PATTON (1970)


Synopsis

Patton is an American biopic/war epic directed by Franklin J. Schaffner from a script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North. The film focuses on General George S. Patton (played by George C. Scott) during his World War II service as commander of the U.S. Seventh and Third armies.

Background

General George Smith Patton Jr. (1885–1945), commander of the U.S. Seventh Army in North Africa and Sicily and the U.S. Third Army in France and Germany during World War II, was one of the most colorful and controversial figures in modern American military history. Known as “Old Blood and Guts,” Patton was a strutting, profanity-spouting, war-loving egomaniac, but also an effective military leader much feared by America’s enemies—and sometimes feared and reviled by his own men. Frank McCarthy (1912–1986), a staff officer with Gen. George C. Marshall during World War II and a Hollywood producer after the war, knew Patton and regarded his story as eminently screen-worthy. When he proposed a Patton film to his boss, Darryl F. Zanuck, at 20th Century Fox in October 1951, Zanuck gave the go-ahead, but it would be another 19 years before the project came to fruition. Patton’s widow and other members of the Patton family obstructed McCarthy, fearing that a Hollywood biopic would caricature Patton and sully his memory (Toplin, 1996, pp. 158–159). McCarthy was only able to move forward after Ladislas Farago’s biography, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph provided a source copious enough upon which to base a biopic without recourse to family sources. 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to Farago’s book and to Gen. Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story. In 1965, after rejecting several script drafts by other writers, Frank McCarthy hired an up-and-coming 26-year-old screenwriter named Francis Ford Coppola, paid him $50,000, and gave him six months to carve a coherent narrative out of Patton’s complex life and military career. Coppola wisely made two tactical decisions early on that allowed him to create a fine script. After doing his research, Coppola concluded that “Patton was obviously out of his mind” (Phillips, 2004, pp. 31–32). A script that celebrated George Patton’s bizarre war-mongering would be ridiculous but one that merely vilified him would be rejected out of hand, so Coppola split the difference by writing an ambiguous script that emphasized Patton’s dual nature—part lunatic, part super-warrior—and depicted him as an anachronistic, Quixotic figure who really belonged to a bygone era. Coppola’s other choice was an easy one: to focus exclusively on Patton’s life during the Second World War, a span of only two years and ten months (ten months of which he was sidelined), that kept the narrative tightly focused and action packed. McCarthy engaged William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) to direct the picture but Wyler didn’t like Coppola’s unconventional script, so James Webb (Cheyenne Autumn) was brought in to write a new version. To play Patton, McCarthy and the studio wanted George C. Scott, a superb actor and ironically an avowed pacifist, but Scott found Webb’s script too reductive so he bowed out. Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, and Lee Marvin all turned down the role. John Wayne badly wanted to play Patton but his utterly dissimilar appearance, laconic manner, and narrow range as an actor made him a poor choice to play the shorter, more volatile, and markedly more educated and intelligent Patton. Fortunately, George C. Scott consented to do the film when McCarthy agreed to revert back to Coppola’s script, though veteran screenwriter Edmund H. North (Twelve O’Clock High) made further revisions. Scott then proceeded to do exhaustive research on Patton, watching newsreels and reading and re-reading every Patton biography in order to master his character. In the meantime Wyler dropped out as director and was replaced by Frank Schaffner (Planet of the Apes). By early 1969, after five years of shuffling and reshuffling, Frank McCarthy finally had a script, a star, and a director.

Production

Principal photography began outside of Segovia, Spain, on 1 February 1969. Patton was filmed at 71 locations in six countries, but most of it was shot in Spain because Francisco Franco’s Spanish Army could provide the needed WWII equipment—though the rental of troops and equipment consumed half the film’s $12 million production budget. The film’s opening, showing the aftermath of the American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, was shot at the ruins of Tabernas Castle in Almeria Province on the coast of southern Spain. The place where Patton halts Rommel’s advance towards Messina is located just below the village of Turillas, 12 miles east of Tabernas. Some 600 Almeria residents worked as extras for the scene depicting Patton’s arrival in Palermo, Sicily, which was actually filmed in Nicolás Salmerón Park in the City of Almeria. After the Battle of El Guettar, Patton meets his new aide de camp at his headquarters, which was in reality the Governor’s Palace of Almeria, and when Patton marches down a long corridor after the slapping incident, he is actually in La Granja Palace near Madrid. The winter scenes in Belgium were actually shot near Segovia. The scene depicting Patton driving up to an ancient city that is implied to be Carthage was actually shot in the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis in northwest Morocco. Patton’s speech to the troops that opens the movie was shot at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

Plot Summary

Gen. George S. Patton (George C. Scott), in full military regalia, strides on to a stage at some undisclosed location in Europe during World War II. With a giant American flag behind him, he addresses an unseen group of American troops to rally them in support of the war, zeroing in on the importance of “winning” American style. The film proper begins with the humiliating American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass (19 February 1943–25 February 1943). Replacing Major General Lloyd Fredendall, Patton is put in charge of the U.S. Army’s II Corps in North Africa. Upon his arrival, he cracks down on the soldiers and enforces rules, for example, demanding that soldiers wear ties and fining a cook for not wearing his Army-issue uniform. At a meeting with RAF Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (John Barrie), Patton takes issue with Coningham for having discredited the notion that lack of air cover contributed to the American defeat. Coningham apologizes and promises Patton that he will see no more German planes. Seconds later Luftwaffe planes bomb and strafe the area, and Patton emerges from cover to fire his .45 at them. In the next scene, Patton defeats a German attack at the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia (23 March–3 April 1943), but his aide-de-camp, Major Richard N. Jenson (Morgan Paull), is killed in the battle. Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman (Paul Stevens) replaces him. Patton is disappointed to learn that Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of the Afrika Korps, was on medical leave with diphtheria. Codman reassures him that “If you’ve defeated Rommel’s plan, you’ve defeated Rommel.” After victory in the North Africa campaign, Patton and Sir Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates) formulate competing plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Patton’s plan is to lead his Seventh Army to the northwest sending Montgomery to the southeast area of the island in an attempt to trap German and Italian units. Their superior officer, Gen. Alexander (Jack Gwillim), likes Patton’s plan, but Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (not portrayed on screen) opts for Montgomery’s conservative approach. As a result, Patton’s army heads southeast to cover Montgomery’s troops. All land without a hitch, but the Allied advance is sluggish, and Patton takes matters into his own hands. Going against his superiors, Patton leads his men to Palermo in the northwest, then continues on to Messina, outpacing Montgomery to their objective (17 August 1943). Patton states that his contention with Montgomery stems from Montgomery’s inability to admit his own vanity and glory-seeking ambitions. However, Patton’s methods do not go over well with the men he commands, Major Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) and Major Gen. Lucian Truscott (John Doucette). While on a visit to a field hospital (early August 1943) crowded with battle casualties, Patton sees a shaken soldier weeping (Tim Considine). Angrily labeling the soldier a coward, Patton assaults him and threatens to kill him, then concludes the interaction by insisting that the soldier return to the frontline. When Eisenhower learns of the incident, he relieves Patton of his command and orders him to offer apologies to the wronged soldier, to all occupants of the field hospital, and to his command, one unit at a time. Eisenhower also sidelines Patton during the D-Day landings (6 June 1944), placing him in command of the phantom First U.S. Army Group in southeast England as a decoy, which works; German Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl (Richard Münch) posits that Patton will lead the charge through Europe. Afraid he will miss out on the rest of the war, Patton pleads with his former subordinate, Omar Bradley, for a leadership role, and he is put in charge of the Third Army. Patton excels at his post and rapidly advances through France, but his tanks are halted when they run out of fuel, which is mostly consigned to Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden (17–25 September 1944), much to Patton’s disgust. Later, during the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944–25 January 1945), Patton’s forces relieve the besieged town of Bastogne and then punch through the Siegfried Line and into Germany. In an off-the-record short speech at a war-drive event in Knutsford, England (25 April 1944), Patton said “it is the evident destiny of the British and Americans (and, of course, the Russians) to rule the world.” Media coverage omits the reference to Russia, so Patton’s remarks are viewed as an insult to the Soviet Union. After Germany capitulates (5 May 1945), Patton, through an interpreter, insults a Russian general to his face at a postwar dinner. The Russian amuses Patton by insulting him in kind, and the two officers proceed to have a drink together. Later, Patton makes the mistake of comparing the Nazi Party to American political parties. Patton’s comments lead to his second loss of command. Patton is then seen away from the war, talking his dog, Willie. In voice-over, Patton describes how a returning hero of ancient Rome was honored with a “triumph,” a victory parade in which “a slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

Reception

Patton had an East Coast premiere in New York City on 4 February 1970 and a West Coast premiere two weeks later. During its domestic theatrical run the movie made $61.75 million ($389 million in 2017 dollars). Patton earned an additional $28.1 million in video rentals later on—a grand total of almost $90 million against an estimated production cost of $12 million (i.e., a $78 million profit, minus promotion and advertising expenses). Patton received 10 Oscar nominations and won 7 Oscars at the 43rd Academy Awards (April 1971), including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. George C. Scott won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of General Patton, but declined to accept the award on the grounds that acting should not be treated as a competitive enterprise. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, with many critics citing George C. Scott’s performance as one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid.

Reel History Versus Real History

In his book, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past, Robert Brent Toplin includes a chapter on Patton entitled “Patton: Deliberately Planned as a Rorschach Test” (1996, pp. 155–175). Evidently unaware of Francis Ford Coppola’s pragmatic reasons for writing an ambiguous script, Toplin argues that, given its time of release—at the height of the Vietnam War in 1970—Patton had to be carefully calibrated so as to present a balanced depiction of George S. Patton; at a time when anti-war sentiment was raging in the United States, an epic biopic about a gung-ho WWII general had to be constructed in ambiguous terms in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Hence, Patton is portrayed as a very capable military commander, pleasing Vietnam-era hawks, but also as an egomaniacal crackpot, confirming the biases of doves who abhorred war-mongering. In the end Toplin judges Patton as historically quite accurate and a “balanced” portrait. Patton is not, however, the “balanced” cinematic portrait that Toplin contends that it is. It contains contrived events and false characterizations designed to skew viewer identification toward George Patton. For example, George C. Scott’s Patton speaks in a raspy growl whereas the real Patton had a high-pitched, squeaky voice that did not exude Scott’s machismo. The movie also misrepresents the relationship between Patton and Gen. Omar Bradley. Depicted as close friends in the film they were, in reality, distant; Bradley found Patton’s personality grating and offensive. The movie also suggests that Patton and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower were distant, whereas they had been close friends for decades. Oddly, Eisenhower is barely represented in the movie. The film depicts a sustained a rivalry between Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery. In reality, the rivalry was one-sided; Montgomery was less concerned about his reputation relative to Patton than Patton was to his. All of these touches tend to humanize Patton and make him more sympathetic. Patton was an avowed anti-Semite—an unsavory aspect of his character that the movie chooses to overlook. The film portrays George Patton as a largely solitary figure, barely mentioning his wife and family and completely omitting the fact that Patton had a long-term extramarital affair with his niece, Jean Gordon. The film also omits the fact that Patton set up a disastrous secret raid on a Nazi prison camp in Hammelburg, Germany, in a failed attempt to liberate his son-in-law, John K. Waters. The film excludes this incident to protect the myth of Patton as a military genius. Another key omission concerns the infamous slapping incident. The movie depicts just one slapping incident, but in point of fact, there were two separate incidents, and Patton bragged about them to Bradley, showing a pattern of disrespect for subordinates. In his book, American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions, film historian Peter Lev notes that Patton consistently enlists viewer identification with the film’s protagonist: “General Patton is the focus of identification because he is the only character available for audience sympathy. We experience what he experiences; we share his hopes and dreams [because] we really have no alternatives for emotional investment” (Lev, 2000, p. 115). For corroboration, Lev reports the reaction of WWII veteran and war scholar Paul Fussell, who also noted the film’s tendency to manipulate viewer identification. Fussell says that he would have preferred “a more complex” view of Patton “as a dangerously out-of-control individual, instead of the eccentric but brilliant leader of myth.” Fussell adds that “there are other real moments that the film wouldn’t think of including, such as the sotto voce remark of one disgruntled junior officer to another after being forced to listen to a vainglorious Patton harangue: ‘What an a—hole!’ That would be an interesting historic moment. I know it took place,” says Fussell, “because I was the one who said it” (quoted by Lev, 2000, p. 115).

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