inexperienced lawyer versus higher-ranking commander) are present. In contrast, the film High Crimes (2002) depicts a traditional court-martial—in this case, of a deserter accused of murdering civilians in El Salvador in 1988. In many ways, High Crimes departs from standard military justice films in that it is more of a suspense-thriller than a commentary on the law, the military, or justice.
Since 2002, no American feature films have been released that fit within the military justice genre. To go over a decade without court-martial-themed films is unprecedented in American film history, especially since U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has given rise to many high-profile courts-martial that could provide inspiration for military justice films. However, the early 21st century has seen several notable military justice films released in other countries. India has released Shaurya (2008), depicting a fratricide court-martial during the Kashmir conflict in Northern India, and Melvilasom (2011), again portraying a fratricide, this time in a contemporary setting. The Israeli film Room 514 (2012) deviates from a traditional courtroom drama format in portraying the investigation into abuse of Palestinian civilians by a determined Israeli Defense Force (IDF) military police woman. Similarly, the British film Eye in the Sky (2015), while not depicting any type of military tribunal, examines in depth the legal implications of collateral damage in the context of drone strikes. These latter two films signify an evolution in the military justice film genre that will be discussed more in “Role of Military Justice Films in History and Society: The Evolution of Military Justice Films in the 21st Century,” below.
Military Justice Films versus Traditional Courtroom Dramas
As evidenced by the historical overview above, military justice films are a fairly narrow genre within the larger category of traditional courtroom dramas. The unique nature of this genre may be best appreciated through comparison to those traditional legal films. The first subsection provides a brief overview of the military justice system, permitting a deeper understanding of the idiosyncrasies of this genre. The following subsections then analyze the various ways in which military justice films differ from traditional courtroom dramas, focusing on hierarchy, symbolism, and the emphasis on good order and discipline.
Overview of the U.S. Military Justice System
To prepare for and perform its vital role, the military must insist upon a respect for duty and a discipline without counterpart in civilian life. The laws and traditions governing that discipline have a long history; but they are founded on unique military exigencies as powerful now as in the past.
Schlesinger v. Councilman, 420 U.S. 738, 757 (1975)
The foundation for the differences between military justice films and traditional courtroom dramas is the military justice system itself. Every military justice film, even those that do not feature courts-martial, reference the military’s various sources of law: rules of engagement, codes of conduct, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In some films, such as High Crimes, the differences between the military and civilian legal systems are a focal point in the narrative. Most others tend to center on crimes unique to the military, such as desertion, mutiny, and war crimes. A brief overview of the development of the modern system of military justice helps to place the analysis of this film genre in context. This section focuses on the history of military justice in the United States, as most military justice films depict the U.S. military. However, the U.S. system is derived from the British system, including the use of courts-martial to try soldiers and the term “judge advocate” for military lawyers.
In the United States, the modern military justice system traces its roots to the Revolutionary War. Shortly after forming the Continental Army on June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress recognized the need for a system of military justice to ensure good order and discipline among the troops. On June 29, 1775, General George Washington asked the Congress to appoint William Tudor as the first Judge Advocate General of the Continental Army. The following day, the Congress approved the Articles of War, which spelled out the offenses that could be tried by court-martial (Maggs & Schenck, 2012). Examples of the offenses specified in the Articles of War include desertion, disobedience, and assaulting a superior officer.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the military justice system gradually evolved, but still retained basic principles such as military-specific offenses, the use of judge advocates (military lawyers), and trial by court-martial. In 1950, Congress enacted the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). As the name suggests, the UCMJ was meant to provide uniformity among the various military branches—army, navy, and air force. The punitive articles of the UCMJ specify the various crimes of which military members can be charged and convicted. In general, one can classify the punitive articles into military-specific crimes, for which there are no civilian equivalents, and non-military-specific crimes, such as homicide and larceny. The military-specific crimes relate back to the underlying purpose of the military justice system—ensuring good order and discipline. Thus, a military member can be tried, convicted, and punished for desertion, cowardice, maltreatment of subordinates, or disobedience, among other military crimes.
Perhaps one of the best-known military offenses is conduct unbecoming of an officer and gentlemen. The crime itself lends its name to at least two military justice films: Conduct Unbecoming (1975), depicting a court-martial of a British officer in colonial India, and Conduct Unbecoming (2011), a Canadian film about a U.S. Marine officer accused of murdering civilians in Afghanistan. Like these two films, most other military justice films focus on military-specific crimes, rather than those offenses with civilian counterparts. Examples include Carrington V.C. (disobeying orders), The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (conduct bringing discredit upon the military), Paths of Glory (cowardice), and Sergeant Ryker (treason). Typically, the charges faced by the accused reflect the larger themes of the film itself, such as the futility of war or military corruption.
Military justice films also frequently refer to the unique punishments a service member faces at court-martial. In the civilian criminal justice system, punishment is typically limited to confinement, probation, restitution, or a combination of the above. A court-martial, on the other hand, could sentence a defendant to punishments like reprimand, loss of pay, hard labor, and punitive separation, such as a dishonorable discharge (U.S. Department of Defense, 2012). One punishment specific to military justice is the loss of rank. Under certain circumstances, a convicted service member can be demoted as punishment, which signifies more than just the loss of pay. It also means the loss of authority, responsibility, and respect.
Understanding military justice films also requires understanding the key players in the system. Almost everyone involved in a court-martial is a uniformed service member. The prosecutor and the appointed defense counsel are military lawyers; the judge is also a military lawyer, who has received special judicial training. A military defendant can elect to have a civilian defense lawyer, at his own expense, in addition to appointed military counsel, but the jury will consist solely of other military personnel, typically officers or high-ranking noncommissioned officers.
Of all the players in the military justice system, the most important is the commander. The military justice system exists to provide commanders a tool to ensure good order and discipline and to enhance mission accomplishment. Therefore, military commanders control the process. Per the UCMJ, a senior commander designated as the convening authority decides whether charges shall proceed to trial by court-martial or be disposed of in some other manner. The convening authority also selects the military jurors, known as panel members, from among the officers and noncommissioned officers under her command. After the trial, the convening authority must approve the verdict and sentence of the court-martial. In certain cases, the convening authority can reduce a sentence or even set aside a guilty verdict (Maggs & Schenck, 2012).
The vast authority and discretion vested in the convening authority creates a potential for abuse. Article 37 of the UCMJ expressly criminalizes “attempt[s] to coerce or, by any unauthorized means, influence the action of a court-martial or any other military tribunal or any member thereof” (U.S. Department of Defense, 2012). This is commonly referred to as the prohibition on unlawful command influence. Although not always expressly referred to as such, unlawful command influence or allegations thereof play a role in several military justice films. For example, in Paths of Glory, General Mireau tries to order Colonel Dax to step down as defense counsel for three soldiers accused of cowardice. References to unlawful command influence in military justice films often tie into larger themes of corruption, discussed further below.
Military Justice Films: Imagery, Symbolism, and Hierarchies
The preceding overview of the military justice system provides a contextual foundation for a deeper examination of military justice films. This section explores how the nonstory plot elements differ between military justice films and traditional courtroom dramas, focusing on the different imagery, symbolism, and depiction of hierarchy in military justice films.
In general, traditional courtroom dramas rely heavily on nonnarrative plot elements to evoke themes of crime, punishment, and justice. Greenfield et al. (2001) notes the importance of the courtroom setting in traditional courtroom dramas. Courthouses have long steps and white columns. The courtroom has high ceilings, rich wood paneling, and a presiding judge complete with black robes and heavy gavel. The hierarchy of the players in this system is determined by their roles; the judge reigns supreme from the bench, the attorneys command the floor, observers sit obediently in the gallery. Traditional courtroom films may also delineate hierarchies through the characters’ dress, mannerisms, and speech. For example, in My Cousin Vinny (1992), the genteel district attorney contrasts sharply with Vinny, a brash New Yorker in a secondhand cinema usher’s uniform.
In comparison, military justice films tend to abandon or subvert the hierarchies and imagery of traditional courtroom dramas. Lacking are the typical establishing shots of courtroom steps or pillars of justice (Greenfield et al., 2001). Instead, the establishing shots will typically show a military base and uniformed personnel. A memorable example is the opening scene of A Few Good Men, which focuses on a rifle drill team engaged in precise maneuvers; only after several minutes does the camera turn its lens to a military lawyer, striding purposefully across the parade grounds. In this fashion, the audience knows from the outset that military customs will, at least superficially, take precedence over the rule of law. Several other films employ opening scenes of parades, military bands, or other military-specific images, such as Breaker Morant and Assault at West Point.
Additionally, in military justice films the courtrooms are often replaced with simpler rooms, sometimes makeshift or temporary in nature. In films like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (1988) and Flight of the Intruder, legal proceedings take place in gymnasiums, with folding chairs and tables set upon the basketball court. In Casualties of War, the court-martial appears to take place in a conference room that has been temporarily repurposed to accommodate the hearing. A similar image is evoked in Breaker Morant. Such a setup reflects the very nature of the U.S. military justice system, which lacks standing trial courts; rather, courts-martial are convened by the commander on an ad hoc basis. Even in films that depict courtrooms, these rooms often lack the grandeur associated with traditional courtrooms. In High Crimes, the court-martial takes place in a stark, almost industrial room, in contrast to the civilian courtrooms where protagonist Claire Kubik is accustomed to practicing. This contrast visually accentuates Claire’s fish-out-of-water experience in the unfamiliar court-martial proceedings. Again, by removing the external formalities of a courtroom setting, these films deemphasize the legal nature of the proceedings. This, in turn, plays into the oft-repeated theme of the underdog lawyer trying to force the military to respect the law, and not just military tradition, a theme that will be discussed further below.
Even in films where courts-martial take place in traditional courtrooms, the viewer is reminded that he or she is not observing a typical trial. Judges wear uniforms, not robes. Indeed, everyone in the courtroom wears a uniform—lawyers, jurors, the accused. With their various badges and medals, military uniforms are essentially a resume of the wearer’s rank, awards, previous tours of duty, and skill identifiers. By this token, the hierarchies of the courtroom, while superficially present, are superseded by the hierarchy of the military and its deference to rank. One is always reminded of the relative imbalance of power between military members of different ranks through the use of military courtesies, like calling a higher ranking officer “Sir” or “Ma’am.” At times, the overlay of rigid military formalities on legal proceedings is used to an almost comical effect, as when an overeager sergeant must be asked to tone down his courtroom marching in Carrington V.C.
The tension between legal and military hierarchy often plays a crucial role in the narrative of a military justice film. For example, in a civilian courtroom, a prosecutor would traditionally occupy a position of authority over a witness; in a court-martial, the prosecutor may actually be of inferior rank to the witness. This dichotomy is often used in military justice films to dramatic effect when a low-ranking officer must cross-examine a hostile—but higher-ranking—witness. Perhaps the best-known example is A Few Good Men’s climactic confrontation between Lieutenant Kaffee and Colonel Jessep. However, a variation on this scene occurs in several other films, such as The Caine Mutiny, Conduct Unbecoming, Breaker Morant, and Rules of Engagement, to name a few.
Use of military-specific terminology also emphasizes the “otherness” of the proceedings. As mentioned several times in High Crimes, the term “trial counsel” replaces prosecutor, reminding the viewer that the commander is the one who truly prosecutes the crimes. Other jargon tends to be strewn liberally throughout the dialogue: panel or members instead of jury, Article 32 investigation instead of grand jury hearing, accused instead of defendant. Even the judge is often referred to by rank instead of “your honor” or “judge,” as depicted in films like Rules of Engagement.
Lastly, military music is often incorporated into the film score to further emphasize the military nature of the film. Military justice films frequently include diegetic military music, such as the opening sequence in Breaker Morant depicting a military band playing in a gazebo, an image frequently returned to throughout the film in contrast to the stark legal proceedings. Other examples include The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, where courtroom scenes are often punctuated with the sound of the military band practicing outside, and Flight of the Intruder, where a military march accompanies the accused pilots as they walk to their board of inquiry. Naturally, the nondiegetic score will often also include elements typically associated with military music, with the most salient example being the ubiquitous use of snare drum.
Overall, military justice films utilize several nonnarrative plot elements to distinguish themselves from the larger courtroom drama genre. The viewer is constantly reminded of the military structure within which the legal proceedings unfold. Moreover, the visual and aural cues often reinforce the themes presented in the storyline, which will be discussed more in “The Role of Military Justice Films in History and Society,” below.
The Emphasis on Good Order and Discipline in Military Justice Films
Another key difference between military justice film and traditional courtroom dramas is their respective treatment of the role of the justice system in relation to the story. In traditional courtroom dramas, the legal proceedings are often the vehicle by which the larger story is told. For example, crime procedural films like Primal Fear (1996) or The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) are suspense-thrillers; the trial simply provides the narrative structure. In comparison, military justice films often place the very nature of the legal system front and center, focusing on the role the system plays in preserving or restoring good order and discipline. In this sense, military justice films are often about the system itself; the storyline provides the means to address the nature of the military justice system, not the other way around.
The film Carrington V.C. provides a prime example of a film that focuses on the role of the military justice system. Major Carrington is well liked among his troops, but despised by his commanding officer, Colonel Henniker. When Henniker discovers relatively minor infractions of his orders, he orders Carrington to be court-martialed. Although the board of officers deciding Carrington’s fate can clearly see that the trial is motivated largely by the commander’s dislike for the accused, they are duty-bound to follow the law as set forth in the Manual for Courts-Martial. Thus, the members of the board recognize the pretextual use of the system as a means to reinforce good order and discipline, when it is actually motivated by jealousy and spite. Nonetheless, they are helplessly bound by the letter of the law, as the judge advocate of the board constantly reminds them. Films like this remind the viewer that within the rigid confines of the military, there is little room for sympathy or humanity, even in the justice system.
Several other films address even more directly the use of the legal system to restore good order and discipline. Paths of Glory confronts head-on the use of the military justice system to punish wartime cowardice, in this case by executing the transgressors. General Broulard sums up perversely the purpose of the military justice system: “[T]roops are like children. Just as a child wants his father to be firm, troops crave discipline. One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man.” In The Caine Mutiny, a lieutenant is court-martialed for taking matters into his own hands by removing a “petty tyrant” from command; although he is ultimately vindicated, his conduct in acting disloyally toward his commander is still portrayed in a negative light. Good order and discipline are underlying themes throughout A Few Good Men. The commander, Colonel Jessep, abuses his authority by ordering his men to make an example of a substandard Marine, with the goal of keeping his other troops in line. Ultimately, the justice system itself restores good order and discipline by punishing the Marines who carried out Jessep’s orders (and, by implication, Jessep himself).
In summary, military justice films are a highly distinctive genre within the larger genre of courtroom dramas. The unique laws and procedures of the military justice system ensure that the depiction of military justice in film will invariably depart from the familiar civilian trial process. Moreover, this genre emphasizes how the military purpose of the proceedings often trumps their legality, whether through subtle plot elements such as music and imagery, or more overt references to the need for good order and discipline. Building on this foundation, the following section discusses in depth several of the enduring themes in military justice films—themes that have persisted in the more than 100-year history of this genre (Dirks, 2016).
Enduring Themes in Military Justice Films
A film cannot tell a compelling story without incorporating one or more themes. Texts on screenwriting detail the universal themes of storytelling, such as redemption, transformation, and sacrifice (Flattum, 2013). Military justice films are no exception, and will often include a variety of broad themes. However, certain narrower themes crop up consistently in military justice films; themes that are distinct from those appearing in courtroom dramas, and themes that are hallmarks of the military justice film. This section analyzes some of the most common themes depicted in military justice films.
“It’s My First Trial”: The Triumph of the Underdog
Perhaps one of the most frequently encountered themes in the military justice film is the triumph of an underdog over a superior power. This theme almost always surfaces in the depiction of the defense counsel for the accused as being low-ranking, inexperienced, or both. At the outset, the underdog lawyer seems not quite up to the task, and is doubted by all around him. After some initial stumbles and setbacks, the underdog proves to be a brilliant advocate, standing up to the superior officers in his way. When the underdog lawyer achieves an acquittal for his client, he achieves redemption in the face of his previous doubters. Even in films where the accused is ultimately convicted, the underdog lawyer is transformed and therefore triumphant.
Examples of the underdog lawyer abound in military justice films. One variation on the theme is the inexperienced lawyer. In A Few Good Men, Lieutenant Kaffee has never taken a case to trial, and his co-counsel Commander Galloway has been relegated to Internal Affairs since botching her first court-martial. In High Crimes, Claire Kubik discovers to her dismay that the lieutenant assigned to defend her husband has never tried a case before; although Claire is a seasoned trial lawyer, she finds herself in the underdog role given her lack of familiarity and status in the military justice system. Major Thomas in Breaker Morant pointedly admits to his three clients, all facing the death penalty, that his civilian legal experience was limited to wills and land conveyances. In Conduct Unbecoming (1975), Lieutenant Drake has no legal education or training, yet still he ultimately proves to be an able advocate. In contrast, in Rules of Engagement, the defense lawyer is an experienced JAG officer and colonel on the eve of retirement. However, it turns out he is actually a very poor trial attorney, who has shied away from the courtroom his entire career. Of course, he develops into a compelling oral advocate by the film’s close.
In many of these films, in addition to or in lieu of inexperience, the underdog lawyer also deals with lower status in the military hierarchy. In A Few Good Men, Lieutenant Kaffee finds himself stymied by Colonel Jessep while trying to investigate the case; he ultimately triumphs over the colonel in the courtroom, where the imbalance of military power is leveled by his superior role as lawyer over witness. Similar courtroom confrontations take place in The Caine Mutiny, Conduct Unbecoming, and Breaker Morant, among other films. Even Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory, a seasoned lawyer and high-ranking officer, finds himself occupying the role of the underdog when pitted against the film’s two corrupt generals, Mireau and Broulard.
The underdog theme appears so consistently in military justice films for a few reasons. For one, it is a theme of universal appeal, permitting the viewer to relate closely to the protagonist. Indeed, the typical underdog lawyer’s journey in military justice films parallels the mythical hero’s journey, complete with setbacks, breakthroughs, allies, and enemies (Campbell, 1993). Furthermore, the underdog narrative fits naturally into a military setting, where the actors are constrained by rigid, externally imposed hierarchies. The hardships faced by the inexperienced or low-ranking lawyer underscore the helplessness of the accused soldier in the face of the powerful military system, bent on his conviction. This image can prove especially powerful in antiwar films like Paths of Glory, where the military writ large lacks the humanity and compassion of the lone, idealistic soldier.
“We Need to Set an Example”: Unlawful Command Influence in Military Prosecutions
Building upon the previous theme, a military justice film cannot have an underdog without a more powerful force in a position of superiority. In many military justice films, this is embodied by the high-ranking military or civilian leaders who use the justice system as a tool to further a personal or political agenda. In this scenario, the accused usually plays the role of scapegoat, and the leaders must make an example of the accused to enforce good order and discipline or to quell political unrest. As discussed above (“Enduring Themes in Military Justice Films: The Emphasis on Good Order and Discipline in Military Justice Films”), using the military justice system to maintain good order and discipline is not an unjust goal in itself; even selectively prosecuting soldiers to make an example is not an inherently immoral practice (U.S. Department of Defense, 2012, pp. II-25–26). The practice becomes corrupt when the leaders wield their power to influence the outcome of the court-martial, leading to unlawful command influence, “the mortal enemy of military justice” (United States v. Thomas, 1986).
Unlawful command influence can be found in several military justice films. In Rules of Engagement, National Security Advisor Bill Sokal does all he can to try to ensure Colonel Childers’s conviction for his order to fire on a crowd of civilians in Yemen. His decision to court-martial Childers is not necessarily unlawful, even though it has the potential to advance a U.S. policy agenda of smoothing over relations in the Middle East. However, in his zeal to secure a conviction, Sokal embarks on an increasingly illegal course of conduct. He tries to influence the prosecutor, he blackmails a witness into perjuring himself, and he destroys key evidence (a security camera videotape) by throwing it into his conveniently located office fireplace. Although Rules of Engagement employs no subtlety in its over-the-top depiction of unlawful command influence, it does provide a good contrast with the underdog JAG officer, Colonel Hodges, and his laborious attempts to exculpate his client. As well, this depiction reinforces the notion that even high-ranking military officers are virtually powerless against the unseen civilian leaders, pulling the strings that decide their fates.
More frequently, however, unlawful command influence in military justice films comes from high-ranking military officers. In one recurring scenario, a higher-ranking officer admonishes the lower-ranking defense counsel to conduct a less than vigorous defense. In Conduct Unbecoming (1975), Captain Harper does not hesitate to tell the de facto defense counsel, Lieutenant Drake, to go through the motions in defending Lieutenant Millington against a charge of assaulting a military widow. Indeed, Harper essentially orders Drake to have his client plead guilty, and forbids him from calling the victim as a witness—orders that Drake ignores in his quest for justice. This theme of senior officers advising the defense counsel not to push too hard occurs regularly, with examples seen in Paths of Glory, Breaker Morant, and A Few Good Men, among other films. This typically plays into the underdog theme by presenting yet another obstacle the hero must surmount on his journey.
In another scenario, high-ranking officers use the court-martial process to advance their own careers. A clear example is General Mireau’s decision to court-martial three soldiers for cowardice in Paths of Glory. Gunning for a promotion, Mireau hopes that their conviction will compensate for the failure of an all-but-suicidal mission that he planned. Another example is Colonel Henniker’s prosecution of Major Carrington in Carrington V.C. Knowing that the troops prefer the popular Carrington, Henniker hopes to remove his rival through arguably trumped-up charges, including disobeying Henniker’s own orders. In films such as these, this abuse of process often serves as a larger critique of the military system itself, where rigid reliance on rank hierarchy permits such conduct. Typically, the heroes (counsel or the accused) will uncover the senior officer’s ill motives, but not without sacrificing their own careers in the process.
“What Happens in the Field Stays in the Field”: The Cover-Up
On the other side of the coin is the theme of using rank and intimidation to cover up a crime. Rather than bring down the hammer of justice on a scapegoat, in a cover-up scenario the higher-ranking officers close ranks and protect their own. In these films, a contrast is drawn between the soldiers out in the field—the ones fighting the wars and making difficult life-or-death decisions—and the staff officers charged with prosecuting or defending the soldiers who made those decisions.
Casualties of War provides a classic example of the military cover-up. After witnessing the horrific rape and murder of a Vietnamese civilian, Private Erickson goes up his chain of command to report the crimes of his fellow soldiers. Instead of acting on his reports, his company commander confronts Erickson, pointing out that his sergeant is just a 20-year-old man fighting a tough war. Essentially, Erickson is told to accept that different rules apply in a combat zone. Only when Erickson unwittingly reports the crime to the unit chaplain is the incident investigated and the culpable soldiers punished. This sequence of events emphasizes that the only way around the cover-up was to go outside the chain of command to an officer in a noncombat role. In that sense, Casualties of War serves as a critique not only of the Vietnam War itself, but of the “warrior code” of soldiers in combat.
This theme emerges in A Few Good Men as well, when Colonel Jessep admonishes Lieutenant Kaffee for not understanding the pressure faced by front-line Marines. Jessep draws a sneering distinction between Kaffee’s pristine white uniform and Harvard education, and the Marines who stand guard against “4000 Cubans who are trained to kill [them].” This bravado hides the fact that Colonel Jessep falsified documents to cover up the infamous “Code Red” he ordered to punish the lackluster Private Santiago. Similarly, General Marks in High Crimes hides classified information about a secret mission in El Salvador; lawyer Claire Kubik is able to exploit this cover-up to get the charges against her husband dismissed, although this turns out to be immaterial to the issue of her husband’s guilt. The idea reinforced in both examples is that the higher-ranking officers must protect the “real warriors” from unfair punishment.
Films employing the cover-up theme explore the clash between the need for soldiers to employ certain tactics in order to carry out the dirty business of war and societal norms against the harming or taking of human life. Certainly, this can be seen as a critique of warfare itself, and the perceived absurdity of drawing a moral line between sanctioned killing of the enemy and unlawful killing of civilians and persons hors de combat (Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict, 1977). The counterargument is that a soldier’s warrior ethos can be instilled only through harsh treatment, and training killers necessitates those tactics. This dichotomy—soldiers must kill, but only by the rules—provides ideal dramatic fodder for military justice films.
The Role of Military Justice Films in History and Society
Beyond providing entertainment, the military justice genre occupies a distinct role in film history through its ability to comment simultaneously on justice, warfare, and military history. Given that every military justice film captures a certain time period in military history, each film serves as a snapshot of that period. Following the examination above of the unique nature of military justice films and themes found therein, this section discusses how military justice films document society’s evolving and shifting attitudes toward war, peace, and the prosecution of war crimes.
Military Justice in War and Peace
Traditional courtroom dramas tend to be timeless, dealing with universal and enduring themes related to justice. With little revision, films like 12 Angry Men (1957) or To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) could be set in the modern day while losing none of their impact or message. Military justice films differ in that their storylines almost invariably connect to a particular time period. This is seen most clearly in war movies, which are by nature reflective of the conflict period in which they are set. However, even military justice films set in times of relative peace reflect contemporaneous attitudes toward the military and national security policies.
Within the genre of war movies, military justice films set during wartime differ in significant respects. For one, all military justice films involve some aspect of soldier wrongdoing; even in films where the soldiers are wrongly accused, the accuser tends to be another soldier. More typically, the accused soldier is at least partly culpable for the charged misconduct. This is seen, for example, in A Few Good Men, where the accused Marines, although following the orders of their superior officers, must still face punishment for their unlawful conduct. Thus, many of the themes and tropes of traditional war movies are largely absent from military justice films. For example, traditional war movies such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), Gettysburg (1993), or Black Hawk Down (2001) depict acts of heroism, the banding together of soldiers from disparate backgrounds, and personal sacrifice. Military justice films, on the other hand, tend to focus on the themes discussed above: the struggle between an idealistic underdog and corrupt military leadership, or the conflict between what the law permits and what soldiers must do to survive in combat. This allows the military justice genre to address more nuanced antiwar sentiments in a way that traditional war films may shy away from.
Military justice films set in peacetime tend to have a different focus: the difficulty faced by soldiers trained for war when asked to conduct noncombat missions. Such films may depict the problems created by the restrictive rules of engagement imposed upon soldiers in peacekeeping operations. The film Rules of Engagement, as the name implies, focuses on the near-impossible task of distinguishing the “enemy” from civilians in a situation with no declared hostile forces (Lee et al., 2015). The accused, Colonel Childers, relies on his combat experience from Vietnam when dealing with snipers in Yemen, with disastrous consequences. A similar situation arises in Room 514, where IDF soldiers in the occupied West Bank are accused of abusing Palestinian civilians. These films tend to be more critical of the national security policies than of the soldiers themselves, who find themselves in these ambiguous situations at their country’s behest.
War Crimes in Military Justice Films
Another unique aspect of military justice films is their portrayal of the prosecution of war crimes. Films dealing with war crimes typically focus on the effect of warfare on the local civilian population. Civilians become innocent victims in the warfare that rages around them, whether unintentionally (Eye in the Sky, Rules of Engagement) or intentionally (Casualties of War). Given this focus, films that depict war crimes almost invariably take an antiwar stance. Certainly, films like Casualties of War and Judgment: The Court-Martial of Lt. William Calley show how combat can bring out the very worst of human nature. Even those films that treat the accused sympathetically, like Rules of Engagement, show how a “correct” military decision can still result in the tragic loss of life. Dealing with these situations through the lens of the military justice system allows these films to criticize war, while avoiding sentimentality. In essence, the structure that the military justice process lends to the narrative creates a nuanced critique of war and military, often by contrasting what is morally right with what is legally permitted in combat.
The Future of Military Justice Films
Evolution of a Genre
In the Classical Hollywood era, military justice was often portrayed in the context of conventional warfare. Accordingly, the storylines tended to be more direct, often dealing with themes of military discipline and courage or cowardice before the enemy. Examples of these classic military justice films include The Caine Mutiny and Paths of Glory. As warfare itself became more complex, military justice films developed more complex themes and narratives. Films of the post–Vietnam War era showed an increasing focus on the effect of warfare on the civilian population, even when the films dealt with conflicts other than the Vietnam War. For example, Breaker Morant depicts the trial of three officers accused of killing civilians after their popular commanding officer is murdered by Boer guerillas. Although this film is set during the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, it was released in 1980, five years after the Vietnam War ended. The film’s sympathetic depiction of otherwise fine officers accused of atrocities in an ambiguous war can easily be read as a commentary on the Vietnam War itself. This evolution continued into the 1990s in films such as A Few Good Men, where the commander’s prerogative to impose his own form of justice (the Code Red) runs afoul of the black letter law, with adverse consequences for the Marines who were “just following orders.” In a similar vein, the 2000 film Rules of Engagement depicts the danger of placing combat troops in a peacekeeping environment, with a direct comparison to the actions of the protagonists during the Vietnam War.
Where Have All the Court-Martial Films Gone?
Interestingly enough, the evolution of the military justice film genre seems to have ground to a halt in the United States in the post-9/11 era. As of 2016, no U.S. feature film has yet been released that depicts a court-martial for conduct occurring during the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Although films such as The Hurt Locker (2008), Lone Survivor (2013), and American Sniper (2014) have depicted the conduct of U.S. soldiers in these conflicts, the soldiers are portrayed in a largely positive and sympathetic light. Even when soldiers in these films act in ways that are morally or legally questionable, they are still treated as conflicted heroes. For example, Sergeant James in The Hurt Locker goes AWOL from a military base in Baghdad and holds civilians at gunpoint, looking for the insurgents who killed a civilian child. Although he is apprehended when he returns to the base, James faces no legal consequences for his actions.
The reluctance of U.S. filmmakers to depict courts-martial of American soldiers likely stems from the American public’s “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military” in the post-9/11 era (Fallows, 2015). Fallows (2015) pins the blame on the lack of personal connection that most Americans have to the military, leading to an inability to see soldiers as imperfect humans rather than flawless heroes. Thus, the dearth of military justice films can also be traced to the potential commercial unpopularity of any film that would portray the court-martial of a combat soldier, given this reverence for the American soldier. Several notable courts-martial have emerged from U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that could provide material for feature film treatment. Examples include the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal of 2004 (Hersh, 2004), the massacre of civilians in Kandahar, Afghanistan, by an Army soldier in 2012 (Healy, 2013), and the desertion, kidnapping, and recovery of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl (Lamothe, 2015). Nevertheless, only the last incident has been publicly discussed for potential feature film treatment (Siegel, 2014). As a medium, television has been less reluctant to feature the courts-martial of American soldiers, primarily in the television show JAG when it aired from 1995 to 2005. However, television shows are limited in their depth of treatment of these complex issues, given time constraints, ratings issues, and the need for broad-based commercial appeal.
The military justice genre in American film could potentially reemerge in the future, as the American public gains some temporal distance from post-9/11 conflicts. A less heroic and more realistic portrayal of U.S. soldiers could permit more nuanced examination of the difficult moral and legal situations they face. Alternatively, these issues may be addressed in future films in a format that deviates from the traditional courtroom procedural, as discussed further below.
The Evolution of Military Justice Films in the 21st Century
Although the United States has shied away from portraying military justice in feature films, recent foreign films are tackling difficult issues of war and the law in formats that stray from the conventional courtroom drama. The 2012 film Room 514, depicting a dogged Israeli military police soldier investigating abuse of Palestinian citizens by IDF soldiers, returns to many of the familiar themes of military justice films. The military police soldier is junior in rank to the captain that she investigates; she pursues a confession, despite being told by her superior to leave the case alone; and the accused captain chides her for not understanding what combat is really all about. However, Room 514 departs from the traditional narrative—there is no court-martial, no courtroom confession, and no brilliant closing argument. Rather, the film concludes ambiguously. The captain commits suicide after writing his confession, and the military police soldier is under investigation for her role in extracting the confession, with her fate left uncertain at the film’s close. Rather than reaching a satisfying conclusion through a trial and verdict, the film leaves the viewer to contemplate the moral ambiguity of the interrogation room, a parallel to the moral grey area of the Israeli-Palestinian border. Room 514 portends what may be a new development in the evolution of a genre, unafraid to tackle contemporaneous issues and to portray soldiers as imperfect and nuanced.
The 2015 British film Eye in the Sky further illustrates the evolution of this genre. In this film, military and government officials in the United States and United Kingdom collaborate on a mission to use an armed drone to drop a Hellfire missile on terrorists in a safe house in Kenya. Throughout the film, the various actors struggle with the legal and ethical consequences of their decision, which is further complicated by the presence of a civilian child near the safe house. The military and civilian leaders frequently consult their respective legal officers, who offer advisory opinions on whether the risk of collateral damage equates to a violation of international humanitarian law. Thus, this film is an updated version of Rules of Engagement, except that Colonel Childers’s decision to order his troops to fire into a crowd of both insurgents and civilians took only a few seconds, whereas Colonel Powell’s analogous decision in Eye in the Sky is the subject of the entire feature-length film. Furthermore, in Rules of Engagement, the legal ramifications of Childers’s decision take place after the fact, in the courtroom. In Eye in the Sky, the legal debate is front-loaded in the predecisional process; Powell orders the strike, knowing her decision has legal approval. Therefore, the viewing audience is left not with the image of a courtroom conviction or acquittal, but the images of civilian casualties; the question is left open about whether the legally correct decision was the morally correct one.
Although Eye in the Sky departs from traditional military justice films in its narrative structure, it still reflects the central themes of this genre. Lower-ranking characters find their ability to do what they believe to be “right” restricted by externally imposed military and civilian hierarchies. The idea of what is “legal” under the letter of the law is contrasted with notions of what is “right” in a moral and ethical sense. The emphasis on predecisional legal debate reflects the conditions of modern warfare, where lawyers are often found on the battlefield next to commanders rendering legal advice on targeting decisions (Corn & Corn, 2012). The adaptation of the military justice film genre to the evolving nature of warfare and the law, as demonstrated by films like Eye in the Sky, will ensure that this genre will remain relevant in the years to come.
Although the military justice genre consists of a relatively small number of films, these films nonetheless provide a rich insight into the role that both the military and the legal system occupy in our society. As such, the study of military justice films yields a view of literal and figurative battles that reflects on the nature of humanity itself, and the universal struggles between right and wrong, justice and injustice, bravery and cowardice. Although military justice films at times resort to predictable tropes, the new wave of films that depict military law outside a courtroom context brings hope for a resurgence in this important genre.
The distinct genre of the military justice film has not been frequently addressed in published works on either film studies or legal studies. Greenfield et al. (2001) in Film and the Law provides a fairly thorough discussion of court-martial films in the chapter “Places and Spaces of Justice.” The authors posit that little is to be gained in studying military justice films in terms of practical lessons on courtroom procedure, given the unique nature of the court-martial system. However, the authors point out that military justice films tend to focus more on broader questions of justice and law than their civilian counterpoints. This chapter discusses several military justice films and some of the broader themes therein: scapegoating, the nature of justice in the military context, and issues of class, gender, and race.
Certain military justice films are discussed in works that address the broader context of either war films or courtroom dramas. For example, in the law review article “The Cinematic Lawyer: The Magic Mirror and the Silver Screen,” Professor Rennard Strickland analyzes A Few Good Men’s depiction of courtroom behavior (Strickland, 1997). Additionally, certain critically acclaimed films such as Breaker Morant have merited critical analysis on a stand-alone basis (Kershen, 1997). In terms of practitioner-oriented analysis, the Army Lawyer, a bar journal for military attorneys, published “Lessons from the Silver Screen: Must-See Movies for Military Lawyers” (Ching, 2010). This article discusses five military films (of which four are military justice films) and their relevance for judge advocates, with a focus on ethical issues. Overall, however, the military justice film as a distinct genre has received little attention in scholarly publications.
Any scholar desiring to learn more about this topic is best advised to conduct a thorough review of the primary sources, i.e., the films themselves. The following is a list of military justice films, including those cited above and others not cited. In addition to requesting copies of these films through university libraries, scholars can purchase their own copies through commercial sites like Amazon, stream the films from commercial sites like Netflix or open-source sites like YouTube, or purchase DVDs or VHS copies from private vendors.
Primary Sources: Military Justice Films
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