(actual ticket to a Washington, D.C. showing of the movie found in my father’s dresser drawer)
The quintessential biopic, Patton (which was co-written by Francis Ford Coppola) gets everything right. Let me count the ways
It is content to present its subject without the context of some anachronistic cause. In Coppola’s hands, Patton is not emblematic of something larger and more ominous or glorious, be it the hubris of American imperialism, the degradation of war, blah blah blah. He is a flesh-and-bones person who grafted himself onto and shaped one of history’s more momentous times.
It is nuanced. Coppola never lets you get comfortable with Patton and by the end of the film, you remain torn as to the sum of his virtues and vices, which is so much more interesting than the hagiographies or hit jobs we see so often today.
It’s largely composed of true events. Patton did say the outrageous things attributed to him (if not in the form presented by the film), and he was every bit the preening ass and decisive, bold general portrayed in the film. The two incidents where Patton slaps soldiers are condensed into one, and Patton is given too much of a role in the plan to invade Sicily, but otherwise, the picture hews closely to history without becoming tedious. Most historical criticisms of the film zero in on what it doesn’t depict (much as with American Sniper), which is a legitimate criticism only if you give credence to the “I would have done it this way” school. When it does take poetic license, it comports with other established facts. Patton did not shoot his pistol at attacking German aircraft, but the attack occurred just as he was berating the Brits for failure to provide air cover, and Patton’s risky bravado in the face of enemy fire was legendary. Patton did not shoot mules blocking a convoy, but he did order them shot and their cart dumped into the river. Patton did not tell a British general that he had been in a battle centuries old, but he was a strong believer in reincarnation. Indeed, he wrote a poem in 1922, “Through A Glass Darkly”, a stanza of which reveals his inclination:
Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet I’ve called His name in blessing
When in after times I died.
Patton is also noteworthy because the actor playing the subject gives a commanding performance. George C. Scott reportedly made a determined study of General Patton and by most accounts, captured him (save for Patton’s higher pitched voice). Incredibly, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the lead role.
It also looks authentic, in large part, because the producers rented out WWII-era materiel that had been sold to Spain and largely filmed the picture there. Obviously, shortcuts were made (the Spaniards didn’t have a passel full of Tiger tanks), but director Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) does great work with what he has in terms of equipment and locale.
Finally, what a Jerry Goldsmith score.
The movie won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Original Screenplay and sits at #89 in AFI’s top 100 films.