In its focus on the judicial process within the United States military, the series prefigures “JAG” as well as CBS’s two “NCIS” series. In its attention to both the arrest and trial aspects of the criminal justice system, it predates Dick Wolfe’s prolific, long-running “Law & Order” franchise. The show is “Court Martial,” a 1966-67 summer series which starred Bradford Dillman and Peter Graves as military officials and members of the US Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Office.
“Court Martial” had as its unofficial pilot a two-part episode of “The Kraft Suspense Theater.” Those episodes, “The Case Against Paul Ryker,” aired on October 10 and 17, 1963 and featured, along with Dillman and Graves, Lee Marvin, Norman Fell and Vera Miles. (Later, circa 1968, the well-produced color production would be repackaged as a film for overseas distribution by MCA; the timing of its release was intended to capitalize on the fame of co-star Lee Marvin. The film’s subsequent home video release, in 1988, also played up Marvin’s involvement; his portrait and name prominently adorns the package’s cover art.)
“Court Martial” premiered as a series over ABC on April 8, 1966. Twenty-six black-and-white episodes were shot though not all of them would eventually air within the United States. Interestingly, the show was completely produced in Europe, mostly at Pinewood Studios in England. The show would also be shown over the ATV network in the UK where it would enjoy greater popular and critical distinction.
For the weekly “Court Martial” series, as earlier, Dillman and Graves repeated their roles. Dillman played Captain David Young; Graves played Major Frank Whittaker. In principal, Graves—the broad shouldered, six foot three future “Mission: Impossible” star--was to handle the program’s more action oriented moments while the slighter built, theatrically-trained Dillman would take on the show’s courtroom-centered theatrics. But--as often happens during wartime--the assignments of the two leads often crossed and blurred. While Graves knew how to throw a punch (as he does in the very action-oriented episode “Achilles’ Heel”), Dillman was not spared the roughhousing. He’s capably able to defend himself at the end of the installments “Let Slip the Dogs of War” and “Without Spear or Sword.”
Interestingly, though “Ryker,” the TV play and film, was set during the Korean Conflict, the resulting “Court Martial” series would take place during World War II. The reasons for the change are undocumented. Was WWII considered to be a place of greater fodder for various storylines? Perhaps, as the series was shot in Great Britain, it was done to make greater use of various European locations, though an August of 1964 newspaper article on the series says everything for the series will be shot in the studio in the UK.
Whichever, the change in wars and eras does little to handicap either the drama or the issues addressed by the series. During its run “Court Martial” dared to take on a variety of hard-hitting subjects. First, it was very much part of the second phase of legal dramas on television. Many earlier law-based programs—those of the “Perry Mason” variety—often portrayed the legal system was straight-forwardly black and white, with “right” and “wrong” easily defined and applied. Later legal dramas (including everything from “LA Law” to the “Law & Order”) have instead viewed the law as often doused in shades of gray. This is certainly the case in such “Court Martial” episodes as “All Is a Dream to Me” which focuses on an amnesia victim who might be a former SS guard and the episode “Judge Them Gently” which addresses the topic of mercy killing.
Other hot-button topics addressed in the series include the subject of war crimes (complete with references to Nuremberg) in “Silence Is the Enemy”; the treatment of US soldiers in “Operation Makeshift”; the plight of the conscientious objector in “The House Where He Lived”; mental illness in “Without Spear or Sword,” and the very real horrors of the Nazi death camps in “Silence is the Enemy.”
This last mentioned installment is especially brutal. It is set in a replica of a Nazi death camp supposedly set up by Allied Forces to train their men to withstand German interrogation and torture. For the episode, Captain Young finds himself “imprisoned” in order to investigate a recent killing inside. The episode does not soft peddle any aspect of the Holocaust, it does not water it down for network primetime consumption. By the closing credits of this episode, the installment has touched on many difficult truths and even prefigured many of the findings of the real-life Stanford Prison experiment of 1971. The hour also makes an interesting companion piece to Dillman’s earlier theatrical film “Circle of Deception” (1960).
Despite “Court Martial” perchance for social, political and military commentary, some installments are a bit more straightforward in terms of televisual entertainment. The hour “Let Slip the Dogs of War” owes a bit of its plot to Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” with its tale of double agents hiding in the plain sight within London society. Meanwhile, the episode “Where There Was No Echo” seems to echo the plots of many “Perry Masons” and its ilk as here our lead attorneys take on the role of pseudo-detectives attempting to ferret out the truth surrounding a mysterious and missing man. In the episode “The Logistics of Survival,” Captain Young (Dillman) even briefly goes “undercover” to trap a dangerous femme fatale.
Whichever dramatic tract the series pursued that week, almost all “Court Martial” episodes inevitably have at least one scene set in a courtroom. In fact, sometimes the lead characters will even find themselves facing off against each other in a case, each arguing their side in front of a military tribunal.
However, the show chose to resolve its weekly plots, they usually always pulled it off. Though the series suffered from the overuse of some very generic looking stock footage for their battle scenes and for their opening credits, the skill of the program’s directors, set designers and actors make up for the difference.
In terms of performers, the show could not have done better than its two leads. Whether acting as a team or, as happens occasionally, split apart into their own individually-focused episodes, the actors always deliver. Graves brings with him a gravitas that would serve him well throughout his career (so well he was able to parody it in the movie “Airplane!” years later) and Dillman shows a naturalness in his scenes that is, in many ways, a quantum leap ahead of most small screen acting of the time. For his role, Dillman may have drawn on some of his earlier performance as a barrister in the theatrical film “Crack in the Mirror” (1960).
The two actors also get superb support from their guest performers. Over the course of the show’s 26 episodes such stalwarts as Sal Mineo, Joan Hackett, Dennis Hopper, Cameron Mitchell, Donald Sutherland, and even a young Judi Dench appeared. And in the episode “Let Slip the Dogs of War,” Suzy Parker makes an uncredited appearance; Parker was the real-life wife of star Dillman.
In his memoir, “Are You Anybody?,” co-star Dillman recounted some of the particulars of the show’s guest casting, “…the British actors’ union allowed us a grand total of six American guest stars. We were forced to employ every Canadian actor resident in England (Donald Sutherland was one), along with any British actor who could do a passable American accent. We hired a lot of phony Southerners, because this is the accent the Brits do best.”
During its US run, “Court Martial” aired on Fridays at 10pm. Opposite it on CBS was “The Trials of O’Brien” and, later, “Wayne and Shuster.” The show had its stiffest competition however from NBC with that network’s simultaneous airing of “The Man from UNCLE,” a then top-20 hit, and also a show about a duo taking on injustice, if in a very different way.
If success in the States wasn’t to be—in fact, as mentioned, in the US, not even all of the 26 filmed episodes were aired--the show was at least well-regarded in the UK. It won 1966 BAFTA (then called the British Society of Film and Television Award) for Best Dramatic Television Series. But the lack of American success no doubt foredoomed the series to only a truncated run on both sides of the Atlantic.
In retrospect, the placement of “Court Martial,” this seriously-inclined series, might not have been well-suited for airing on Friday nights. It could be as well that the escapist fare the in vogue on the airwaves (i.e. “The Man From UNCLE”) did not dovetail with the hard realism that “Court Martial” trafficked in. Even 20 years on, maybe some wounds from WWII were still too raw for weekly viewing.
Despite the show’s early end, the creative team of “Court Martial” would all survive its demise; they would all go onto long and impressive careers. Peter Graves, of course, bounced back quickly joining the cast of “Mission: Impossible” in 1967. Later, he had roles in “The Winds of War” and on “Seventh Heaven.” As mentioned, he sent up his own legacy in the big screen comedy “Airplane!” in 1980 and had success as the host of cable TV’s “Biography” series. Bradford Dillman continued with his journeyman career, acting on both film and television; he had later roles in “The Way We Were,” “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and on dozens of television series. Finally, executive producer Robert Douglas, who had previously produced “Alfred Hitchock Presents,” would turn to directing and helm hundreds of hours of episodic television including “Adam-12,” “Baretta,” and “Trapper John.”
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