It seemed unlikely that a polarizing figure like George S. Patton could find an audience on both sides of the political spectrum with a film documenting his combat leadership in World War II. Yet that’s precisely what Franklin J. Schaffner’s epic did—and at the height of the Vietnam War at that. Patton was one of the most controversial generals the United States ever had—and one of its most successful. The long anticipated movie was a thoroughly researched effort, and is considered by many historians as the greatest war film ever made. It immensely pleased Patton’s family, which had fought for years to prevent studios from bringing the project to fruition. At a then steep $12 million budget, Schaffner’s action packed character study performed well with the general public, and even better with the Academy, who handed it seven Oscars. Complaints have been raised concerning various omissions, over-dramatized sequences, and a priggish depiction of General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden). But PATTON presents a fair treatment of its subject, and the film went to in order to ensure authenticity continue to impress students of the Second World War.
The film begins after an American loss in Tunisia in 1943. General Omar Bradley assesses the damage and decides help is needed if victory here is attainable—help in the form of General George S. Patton, Jr. The volatile general accepts the task, making Bradley his number two. Field Marshal Rommel’s Germans learn of Patton’s presence and decide to launch an attack on his troops. Bad idea. Intercepting the message, Patton’s army is ready for the Germans, demolishing them with only a few casualties. But not everything comes this easily. After hatching a plan of attack in Sicily, both Patton and British General Montgomery (Michael Bates) drive through the island toward Messina, killing and capturing the enemy along the way. Unfortunately for Patton, he’s greeted with a relief of his command shortly thereafter for slapping a shell-shocked soldier. With Bradley now in authority and Patton disciplined, he’s forced to fill the role of a decoy…until he’s summoned by General Eisenhower back into action. Given command of the Third Army, Patton leads his men on a relentless pursuit of the Germans through France and toward Berlin. His efforts are largely responsible for the German surrender. But after Patton publicly slanders the Russian allies, Eisenhower relieves Patton of his command of the Third Army. Following his exit, the war hungry and poetic old general is left reminded that all glory is fleeting.
Because of Schaffner’s widely successful film, George S. Patton became a pop icon. The movie served as an inspiration for President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, and acted as the chief influence in General Norman Schwarzkopf’s battle strategy for Desert Storm. Manifested in the form of a raspy, baritone George C. Scott, the Patton most often thought of is the Patton of Hollywood, not quite the Patton of history. Did Schaffner capture the essence of the man, or was this just another tinseltown fabrication?
In his book “General Patton: A Soldier’s Life,” writer Stanley P. Hirshson calls PATTON “among the best film biographies ever made.” But that doesn’t make it a blameless effort. Hirshson discloses a number of the film’s errors and omissions, most notably that Eisenhower has a greater allegiance to Montgomery. In the film, Patton loses the Third Army due to his public contempt for the Soviets. This is not the reason he was relieved from duty—it was his objection to de-Nazification that led to his dismissal. Hirshson makes mention of Colonel Thomas S. Bigland, who served under Bradley, and his stunned reaction to the film neglecting to include Patton’s drive across Palatinate or his triumphant Rhine River crossing (and subsequent urinating onto its surface).
Hirshson notes that there have been two General Pattons. “One is the Patton of public renown: poet, intellectual, reincarnationist, and farsighted leader. The other is the Patton of reality: devoted son, materialist, inspiring but often cold leader, a man of narrow social and political vision.” This assessment provides a strong case for George C. Scott’s depiction.
Likewise, Carlo D’Este comments on another facet of the general’s makeup that the film captured so well. In his book, “Patton: A Genius for War,” D’Este argues “The life of Patton is not only that of a uniquely American warrior but, paradoxically, that of a soldier who was very much out of his element in the twentieth century.” Patton was a student of history, a man obsessed with the annals of the world’s combat and its ancient fighters. Time and again, Schaffner’s Patton reflects on battles of the past…and his first hand involvement in those wars. Says D’Este,
From childhood, Patton believed that he had lived in earlier times as, among others, a Viking warrior and a Roman legionnaire. Except to a few close friends and family intimates, he never publicly articulated his belief in reincarnation, but the evidence that he believed in a prelife and an afterlife is overwhelming, as were his varying levels of what he believed to be memory of these experiences.
Patton claimed to have fought alongside Alexander the Great and Napoleon. He was a pirate, a caveman, had died on the plains of Troy, battled against the Persian King Cyrus, marched with Caesar’s Tenth Legion, and on and on. He was always a warrior, and he always perished in battle. “I don’t know about other people,” Patton’s nephew Fred Ayer remembers him saying, “but for myself there has never been any question. I just don’t think it. I damn well know there are places I’ve been before, and not in this life.” He felt it was his destiny to lead his men into a great battle, which he passionately proclaims in the film. To round out the spiritual equation, Patton was an ardent reader of the Bible as well, another detail noted by Schaffner and company.
Patton lived for combat. “Compared to war all other human activities are futile, if you like war as I do,” he once said. This character trait, above all else, was most critical in embodying Schaffner’s subject. He suffered from boredom and burnout in his final months as commander of the Third Army, which became more ceremonial than anything else. But it was that previous stretch that established him as the brilliant military mind for which he is remembered. His Third Army pouring through the Avranches gap in July of 1944 was one of the greatest pursuit operations in American military history, says D’Este. Strategically, he was probably too ambitious, reckless even. But in execution, in motivating his men to keep moving and fighting and charging through like an unstoppable juggernaut, there was no one better. Francis Ford Coppola understood this, having worked into his script Patton’s steamrolling through France, and the pride with which he beamed at the courage and tireless efforts of his men.
The film did justice to Patton’s complex persona. Patton the prima donna headline seeker; Patton the compassionate; Patton the loose cannon. It documented his most glorious of exploits as well as his most shameful (the slapping incident). It even injected the minutiae: Patton’s trusty, cowardly bull terrier Willie, George Meeks—his African American orderly of eight years, the Lipizzaner stallion he rode (which was intended as a gift from Hitler to Japanese Emperor Hirohito), his generous treatment of the war correspondents looking for a story. But it didn’t get everything right.
Patton was often condescending toward General Omar Bradley, a detail missing from the film probably because it had been based largely on Bradley’s autobiography (Bradley was also a paid advisor during production). The scene in which an infuriated Patton leaps out a window to fire his .45 at low flying German bombers was likely fictional, as was the notion that he declared his love for battle whilst standing in a field littered with his own dead men. He actually uttered that line, but at the sight of dead Germans and their smoking tanks.
Other omissions include Patton’s long affair with his niece during the war and his well publicized anti-Semitism. John Eisenhower, Ike’s son, was disappointed that his father was referred to numerous times but never seen. Absent is the general’s ill-advised raid on a German POW camp to rescue his son-in-law, which only led to American casualties. And distorted was the depiction of the Brits, Montgomery especially, as effeminate. This was probably the result of General Bradley’s distaste for Montgomery.
The real Patton, who spoke in a high-pitched and almost squeaky toned voice (which he detested), was merely a fraction of the one we’ve come to know. There was so much more to him—to his story—than what the film included. We miss out on his competing in the 1912 Olympics, his pursuit of Pancho Villa in the Punitive Expedition into Mexico, his World War I service as personal aide to General Pershing, his family life, and ultimately, his death following an automobile accident in December of 1945. Schaffner’s film focused solely on World War II, and even then, it did not capture the whole of what Patton accomplished, nor did it bring to light every one of his sins. But it grabbed hold of who the man was at the core, often pulling speeches verbatim from the archives for actor George C. Scott.
For its brilliance, it took home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay for Coppola and Edmund H. North, and a no-brainer Best Actor given to the electrifying Scott, who refused to accept it as he felt he had no competition. Four decades later, the film stands unchallenged as the best and most accurate war biography we’ve seen. Because of Schaffner’s now iconic cinematic imagery, General Patton has lived on, supplanting himself in our minds as a larger than life force in the American victories of World War II, whether you like him or not.
“The film begins without the 20th Century Fox logo or any other sign that the film is starting.”