In the climax of Wolfgang Petersen's film Outbreak (1995), we see Ford (Morgan Freeman) relieves McClintock (Donald Sutherland) of his command and arrests him for "withholding information from the president". Ford is a Brigadier General which is supposed to be subordinate to Major General McClintock as per the organizational hierarchy, then how is it possible for Ford to "relieve" McClintock who in fact is Ford's boss. Ford acts subservient to McClintock in the entire movie, what authorizes him to take that action only during the climax? Appreciate if someone can help me understand this.

  • I don't understand... If the superior was doing something illegal, the fact that they're a higher rank doesn't make them immune to that.
    – Catija
    May 5, 2016 at 22:23

1 Answer 1


In a fictional movie like Outbreak, it seems to divert from the reality that a subordinate officer can relieve and arrest his commanding officer!

But if Ford received an illegal order from McClintock, he could possibly legally relieve the Major General of his command as P. Simmons, a military lawyer explains briefly:

Resolved question

"In the event that a subordinate officer recieves from his commander what he believes to be an unlawful order, what are his courses of action? Additionally, if the subordinate believes that the commander is acting a manner contradictory to his sworn oath and he wishes to relieve him of his command, what provisions , if any, of the UCMJ cover this? (In terms of fiction, I am thinking of the situations in both Caine Mutiny and Crimson Tide where a Captain was relieved of command of a naval vessel). I am a novelist and this is integral to my story line and I want to make sure I get it right."

Simmon's Response

"Simple. Subordinate has 2 choices

  1. Obey and report. This is the safest if the order is not clear if illegal or not.

  2. Do not obey and report. This only for obvious examples (like "I order you to kill all the women and children")

This is covered by UCMJ Art 92.

Its also covered in the Military Judges Bench Book

Now, the "relief of command" is a tough one...since only a superior officer can relieve a commander of his or her command. if subordinates try this they can be prosecuted (as in Caine). The only defense would be illegal order.

This may not play so well in fiction, I suspect...but on the modern battlefield, communication is pretty good...so if a subordinate has a concern with his commander, he could simply go "up the chain" one link and tell the boss's boss...and let that commander make the call."

  • That's enlightening, but purely from the movie's standpoint I wanted to know whether I skipped the subtleties in the plot wherein Ford is authorized to take such action implicitly.
    – AllTooSir
    May 6, 2016 at 6:10

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