Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Johnson Whittaker (1994 TV Movie)
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The cast and writers paid careful attention to the diction of the civil war era which to us today sounds so stiff and formal yet capable of concealing much wry, introspective humor.
The film also brought to the fore an interesting character Asa Bird Gardiner little known out of the limited circles of military law scholars.
Comparable films: Courtmartial of Billy Mitchell, Courtmartial of Jackie Robinson, Caine Mutiny, Hart's War
*Special Stars- Samuel L. Jackson, Sam Waterston.
*Theme- Racism is only corrected when good people of all backgrounds work together for what is right and just.
*Based on-US Army court-martial transcripts and political agendas.
*Trivia/location/goofs- A TV docudrama from Republic Pictures.
*Emotion- Not preachy but a satisfying illustrative tale to see the extent that racism tainted the US society in those Civil War years. This film is worth your time to get you to think.
It's hard to figure out what point the movie is trying to make. It certainly isn't that "it takes all kinds," as the aged Johnson Whittaker says philosophically. Because we only see two in this movie, the simply good and the simply bad. Well, I guess Sam Waterston's lawyer seems like an upright and just man, but even he is revealed as a closet racist at the end.
The problem lies almost entirely with the script. It reads as if it were something that won a high school prize in Dubuque. Points that are already obvious are spelled out for us. Points that could easily have been made visually are put into indignant speeches. The dialog wobbles all over place and time and social register. Sometimes contractions ("won't") are used, sometimes they aren't ("I will not."). Sometimes the dialog is American ("will") and sometimes British ("shall"). Anachronisms are thrown haphazardly into the text. Jackson is made to say things like, "Sham, my a**, they beat the s*** out of him!" And, "You just don't get it, do you?" And -- this one's clever -- "Right now the wind is behind your back, but some day it's going to change and all the s*** you're writing will blow back in your face." Even that's not enough. Jackson has to add, "Some day you are going to eat your words." There's no score worth mentioning. The photography is competent. The acting is generally good, despite the miscasting. Sam Waterston is not a stiff-necked hypocrite and crypto-racist. Sam Waterston is Jack McCoy, and Abraham Lincoln, and Nick Carraway. Jackson does quite well in a clunky role, but someone like Morgan Freeman might have projected more thoughtfulness and masked intensity. The actor in the role of Whittaker as a cadet hasn't got much going for him, but Al Freeman, Jr., as the older Whittaker is professional and dignified, although his final obiter dictum on how the country is doomed if it doesn't shape up soon falls rather heavily to earth. (It's not Freeman's fault.) Two performances are outstanding, though, because the actors ham it up delightfully and bring some absurdity to a project overburdened with solemnity. John Glover is a remarkably slimy and supercilious villain. I love the guy in everything he's been in. He never disappoints -- and he's slightly cross eyed too. The other performance, surprisingly, comes from Mason Adams, whose voice you will recognize from commercials. I will always remember and honor him for the deathless line, "And I thought mustard had to be yellow to be good." He's phenomenal as a Southern racist Harvard-grad lawyer who will brook no nonsense from anybody.
Those performances are among the reasons I can think of to see this film. It will also serve to enlighten those who are unaware of the racism so prominent in our national history. It's a sad truth that so many of us still need that issue brought to our attention.