Patton (1970): Schaffner’s Oscar-Winning Biopic of Controversial General, Starring George C. Scott in Bravura Oscar-Winning Performance

Franklin Schaffner’s Patton, the 1970 Best Picture Oscar film, was deliberately vague in its message, attempting to please right-wing as well as left-wing viewers, letting each type of audience read (and enjoy) the film the way it wanted to.

Our Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The response of the country, then the in the midst of the Vietnam War and the anti-War movement, was overwhelming: The film grossed in domestic rentals over $28 million, against a budget of $12 million.

Based on an original screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and E. H. North, which won an Oscar, Patton presents a multi-faceted, seemingly contradictory view of the World War II General Patton as a noble hero, a demented psychopath, a genius strategist, a megalomaniac devoid of any human feelings, and even a poet.

George C. Scott, in a brilliant performance, dominates every frame of the film to the exclusion of the other actors, whose roles were underwritten and underdeveloped.  In many ways, Patton is a one-character, one-star movie, allowing Scott to show the entire gamut of emotions.

Ironically, Scott was not the first choice. Rod Steiger, then riding high after winning the 1968 Best Actor Oscar for In the Heat of the Night, had first turned down the role, later admitting that it was the worst decision of his career.

The film was significantly named Patton: A Salute to a Rebel, even though the narrative never explicitly asked whether or not Patton was a rebel, and if he was a rebel, what kind of rebel was he?

On the one hand, Patton was presented as a monster and madman, a super patriotic hero thirsty for action and blood. But Patton was also shown to be a no-nonsense man, devoid of any sentimentality or hypocrisy, impatient with bureaucrats, and contemptuous of human shortcomings (he slapped shell-shocked soldiers who showed cowardice). This duality of personality permitted contradictory interpretations of the man. For example, Patton was described as “a magnificent anachronism,” and “a sixteenth century man lost in twentieth century.” But the filmmakers never bothered to ask whether Patton was the kind of leader the country needed during war.

Though ambivalent in tone, the overall impression was of admiration: Patton was hungry for power, but he was also a man who wrote poetry and cited from the Bible. President Richard Nixon liked the film so much that he watched it several times. Nixon saw Patton as a reaffirmation of his policies and thus decided to screen it for inspirational purposes to his staff.

The film’s battle scenes were shot in a grand epic style, using 70 mm screen and hundreds of extras, a style that contributed to the glorification of war as a great adventure. Young viewers, looking for easy solutions, might have gotten the impression from this movie that the problems of American foreign policy (including Vietnam) were in the final account a function of megalomaniac characters or disturbed personalities (Westmoreland comes to mind as a modern-time Patton, though without the former’s brilliance).

Once again, the cause of the problem and its resolution were depicted in individual and psychological terms, with no social context or background. The film also stirred patriotic sentiments among impressionable viewers in its presentation of foreigners. Russians and British soldiers were presented as inferior to their American counterparts; General Montgomery, for example, acted like a fool.

The opening sequence of “Patton” was particularly impressive. Standing in front of a huge American flag, which dwarfs him, Patton says: “All Americans love the sting of battle. That’s why we’ve never lost a war.”  This iconic statement was ironic for the film opened in February 1970, while reports from Vietnam were indicating that the U.S. was losing the war and that there was no chance of winning. But the film’s ambivalent attitude toward war and heroism paid off commercially.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

The film’s impressive beginning depicts General George S. Patton giving a speech to unseen troops (based on his speech to the Third Army) with a huge American flag in the background.

The scene then shifts to North Africa in 1943, where Patton takes charge of the demoralized American II Corps after the defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. Instilling strict discipline in his soldiers, he leads them to victory at the Battle of El Guettar, though he is disappointed to learn afterward that Erwin Rommel, whom he respects, was not his opponent. Patton’s aide, Captain Jenson, is killed in the battle. After the battle, a new member of his staff, Lieutenant Colonel Codman reassures Patton that, though Rommel was absent, by defeating Rommel’s plan, he defeated Rommel.

The film suggests that Patton believed in reincarnation, while remaining a devout Christian.  During the North Africa campaign, he takes his staff on a detour to the site of the ancient Battle of Zama, where he reminisces about the battle, telling his second in command, General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) that he was there.

After North Africa is secured, Patton is involved in the Allied invasion of Sicily. His proposal to land his Seventh Army is rejected in favor of more cautious plan of British General Bernard Law Montgomery, in which the British and American armies will land side-by-side in the southeast. Frustrated at the slow progress of the campaign, Patton defies orders, racing northwest to capture Palermo and then narrowly beats Montgomery in a race to capture the port of Messina in the northeast. Patton’s aggression is regarded with alert by his subordinates, Bradley and Truscott.  He is eventually relieved of command for humiliating and slapping a shell-shocked soldier, whom he accuses of cowardice, in an Army hospital.

For this incident and for his tendency to speak his mind to the press, he is sidelined during the long-anticipated D-Day landings. He is placed in command of the fictional First United States Army Group in southeast England as a decoy.  The German General Alfred Jodl (Richard Munch) is convinced that Patton will lead the invasion of Europe.

Fearing to miss out on his destiny, Patton begs former subordinate General Omar Bradley to command before the war ends. Given the command of the Third Army, Patton distinguishes himself by sweeping across France–until his tanks are halted by lack of fuel. He later relieves the town of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and smashes through the Sigfried Line into Germany itself.

Patton’s remark to a British crowd that the US and Great Britain would dominate the post-war world, is viewed as a slight to the Russians. After the Germans capitulate, he insults a Russian officer, and the Russian insults him back, which defuses situation. Patton makes an offhand remark comparing the Nazi Party to the political parties in the US. In the end, Patton’s outspokenness has a price, he loses his command, though he is still in charge of rebuilding Germany.  The incident of a runaway ox-cart narrowly missing Patton alludes to the general’s actual death in a car accident in December 1945.

The film ends with Patton walking his dog Willie, and his voice-over narration about a returning hero of ancient Rome honored with a triumph, a victory parade in which “a slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning that all glory is fleeting.”

Critical Status:

In 2003, Patton was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

Oscar Alert:

Patton won seven Oscar awards out of its ten nominations: Best Picture, director Schaffner, actor Scott (who refused his Oscar, though not because of Vietnam), screenplay, art direction, editing, and sound.


Read about the Best Picture Oscar of 1969: John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy.

Oscar: Midnight Cowboy (1969)–Best Picture Winner Starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman

George C. Scott as Major General George S. Patton.
Karl Malden as Major General Omar N. Bradley
Michael Bates as General Bernard Montgomery
Edward Binns as Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith
Lawrence Dobkin as Colonel Gaston Bell
John Doucette as Major General Lucian Truscott
James Edwards as Sergeant William George Meeks
Frank Latimore as Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davenport
Richard Münch as Colonel General Alfred Jodl
Morgan Paull as Captain Richard N. Jenson
Siegfried Rauch as Captain Oskar Steiger
Paul Stevens as Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Codman
Michael Strong as Brigadier General Hobart Carver
Karl Michael Vogler as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Stephen Young as Captain Chester B. Hansen
Peter Barkworth as Colonel John Welkin
John Barrie as Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham
David Bauer as Lieutenant General Harry Buford
Gerald Flood as Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder
Jack Gwillim as General Sir Harold Alexander
Tim Considine a shell-shocked soldier

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