The Movie Myth

The 1970 film Patton charts the general’s World War II campaigns and offers viewers a glimpse into the madness and methodology behind the man. The movie opens in 1942 just after Patton’s successful capture of Casablanca, and chronicles his career’s ups and downs as he races British General Montgomery to Messina in Sicily, goes ashore at Normandy, and drives his tanks into the snowy woods of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. It also follows his actions off the battlefield, flattering and otherwise. In the opening of one scene, Patton is shown tenderly pinning a wounded soldier’s Purple Heart in a field hospital and praying over him; five minutes later, he verbally abuses another soldier in the hospital who was suffering from shell-shock, calling him a coward, and slapping him across the face. The question then remains, why? What is the audience supposed to learn from these conflicting images? The answer lies in both the man himself, and the lives and times of the writers and filmmaker some 25 years after Patton’s death.

The Movie as a Secondary Source

Patton is, overall, a fairly accurate depiction of the general’s campaigns and his personality. General Omar Bradley (USA, Ret.), who worked closely with Patton throughout the war, consulted during filming and writer Francis Ford Coppola drew heavily from biographies and Patton’s personal documents[1]. Consequently, many of the characters and events portrayed were historically accurate; several of the most notable monologues, including George C. Scott’s opening speech, were edited versions of Patton’s wartime addresses. Filming occurred mainly in Spain, with geography suited to filming dusty plains scenes in Morocco and the mountain passes of Sicily, as well as the historic European towns and palaces that serve as the backgrounds for many of the non-combat scenes.

But material and cooperative limitations meant that some details had to be altered. The film centers around one of World War II’s great tank commanders, so the movie obviously needed tanks, as well as jeeps, uniforms, and material objects by the thousands. However, the US Army turned down Fox’s request to help supply the movie, so the military equipment used was eventually loaned to Schaffner by the Spanish government. Patton’s immediate family wanted nothing to do with the film, citing concerns over previous media portrayals of the general. His son, George Patton II, followed his father’s oratory style and threatened to “shoot any SOB who made a movie about [his] father.”[2] Consequently, the film reflects the biases of the men who did help consult; Karl Malden’s portrayal of Omar Bradley was particular flattering.

Movie as a Primary Source

The first call for a biopic about Patton came in the early 1950s; his legacy was still fresh for millions of Americans and patriotic, pro-war and pro-warrior films were quite popular at the time. However, his family’s refusal to cooperate and other production troubles slowed the film’s momentum to nearly a dead stop. Coppola first wrote a script in the mid-1960s, but that too was shelved for nearly 5 years before filming began. By that point, the United States was deeply involved in Vietnam and the war was losing popularity every day. Pro-military media was not selling as well as it had 20 years before, but 20th Century Fox was determined to finally cinematize Patton’s life. That left a delicate situation for Coppola and co-writer North, Schaffner, and George C. Scott. They had to somehow create a film starring a complex and controversial military leader that would appeal to both pro and anti-war audiences, without somehow alienating them both.

Coppola and North in particular helped drive Patton’s unique narrative. Instead of the “glorious warrior” film that initial proposals had in mind, they offered a more complicated look at Patton and his actions. All of the typical elements of a war movie were included in the film: sweeping shots of tanks advancing, planes swooping in for strafing runs, and explosive charges rigged into every conceivable hiding place. But many of Patton’s less popular actions, including The Slapping Incident and his frequent impatience and demanding temper, were mixed in with the “glory of war” scenes, and given a fair amount of screen time. This created an ambivalent character on paper, one that could be directed and performed any number of ways[3]. Schaffer and Scott played on that ambivalence, with Scott himself saying he tried to portray Patton as a person, not a hero nor a villain[4].

The ambivalent portrayal paid off. Divided audiences were able to come into the film and make their own evaluation of Patton. Coppola said that from the first seconds of the film, audiences were presented with a Rorschach test: the famous opening monologue. Patton praises the American fighting spirit while encouraging the assembled troops to “rip out the enemy’s guts.” Audiences could see lines like that as either the words of a patriot or a psychopath. And that ability to pick and choose continues through the movie. One person could focus on Patton’s abilities as a commander, his kindness to wounded soldiers, the respect the German officers had for him; another person could focus on Patton’s temper and impatience, his prima donna attitude, his childish rivalry with General Montgomery. Both watch the same movie, but are able to take away a message that they can each agree with.



[1] Peter Lev, American Films of the 70s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 108-116.

 

[2] Robert Brent Toplin, Reel History: In Defense of Hollywood (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002) 132.

 

[3] Michael Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker’s Life (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999) 42-43.

 

[4] Lawrence H. Suid, Guts and Glory: the Making of the American Military Image in Film (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002), 269.