By John H. Foote
“Now I want you to remember, no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
– General George S. Patton (George C. Scott in Patton)
The United States military believed having a General as dangerous as George Patton was good for the military, good for the war. Patton was a renegade General who despite answering to Eisenhower did exactly as he pleased, which was, win many battles he discussed with no one. He was a strange man, a military genius, no question but a man who demanded fearlessness from his soldiers that he had himself. He believed he was reincarnated, that he had once been a Roman General, that the area he fought in during WWII was an area he had fought in before, centuries earlier. He was a controversial figure and yes, dangerous because he often refused to follow orders, placing the lives of the men in his charge in peril.
Hollywood had been trying to make a film about Patton since 1951, but was often blocked by the Generals’ widow and family, and then could never conquer the Screenplay. When 20th Century Fox brought in young Francis Ford Coppola to recite the script, he tore into it, utilizing books written by men who knew him, and using the Generals’ personal diaries to refashion the screenplay. With a new script and Franklin J. Schaffner signed to direct, the job came to casting the lead actor.
Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Karl Malden, and John Wayne were all in the running for the role, but in the end, it was three-time Best Supporting Actor nominee George C. Scott who landed the role, immediately throwing himself into researching the character. Steiger, who turned down the role, would later call it the greatest mistake of his career. What I find remarkable is that anyone who read the script, and all actors considered must-have, how could they turn it down after reading it??
America was embroiled in the most disastrous war in its history, with no end in sight to the conflict in Viet Nam. Were audiences going to be interested in a war film? Added to the potential confusion Fox was also about to release MASH (1970), a film set during the Korean War but make no mistake this film was about Viet Nam. In no way does Patton glorify war, but it does explore how certain men were born for it while others were not. He was the right leader at the right time for that particular war, doing his best to stay one step ahead of allied leader Montgomery, just because he could.
When Patton was released, Scott received rapturous reviews, the finest of his career, the kind of reviews every actor dreams of getting. His electrifying performance as the General was astonishing, less a performance than a complete inhabitation of the character. He was not acting Patton, he was Patton, he had become the character for the film. His stands as one of the greatest performances ever committed to film. Whether defying his superiors or the allies, slapping a shell shocked soldier out of disgust, being forced to apologize for his actions or his admission that he truly loves war, Scott is beyond magnificent as the great general. He did not believe in retreat, ever, and was constantly advancing his men despite heavy losses. Incredibly he rarely lost a battle. The actor seems to have incorporated Patton’s soul into his stunning performance, easily the finest of his career. He tapped deep into the psyche of a true warrior, a man-made for war, a brilliant strategist, who knew his enemy and could say to a friend about war with no shame, “I love it. God help me but I love it so. I love it more than life.”
The film never shies away from Patton’s massive ego and narcissism, this is a portrait; warts and all. When discussion rose about removing some of the darker elements of his personality, the actor railed against it, insisting this be an honest depiction of a complex man. He loved being in charge, he loved speaking, he loved wearing his stars and many medals on his uniform, Patton loved being a soldier. He wore two ivory handled pistols on each hip and carried with him a small whip. It was said he often stood in front of a mirror preening, making sure everything looked just right.
Though he was at war with Germany that did not mean he could admire its Generals. He considered Rommel a worthy opponent and felt they understood each other. The truth was the Nazis feared Patton because he was fearless and completely unpredictable, they never knew what he might do next. That very unpredictability, being contrary, is what made him a great General, and leader.
Franklin J. Shaffner was a reliable studio director who enjoyed a fine run 1968-1975, directing the hugely successful Planet of the Apes (1968), Patton (1970), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Papillon (1973) and was with Scott again in the underrated Islands in the Stream (1975).
Karl Malden had the only Supporting role of any consequence, as General Omar Bradley, who tried, unsuccessfully to keep Patton in line. As always Malden is truthful and real in the role, which he always has been. Bradley himself was said to be in awe of Patton.
Patton (1970) won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay, the first of many Oscars for Francis Ford Coppola. That it dealt with American patriotism during a time when it was at its lowest, was rather impressive given its solid showing at the box office. It was believed Patton’s admission to loving war might be detrimental at the box office, but audiences of the seventies were very sharp. They understood America needed Patton during WWII, but that Viet Nam was wrong, something entirely different. This was a towering biography of one of the most controversial generals of the war, a dangerous renegade who feared nothing and who right or wrong, believed in America but mostly because he was an American.
George C. Scott was a polarizing figure, a hard-drinking brawler who director’s feared. Yet he was a magnificent actor who had proven himself in The Hanging Tree (1959), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Hustler (1961), Dr. Strangelove… (1964) and The Flim Flam Man (1966). He won, and famously refused an Academy Award for Best Actor for Patton, believing competition among actors was silly. However when his self directed film, A Savage is Loose (1974) was in critical trouble, he stated he would gladly accept an Oscar nomination for his work. A contradictive, turbulent storm of a man, I had the pleasure of spending half an hour with him twenty years ago, and what a pleasure. We talked about his career, his films, his work on stage, Death of a Salesman, and talk came to Patton. He smiled and tapped my arm.
“I think I did alright in that film” he smiled.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.