There are epics, and then there are epics. Franklin J. Schaffner’s colossal story of General George S. Patton’s command of the US II Corps, US Seventh Army and US Third Army during World War II clocks in at a bum-numbing 170 minutes and is breathtaking in scale, detailing his role in the military campaigns in Tunisia, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany during the middle and latter stages of the conflict. It’s the kind of movie that doesn’t just pick up one or two of the namby-pamby Oscars – y’know, the ones for costume design or sound mixing – but leaves triumphantly with two bags full, including most of the biggies. That was the case in 1970, when Patton won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (George C. Scott in the title role), Best Original Screenplay (by Edmund H. North and some kid by the name of Francis Ford Coppola), Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Art Direction. That, I believe, is what’s known as ‘a haul’.
Scott famously became the first actor to refuse an Oscar, claiming a dislike of the voting process and the actual concept of acting competitions (hear hear). On screen for most of those 170 minutes, it is a towering performance of a man who believed with remarkable fervour that he was doing the work of God, who caused (and courted) controversy on a number of occasions, and who crucially oversaw key victories for the Allies between 1943 and 1945. (Rod Steiger – among others – turned the part down, something he would later refer to as the ‘worst decision of my career’.) Patton also took part in some of the greatest egotistical skirmishes ever seen with other key strategists like Erwin Rommel (played here by Karl Michael Vogler), Bernard ‘Monty’ Montgomery (Michael Bates) and Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), and much of this film moves smoothly from large-scale battle scenes to the interesting clashes of personality that existed between those in high command.
The film’s iconic opening scene famously features Patton delivering a key rallying speech to the Third Army in front of a giant Stars n’ Stripes, and indicates the level of intensity we can expect from Scott over the next three hours (give or take). Coppola originally wrote a variation in which Patton was initially seen and not heard until the camera panned upwards, but in the end Schaffner opted for a slightly different version in which the General is dwarfed by the flag, before a series of close-ups reveal his beloved costume, medals and other insignia. (The rejection of his idea left Coppola determined to include a similarly dramatic opening to his own forthcoming film as director, The Godfather.) Scott believed that this opening scene would overshadow the rest of his performance, and initially refused to co-operate when told it would appear at the start of the film, but Schaffner lied and assured the actor it would appear at the end. (Incidentally, Coppola was actually fired (his words) after finishing the original script, and Edmund North was brought on board to re-write, although Scott was adamant he would only accept the part if Coppola’s script was used.)
As stated above the scale of the production is spectacular, and most of the movie’s $12.5 million budget is there to see on screen, although a sizeable amount of the battle footage was left out and eventually used in the 1972 TV-movie Fireball Forward. The sets and costumes are rich in detail, and long scenes taking place in Patton’s command posts and living quarters mean plenty of time can be spent studying the decoration and design; I have no huge interest in military history but the sets are fascinating to explore visually, lavishly filled with grand furniture, impressively-large maps and other objects.
While a great many war films contain establishing shots of the battlefield before largely concentrating on the close quarter combat for budget reasons, Schaffner opted for a different, distant approach, particularly with regard to the expensive footage of tank warfare. One key scene showing the Battle of El Guettar in Tunisia is filmed largely from a high point in the distance, essentially giving the viewer an idea of Patton’s view of proceedings. (Parts of Patton were filmed in Morocco and England, but the majority was shot in Spain; Almeria in the south doubled for North Africa and Sicily, whereas wintry scenes supposedly showing Belgian towns were actually filmed near Segovia in the north.) It is no less gripping than the heart-of-the-action scenes of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Despite victory here Patton is devastated by the news that the Germans were not commanded by the much-admired Rommel, who had returned to Berlin. A newly-promoted Lieutenant Colonel insists that Patton defeated Rommel’s battle plan, which is the same as beating the man himself, and this seems to finally placate the American General.
Schaffner is also keen to show the grim aftermath of battle, and Patton is portrayed as a man who keenly feels the deaths of his soldiers (or at least did do publically), wandering among the injured and the corpses as soon as it is safe to do so. He is also depicted as being brave to the point of being reckless, at one point facing down a German plane with a pistol while bullets rip up the ground around him, like an unkillable John Wayne character (one of the movie’s few mis-steps, unfortunately). The beginning of Patton’s command in North Africa coincides with a crushing US defeat at the Kasserine Pass, and the implication here is that the US Army was poorly-run and slovenly in its approach, something that the General was instrumental in changing for the better. In Patton he certainly appears heroic, inspirational and indefatigable, and Scott has the necessary gravitas and swagger to bring this figure to life in the required way.
Among all the acts of heroism and the chaos of battle, several innocuous but equally-gripping scenes detail the General’s ability to generate controversy amid all his self-publicity. His famous slapping of a shell-shocked soldier in Sicily is covered here, he makes dismissive remarks about the Russians while in England and eventually insults a Russian General to his face as the war draws to a close. He is forced to relinquish command as the Allies invade Normandy, bellowing ‘The last great opportunity of a lifetime and I’m left out of it? God will not allow it to happen’ and is only allowed back into the fray when his former deputy Bradley, now a General himself, gives him command of the Allied Third Army prior to the Battle of the Bulge. As the war draws to a close an astute German officer points out that Patton will finally be defeated because the man needs the conflict in order to survive. In direct contrast to the up-and-at-’em pomp of the opening scene it’s telling that the movie finishes with Patton wandering off into the distance. He finally looks like an old man at this point, his earlier line that ‘there’s only one proper way for a professional soldier to die: the last bullet of the last battle of the last war’ still resonating. His final words of the film are doleful and delivered with a resigned tone of voice: ‘All glory is fleeting’.
The movie is well-renowned for its historical accuracy, even if it is not perfect, and presumably was helped by the presence of Bradley as a consultant, although the true extent of his input is actually unknown. Patton and Bradley were reportedly polar opposites in terms of personality in real life, but their relationship in the film appears to be good, which is interesting to say the least. The producers asked Patton’s family for access to the General’s diaries, and also offered them the chance to influence the movie via their own recollections about the man, but they contacted the family the day after Patton’s widow, Beatrice, was buried. Because of this unfortunate timing Patton’s family refused to cooperate. Sadly no mention of Patton’s family or life outside the military is made in the movie, but given the amount of activity during the war that needed to be covered the focus is understandable.
Despite being released at a strong time for the anti-war movement, Patton was a commercial and critical success long before that Oscar night triumph, following up Schaffner’s previous success with Planet Of The Apes. Huge in scope, Schaffner’s film is a celebration of a very distinctive personality and a distinguished military career, but it is not uncritical. It is a well-balanced film in the sense that it places emphasis on the importance of Patton’s victories and revels in these triumphs without forgetting the many men who died while securing them. Central to its success is Scott’s terrific performance as the manic General who is concerned with every single level of soldiering, chastising men for their poor presentation one minute and outwitting the greatest German minds the next. It is a rich, nuanced performance and is rightly considered to be one of the finest in history.
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund North
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Bates, Karl Michael Vogler
Running Time: 170 minutes