Patton: George C. Scott is magnificent as the brilliant and mercurial WWII General in this splendid biographical war epic

Patton(1970) is a multiple Oscar winning war-biopic directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola. The film has George C. Scott essaying the brilliant and mercurial General George S. Patton during WWII, starting with the general’s exploits in North Africa and ending with the fall of the Third Reich and the liberation of Europe.

“The Academy Awards are a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.”

George C. Scott commenting on the Academy awards while refusing his best actor Oscar for “Patton”

Marlon Brando’s rejection of his best actor Oscar for “The Godfather(1972)” is now part of movie lore, but not that many people know that George C. Scott got there a couple of years before Brando. While Brando waited till the day of the Oscar ceremony to send someone else in his stead – a Native American actress named Sacheen Littlefeather – to reject his Oscar, as a protest against the unfair portrayal of Native Americans in American films (a noble thought indeed, but rather perplexing), Scott didn’t even wait that long; and his reasons made far more sense.. Long before the Oscar ceremony for the year 1970 was to be held, Scott, nominated for his astounding portrayal of George S. Patton in the 1970 film, “Patton,” denounced the Oscars as nothing more than a meat parade; he said that it was unbecoming of artists to compete with one another and lobby for the Oscars. But even with Scott loudly proclaiming that he would refuse the Oscar should it be given to him, the Academy still awarded him the best actor Oscar for “Patton.” The Academy had no choice; so dominating and extraordinary is Scott’s portrayal, that if the best actor award was not given to him, the Oscars would have lost its value. From that itself you can understand the power of Scott’s performance. Along with Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s classic “Lawrence of Arabia,” Scott’s performance as Patton is right up there as the greatest screen performance of all times, at least as far as performances in biopics go. George C. Scott does not look like a typical movie star, but there was a magnetism about him, his hawkish face, raspy voice, gruff demeanor, and his versatile acting style- at once theatrical and nuanced, made him one of the most fascinating actors to grace the stage and screen. In playing one of America’s greatest as well as controversial World War II military heroes, Scott gave a sublime performance that towers over this 70mm epic, with all its gigantic sets, set pieces, battles, cast-of-hundreds and military hardware on display. “Patton” is a huge epic heavily inspired by David Lean’s classy epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge on the River Kwai.” Just like those grand Oscar winning epics, this film too is a classy production: very classically shot, with no explicit scenes of violence or sex (there are no major female characters either) lavishly mounted, well-written, well-performed, and above all well-directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who was coming off the success of the seminal Sci-fi epic, “Planet of the Apes (1968)” that he had made for the same ‘Twentieth Century Fox’ studios. The film is more than just a war movie or a dreary biopic, it’s in fact an intense character study on an epic scale of one of the most interesting personalities in the theatre of war, and what makes it a standout is the performance of Scott, without which this film would not have been what it became.

Modern historians might have come to the conclusion that the economic, industrial and military advantages of the Allies ensured their victory over the Axis powers in World War II, and that the leadership of senior generals like George S. Patton played only a small role in the eventual outcome of the war. But you would not realize this while watching the film, Patton, because while watching the film I was grateful that General George S. Patton was fighting on the Allies’ side and not on the Axis’ side. Patton was a man who loved to fight, without bothering which side he was fighting for; all he wanted to do was to command an army in battle. He was a military genius who could turn any battle around in his favor, no matter the odds; and he was obsessed about victory and glory, always hell-bent on doing something spectacular in battle and leaving his mark on history. He comes across as one of the major architects (or even the sole architect) of Allies’ victory in WWII, and if he had been fighting on the German side he very well would have led them to victory. He considered himself to be reincarnated from several past warriors, and lived and fought by those old-fashioned codes and warrior ethics- which made him a misfit in the Twentieth century; obeying authority and following the orders of his superiors does not come naturally to him- he always wanted to do things his way, and he was capable of making life hell for his superiors, friends and enemies alike. This is the picture of Patton that emerges from Schaffner’s film: a tank commander so divinely gifted that his enemies grow to respect him, while his superiors and allies grow to resent him; as the film evolves, his chef nemesis turns out to be not the Germans, but British General Bernard Montgomery. Whatever the reality of the man, and the reality is far too unflattering- what with his reported anti-Semitism, his resistance to denazification, and his attempts at starting WWIII against Soviet Union right on the heels of WWII; the film’s Patton is one of the most multifaceted, renaissance man ever to walk the earth: brilliant, arrogant, vain, charming, angry, cruel loyal, artistic, divine and humane all at once; a sixteenth century romantic warrior stuck in the twentieth century.

The film’s screenplay was originally written by a very young Francis Ford Coppola in the 1960s, when he has just starting out in the film business. The film definitely has an esoteric quality which we identify with all Coppola films. The is most displayed in the film’s unique (and iconic) opening scene; Coppola’s films, whether it’s “The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now” or “One from the Heart,” all have strange and unique openings, and “Patton” opens like no war film before it. The film fades into a grand stage with a massive American flag in the background. General Patton, dressed in all his military regalia- polished helmet liner, decorated battle jacket and the trademark ivory-handled pistols, walks on to the stage, salutes, and then delivers an approximately five minute speech (to an unseen audience of American troops) that sums up his views on war, battle-tactics and victory. From this profanity laden speech, we also get a good indication of Patton’s swaggering belligerence, megalomania, his leadership prowess, and his larger-than-life, colorful personality. (Aside: Ironically, for writing this magnificent scene, Coppola was fired from the film, and was replaced by another writer, because the producers felt that the scene was pretty weird and confusing).

After this prologue, we hear the first strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s grand score, as the film cuts to “Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, 1943″, where the US II Corps was humiliatingly defeated by the Germans lead by General Erwin Rommel. The battlefield is strewn with the corpses of American soldiers, disrobed and robbed by Bedouins, and eaten by vultures. Enter General  Omar N. Bradley (Karl Malden) who gravely observes the aftermath of United States’ first big defeat in the war. Bradley believes that the Americans have only one hope against the Germans in Africa and that’s George S. Patton. The High Command concurs, and General Patton, who is already serving in Morocco, is placed in the command of II Corps in Tunisia. Patton arrives at his headquarters at dawn, almost a godlike figure juxtaposed against the rising sun on the horizon, leading his Tank crew. Patton immediately starts turning the barracks upside down- instilling discipline amongst his untested troops by rather eccentric methods. He puts the fear of his wrath into these greenhorns, thereby making sure that they loose the fear of Germans. This bears fruit, when Patton’s forces defeats the advancing German forces in the Battle of El Guettar. Soon, Germans are completely driven out of North Africa.

Now comes time for the invasion of Sicily, and the cold-war that was brewing between Patton and his British counterparts, especially General Montgomery, comes to the fore, when Patton’s plan for the invasion is rejected in favor of Montgomery’s more cautious plan that essentially relegates Patton to guarding the British advance. Patton is enraged to find himself once again relegated to “carrying the burden, while ‘Monty’ gets the glory.” The invasion of Sicily is carried out according to Monty’s plan, and just as Patton predicted, the Allies’ progress is halted due to heavy attack from entrenched German & Italian forces. Angered by the lack of progress being made, Patton vows not only to beat Montgomery to Messina, but to also take Palermo on the way. He bypasses the advice of his subordinates, Bradley and Truscott, for exercising caution and pushes his troops beyond their endurance to accomplish his mission. Though he is ultimately successful in taking the Island in record time, his soldiers have to pay a heavy price- the human causalities in wounded and dead are enormous. While visiting the hospital to inspect his wounded troops, Patton comes across a shell-shocked soldier who says that he can’t take it anymore. Patton calls him a coward, slaps him and threatens to shoot him. This incident creates a scandal, and Dwight Eisenhower demands Patton apologize to his entire command for the altercation. Patton obliges, but his humiliation is not over: Eisenhower puts Bradley in charge of the American forces preparing for D-Day invasion, bypassing Patton.

Though he is not present during the D-Day landings, Patton is given command of the Third Army by General Bradley, now his superior. Under Patton’s leadership, the Third Army sweeps brilliantly across France, but is unexpectedly brought to a halt when the supplies are diverted to Montgomery’s ambitious and ill-fated ‘Operation Market Garden’- the subject of Richard Attenborough’s film “A Bridge too Far(1977)“. France is liberated and Patton races toward Germany, smashing through the Siegfried line. Finally, Germany surrenders, and Patton, despite his aversion for the communists, takes part in a victory celebration with Soviet forces. Patton continues to be controversial even after the war, as he criticizes the political establishment for not allowing the soldiers to finish wars (meaning the impending war with Soviets) and compares American political parties to Nazis. Worse, he refuse to de-Nazify, and uses former SS troops for guarding duties. For these crimes, Patton is relieved of his command. As a dejected Patton walks out after bidding farewell to the Third Army, Bradley comes to meet him and suggest they have dinner together. Patton agrees, and as they are walking through the streets, an ox-cart loses control and comes charging towards Patton. Bradley manages to grab Patton and move him away from the cart, thus saving his life. Patton starts to laugh at the irony of getting killed by an Ox-cart when he had survived so much in the war, while Bradley compliments him for being an exceptionally brilliant soldier. The film ends (as it began) with a lengthy monologue by Patton: as he is seen walking besides his bull terrier, Willie, we hear Patton’s voice on the soundtrack relating an incident that showcases his knowledge of history, his love for pageantry, and, surprisingly, his pessimistic views regarding glory:

For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, and the dazed prisoners walked in front of him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown over his head, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.

“Patton” was released at the height of the Vietnam war, and it has been debated since then whether the film is an anti-war film, or is it a film that glorifies war. The brilliance of the film, and Scott’s performance, is that it can be read both ways depending up on who is viewing it. Maybe this is the perfect war film that encompasses, both, the contradictions inherent in any war, as well as the bundle of contradictions it’s lead warrior-protagonist is. President Nixon was a big fan of the film, and saw it countless times. It’s said that Nixon was inspired by Patton’s belligerent rhetoric to bomb neutral Cambodia. There is a moment in this film when Patton exclaims ‘I love it, God help me, I do love it. I love it more than my life.’ Coppola (or maybe co-writer John Milius) would later riff these lines for the mad warrior, Colonel Kilgore in his Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now(1979)– “I love the smell of the Napalm in the morning, smells like Victory, and regretfully mourns that “someday this war might end.” Kilgore was an extreme spinoff of Patton; Kilgore would stand fearless in battlefield when bullets are flying all around him and demand that his men surf the waves; Patton, when attacked by German planes, jumps out of his office building, takes out his pistol and starts firing madly at them, challenging them to shoot him in his nose. Indeed, Patton could either be viewed as a blustering military fool, or a divine warrior and ‘man of Destiny’, who defies death at every stage. Actually, he’s a little bit of both- part Napoleon Bonaparte part Don Quixote; in one scene Patton claims to have been Napoleon’s great general in one of his previous births; he even has visions of the endless, agonizing retreat from Moscow; the film’s final scene has Patton walking in front of a windmill- an explicit Don Quixote reference. The film begins with Patton all alone in front of the American flag, dressed in all the splendor of a 4-star General. The final scene also has Patton all alone, but this time he looks more like a common soldier. While in Sicily, when he breaks with the approved battle plan and pushes on ahead with his private agenda of ‘beating Montgomery’, it almost feels like something only Don Quixote would do- tilting at windmills to attain glory. He incurs terrible losses in the battle, and when he rides past this wounded soldiers, one of them remarks: “There goes ole Blood & Guts,” his comrade corrects him; “our blood, his guts.”

There are even more contradictions in the man: Patton is a god-fearing Christian who reads from the bible daily (he even has his chaplain write a weather-prayer so that the gods will afford him clear weather to kill his enemies), but he’s also a firm believer in reincarnation. While visiting an ruins of an ancient city in Tunis, Patton remarks: “The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago. I was here.” He claims that – as one poet wrote – he fought and died under many names through the travail of the ages. Then he vainly claims that the poet was himself- which is true, he wrote all of that in “Through a glass Darkly.” Patton also has a pet dog, Willy, named after “William the Conqueror”, but the dog is the most cowardly canine in the world. Patton’s biggest contradiction is that he knew he had a destiny to fulfill, but once he fulfills that destiny, an old-fashioned, ‘pure warrior’ like him will have no place in the ‘new world’ that emerges from his victory. Yet, he relentlessly goes forth in fulfilling his destiny. He later laments about the new age, where wonder weapons like Rockets and missiles will do the job. as he says: “Killing without heroics. Nothing is glorified? Nothing is reaffirmed? No heroes, no cowards, no troops, no generals. Only those who are left alive and those who are left… dead. I won’t live to see it.” Like Winston Churchill, he’s good only in time of war, during peacetime he’s useless; we see that in the film’s final scenes, as WWII winds down, Patton is desperate to start another war with the Soviets- for which he’s branded ‘mad’ and thrown out; as his German enemies once prophesied: ‘absence of war destroys him’. ‘War’ is the one true love of his life, especially in this film where all references to his romantic and family life are avoided. As Bradley tells him “I do it because I’m trained to do it, You do it because you love it.

Apart from Scott, none of the other actors make much of an impact, except for maybe Karl Malden as Bradley. Most of the British soldiers, especially Montgomery, played by Michael Bates, comes across as too cartoonish. Patton and Montgomery were both ‘Prima Donnas,’ each trying to upstage the other; and Montgomery was as vain and egotistical, and he also made terrible mistakes, but I don’t think he was an idiot like this film depicts; pity that Montgomery never got a biopic of his own to set the record straight. Of course, the film’s technical side is first rate: The cinematography, costumes, location & sets are magnificent, and Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful score ranks up there with his best. Coppola’s script was rewritten by Edmund H. North, who shared the writing Oscar with him, and deservedly so. Coppola’s script was very creative and unique, but as he has proven with his later screenplays, he can be very undisciplined and erratic. North managed to streamline the script and move it in the direction of a traditional film screenplay. The contrasting styles of Coppola and North gives the script its dynamism- one a new-Hollywood kid and the other a traditionalist. Schaffner directs the film in the best tradition of John Ford and David Lean- the camerawork is classical, the editing is measured, and he lets his gifted lead actor run riot. Schaffner shows just one full battle – in the beginning- and then resorts to montages, so that the battles does not tire out the viewer. Anyway the main point of the film is not the battles, but its effect on the protagonist, and those around him. The battle scenes are very realistically shot, and though they may lack the pace and grittiness of today’s war films, they are still riveting to watch.

Upon its release, the film was a big box office hit- it was a very expensive film to make; shot across six countries, it cost approx. $13 million, and it returned close to $50 million worldwide. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and it won seven, including Best Picture and best director. Ultimately the worth of “Patton” is not in its box office success or the number of Oscars, but in the fact that it was that rare film that managed a perfect marriage between a great actor and a great character. Like Paul Schofield and Sir Thomas More, or Brando and Vito Corleone, or Pacino and Tony Montana, or De Niro and Travis Bickle, George C. Scott and Patton played to each others requirements perfectly. Scott, in real-life, was as domineering and mercurial as Patton. He was a heavy drinker and brawler, and quite the social outcast. “Patton” was the zenith of his career; his career would decline pretty quickly after the film. He never got another role as good as this. He would return to play Patton one more time in the TV movie “The Last days of Patton(1986),” which was based on the final weeks of Patton’s life after being mortally injured in a car accident.

3 thoughts on “Patton: George C. Scott is magnificent as the brilliant and mercurial WWII General in this splendid biographical war epic

  1. Patton is one of those movies, where you can’t disagree, with the academy’s choice. It is a very strong Hollywood biop. George C. Scott’s performance, ranks with James Cagney’s, as George M. Cohan.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I am 66. Best movie I have ever watched! EVER!!! Yes I have VHS AND DVD! Still watch it occasionally! Still answer Patton to ever question about my best movie! AWESOME! George C. Scott was MAGNIFICENT!

    Liked by 2 people

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