Franklin Schaffner’s biopic on Patton, came ironically at a time when anti War sentiment was sweeping through the US. The screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North though, does not end up becoming a hagiography of Patton, and shows him as a human being, prone to his own faults. The movie swept the Oscars, taking the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and above all, the Best Actor to George C Scott for his towering performance as Patton.
Making a biopic is not the easiest of tasks. When you are writing a biography, you have the entire time with you, you can afford to dwell into the character’s personality and also the complexities of his character, his achievements, his failures, in much detail. A movie on the other hand gives you a space of only 3 hours to showcase the greatness of the character. There has to be a balance between drama, spectacle and realism. Too much emphasis on realism, without the adequate drama and spectacle, would make this a History Channel Documentary . On the other hand, neglecting the realism for spectacle and drama, would make it like any other popcorn entertainer. There has to be a proper balance, and the main aim is to narrate it as a story to the viewer, instead of making it look like a documentary. Very few biopics have achieved that effect, like Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, A Beautiful Mind, Raging Bull to name a few.
And in that line comes the 1970 movie Patton , a true story of Gen George Patton , one of the most controversial and remarkable characters of World War II . Along with Douglas Mc Arthur, James Doolittle he would be regarded as one of the greatest American war heroes. Making a movie on Patton would never be an easy task. For he was one of the most complex, controversial, larger than life character in real life. As a war hero, he was one of the greatest, he led the Allied Forces to victory in key battles in N.Africa, Sicily and Germany . Yet this man was a bundle of contradictions. He was a scholar, and well versed in military history, he devoured books on Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Alexander , and studied their battles in depth. Yet his colorful language and outrageous quotes would have made even a fishmonger blush in embarrassment. One of the finest strategists, he adopted the principle of achieving victory with minimum casualties, he was also harsh and stubborn. He often ran his unit like a dictator, yet his soldiers respected him so much, that when he died, 20,000 of them were willing to carry his body. Nicknamed as “Old Blood and Guts”, for his daring military maneuveres, he was a larger than life figure.
The movie starts off with one of the best opening sequences you get to see in cinema. George Patton(George C Scott) delivering his famous speech to the Third Army, in front of a huge American flag, symbolizing Hollywood spectacle at it’s best. One of the greatest speeches of all time, the original speech was modified by screenplay writers Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North, to make it more acceptable to the audiences. It is impossible to reproduce the speech in full here, but these are some of the memorable quotes from it
“I want you to remember that no b**d ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb b**d die for his country. “
The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do. “
After the speech, the movie starts off with Patton taking command in N.Africa , after the disastrous battle of Kasserine Pass , where the German forces led by Erwin Rommel(Karl Volger), had inflicted heavy casualties on the Allied forces. That speech was meant to rally the American forces, and he scores a decisive victory against the Germans. The rest part of the movie covers Patton, leading his forces into Sicily, taking Palermo. And then the race to take the strategic location of Messina . Ironically Patton’s biggest rival here is not the Nazis, but the British General Bernard Montogomery( Michael Bates) , who wants to gain control first. It is here that he slaps two soldiers suffering from battle fatigue, which snowballs into a major media incident and a huge outcry. Due to this he is sidelined during the Normandy invasion. Later however his former subordinate Gen Omar Bradley( Karl Malden) , gives Patton command, of the Third Army, where he launches a major counter offensive against the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge , and his final foray into Germany.
Director Franklin Schaffner, combines Hollywood spectacle with gritty realism and strong dramatic content, to create a movie that is a classic of it’s kind. One of the best factors in this movie is that it shows Patton as a human being, it does not try to cover up his negative side or try to provide justification for it. So while as a military strategist and a soldier, the movie showcases Patton’s greatness, it does not shy away from his other side. We see that famous incident where he slaps two soldiers suffering from battle fatigue. Again it shows Patton’s reckless nature, when after being suspended for the above incident, he makes nasty comments about his Russian allies, which is not to the liking of his superiors. He is elitist and quite brutal in his methods. While we admire him as a soldier and general, some how we also come away thankful, that we were not under his leadership. Also Patton was deeply philosophical and believed a lot in reincarnation. He would often imagine himself to be the reincarnation of famous generals like Hannibal and often giving to quoting poetry. In effect Patton was his own worst enemy, due to his massive king size ego. And that’s what makes the movie fascinating, at the end, we come away not sure, of whether he was a hero or a flawed character.
The movie also depicts Patton’s tumultuous relationship with his subordinate Omar Bradley , who later is instrumental in bringing Patton back into the action during the Allied offensive in Germany . Bradley was the total opposite of Patton. Where Patton was the ever flamboyant, egoistic, larger than life character, Bradley was more subtle, soft spoken and cool headed. His rivalry with Montgomery is another fascinating aspect of the movie. The British General was as egoistic as Patton, and the two often clashed. Both wanted to get the strategic Sicilian town of Messina , to reassert their own importance. Ironically Patton’s greatest admirer was his opposite number in the German camp, Erwin Rommel. Himself a brilliant tactician, Rommel, was outmaneuvered by Patton in N.Africa, and the “Desert Fox” himself had to admit Patton’s superiority.
The battle scenes of el Gitar, Sicily and Bulge are wonderfully captured in the best tradition of Hollywood spectacle. But here we are given to look at Patton’s mindset too. For example in North Africa, Patton pondering over the Carthaginian ruins, and claiming that he is a reincarnation of those warriors, gives us an insight into his mind.
And Jerry Goldsmith as usual comes up with a great score. Patton would not however be half the movie it was, if it were not for George C Scott’s , performance in title role. After some time you don’t see the actor, you see Patton on the screen. So wonderfully does Scott integrate into that role. Whether its addressing the troops, clashing with his superiors or his dramatic monologues, George Scott becomes Patton, for the 3 hours he is on screen. And supporting him well is Karl Malden in the role of Omar Bradley. So my advice, get a DVD of this, shut yourself off for 3 hours, and watch this wonderful story of a most remarkable man.