Classic Film Review: Scott, Coppola and Schaffner bring “Patton” (1970) to vigorous, profane life

One way you judge classic movies is by the parts that stick with you. By that measure, I’ve long regarded “Patton” as something of a mirage, a war movie about a personality and a larger than life actor who won the Oscar for bringing that personality to the screen, a picture of bravura moments and yet many duller command conference intrigues.

Ask most people what they remember about this epic and they’ll talk about the cussing, that opening “pep talk” in front of a gigantic American flag, a speech that apparently is based on what Third Army soldiers remembered of Patton’s patented off-the-cuff get-acquainted with the troops speech.

“Now I want you to remember that 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.”

It’s a blustering, sentimental and patriotic rhapsody in profanity. And when the movie was new, in 1970, that speech set a tone that was jarringly out of step with a country souring on the Vietnam War, cynical and more in the mood for “M.A.S.H.” and “Kelly’s Heroes” than a John Wayne flag-waver that went out of its way not to cast John Wayne in the lead.

For a war movie, there are a maybe half a dozen combat scenes, most quite brief. But director Franklin Schaffner (“Planet of the Apes,” “Papillon,” “Islands in the Stream,” “The Boys from Brazil”) limited himself to one big desert set-piece battle, filled with real tanks, real bombers and fighters sweeping in low and a sea of extras dodging faked explosions under a sky littered with pyrotechnics department air bursts.

That’s still impressive, over 50 years later.

You remember the music, that jaunty, glorious march by Jerry Goldsmith. They titled the film “Patton: Lust for Glory” in Britain to sort of soften the harsh portrait the film paints of the brilliant British popinjay, Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery. The moment we hear that march in its full glory as Patton leads Third Army in a dash across France, the movie and anybody who sees it forgets all about Monty, the hero of El Alamein.

But towering over all of it in our memory is the eagle-beaked aggression of George C. Scott, one of the greatest screen actors this country has ever produced, a stunning presence so idenfitied with the character that even historians have a hard time remembering what the REAL Patton looked or sounded like, if they’re honest.

Scott won the role after Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster and Rod Steiger were considered and approached over the years as 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, a WWI veteran who got himself into the thick of WWII action as an Army Signal Corps Colonel, was eager to produce a combat epic to rival his big budget, all-star D-Day account, “The Longest Day.”

What seems timeliest about this 1970 release at this moment, in the middle of the latest attempt by Hollywood’s screenwriters to get decent pay, compensation commiserate with the many platforms their “content” now covers, is the writing.

Francis Ford Coppola reworked material from many sources into a script that’s mainly an eyewitness-to-Patton view of the famous general. The structure brilliantly uses the familiar device of letting us see his foe’s view of the man through the German officer (Siegried Rauch) who “researches” and “explains” Patton, in German (with subtitles) to Generals Rommel and Jodl (Karl Michael Vogler, Richard Münch) and the viewer.

Coppola peppers the dialogue with Pattonisms, profanity, sprinkling quotations from famous generals and historians in French and Latin. He plays up Patton’s erudite, courtly side, his belief that he is reincarnated, a soldier who has fought in many wars over the millennia, making it his “destiny” to lead a great army in the greatest war of all.

“The soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago. I was here.”

The screenplay leans into the blood rivalry with Rommel and finds fun in the equally bitter but somenhow playful one with Montgomery, who has been depicted in a few films, but whose memory has been replaced by the (appropriately) clipped, high-voiced barking of Michael Bates in this film.

Coppola tapped into American Cold War/Vietnam War politics by reminding 1970 viewers of Patton’s mistrust and disdain for the Russians.

“My compliments to the General. Please inform him that I do not care to drink with him or any other Russian son of a bitch.”

Patton’s bellicose fetishizing of war as a human endeavor is meant to bathe some of the hero worship in blood, and it does. But America embraced Archie Bunker’s intolerant form of patriotism as we laughed at it.

Coppola has talked of being fired from this film. But when the finished product hit theaters, almost all of what was on the screen came from his pages, structure, research and invention.

And through it all Scott bellows, swaggers, rages and teases, all but devouring the screen, if never quite insecure enough to steal scenes from the likes of Oscar winner Karl Malden as “The GI General,” Omar Bradley. You can’t watch “Patton” and not be utterly consumed with the title character, which almost works against the film.

Scott went on to other larger than life characters — a version of Hemingway in “Islands in the Stream” for Schaffner, the Best American Born Scrooge in Clive Donner’s version of “A Christmas Carol” for TV. But “Patton” would overshadow them all. He’d even bring the character back for a less energetic “Last Days of Patton” TV movie years later.

When TBS ran its Saturday AM series “Movies for Guys Who Like Movies” in the ’80s and early ’90s, “Patton” was on a regular rotation, with “Die Hard,” “Kelly’s Heroes” and the Clint Eastwood Westerns. Winner of seven Academy Awards, it was one of the the most honored films ever to make it into that butch, action-oriented program.

And the reason isn’t just Scott, and it isn’t just the catchy Goldsmith score, Schaffner’s skilled direction of the footage shot by Fred J. Koenekamp, and the brisk (for a three hour film) editing by Hugh Fowler.

It’s the script, started by many hands, crafted into something an actor at his best seething, or in full bellow, could sink his teeth into, that makes this series of movie accidents a “lust for glory” that lasts.

Rating: PG, some gore, violence, lots of profanity

Cast: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Siegfried Rauch, Karl Michael Vogler, Richard Münch, Paul Stevens, James Edwards and Michael Bates.

Credits: Directed by Franklin Schaffner, scripted by Francis Ford Coppola, Edward H. North, with contributions by Calder Willingham and Col. Robert S. Allen, based on books by Gen. Omar N. Bradley and Ladislas Farago. A 20th Century Fox release on Amazon, Movies! etc.

Running time: 2:52


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

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