Patton: The Movie and the Man

Released in 1970, this film is a masterpiece of the Genre, with Patton a Mad Genius of a General…

General George Patton always considered himself a ruthless, innovative, and brave professional soldier, as he had undoubtedly proven himself to be in WWI, and again in North Africa and Sicily in 1942. The German High Command certainly thought him the best general the Allies had, and for them it was therefore inevitable that Patton would lead the invasion of Europe, whenever that might be.

The Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, also knew the respect the German Army had for Patton, and he intended to use the blaspheming, mad genius of a General (who loved to sport, in western style holsters,
a pair of ivory handled .38 revolvers) as the major player in a massive game of deceit and subterfuge in the days and weeks leading up to D-Day. It has to be said that Patton, the man of action, wasn’t too happy about that, but it had of course been all his own fault.

Patton with Eisenhower

And the director of the 1970 movie, Franklin J. Schaffner — who also made The Planet of the Apes — gets it right from start to finish — with a brilliant script by Francis Ford Coppola.


The start of the film has been described by as:

“… one of the most memorable opening scenes in Hollywood history. George C. Scott emerges as Patton and gives a remarkable speech in front of a huge banner of the Stars and Stripes. The scene was not intended to be in the final cut of the movie, but the director had second thoughts and luckily left it in. The speech is a unique blend of patriotism, nobility and crudities. However, Patton never actually gave such a speech. Coppola cleverly took quotes from several of Patton’s speeches, combining them in a brilliant way. The result is one of the most outstanding introductions in movie history.”

I think the writer of that little piece may have got slightly carried away with his or her own rhetoric, but Patton would have loved it. I doubt if George C. Scott would have given it a second thought.

The writer of the screenplay, the aforementioned Francis Ford Coppola, had virtually no idea who Patton was, until 20th Century Fox asked him, in the late 1960s, to write the script, based on Ladislas Farago’s book, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, which the studio had just purchased. Fox considered Coppola a ‘war writer’ after his success with Is Paris Burning, which didn’t bother Coppola too much, especially with a $50,000 payout from Fox safely in the bank.

Coppola’s ignorance of Patton was a godsend for the future director of The Godfather, enabling him — free from the myths of Patton’s reputation — to create a screenplay that was fresh and powerful. Six months after the writing commission Coppola had finished the script, which, in Hollywood fashion, was then passed to another writer, Edmond North, who, according to Coppola, only really added some additional battle scenes. Coppola is the first to admit that it was Scott who created Patton and not his script.

Coppola. Source: Academy of Achievment

Of course it was Patton who created Patton, no one else.

George Smith Patton Jnr was born in San Gabriel, California, on the 11th November 1885 into a military household, and was surrounded by stories of the Civil War. Although the young George was a slow learner, and unable to read properly until he was 12 — who would no doubt be considered dyslexic in today’s world of handy labels — he decided early that he was destined to be a hero, so set out to become one.

When Patton entered the Stephen Cutter Clark’s Classic School at the age eleven — his parents had taught him at home until then — the love of ancient Greece, that his father and instilled into him, soon encouraged his reading, and by the age of 13 his major subject was history — especially ancient Greek military history — reading every book the Cutter Clark’s Classic School had to offer. After graduating from high school he was sent to his father’s old alma mater, The Virginia Military Institute.

After a year there he was accepted at West Point, where he distinguished himself in strategy and military history. He also became a formidable athlete and in 1912 represented the USA in the pentathlon event at the Stockholm Olympic Games, coming 5th overall.

After leaving West Point the young Lt Patton found himself — like many another officer before and after — helping to administer obscure and dusty outposts of the US Army with his new wife, Beatrice Ayer — whom he’d married in 1910 — performing the expected duties of an army wife, namely that of promoting her husband’s career.

A young Patton. Photo: Wikipedia

Patton and Beatrice did their jobs well, very well, and in 1916 George was appointed to General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing’s staff during that old warhorse’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa.

When America declared war on Germany in 1917, Pershing promoted Patton to Captain and assigned him to his staff in England. Again Patton proved to be an extremely efficient staff officer; but soon asked to be transferred to a fighting unit in France.

Pershing could hardly refuse such a talented officer and transferred Patton to the newly created American Tank Corps. To gain experience George worked with the British Tank Corps, taking part in the battle of Cambrai.

Captain George S. Patton then trained at the French Tank School, before creating and running the first American Tank School in France.

Patton 1918. Photo: Wikipedia

In 1918 Patton was promoted to Lt Colonel and led the American Tank Corps at the battle of St Mihiel, where his tanks reconnoitred way ahead of the infantry, destroying German positions as they came across them, leaving the American infantry to ‘clean up’ as the tanks continued ahead. It was a tactic Patton used to great effect again and again during World War II.

Lt Colonel Patton — as ever leading from the front — was seriously wounded in the final stages of St Mihiel when his tank was hit by a German shell. Whilst in hospital he was awarded a Purple Heart, and the DSC, for his gallantry and leadership during the battle. The armistice was signed as he was recuperating.

After the Great War Patton’s army life, like Eisenhower’s, was again one of administration, and with America’s entry into World War II in 1941 it was soon obvious that Patton was the only man to take control of the American 7th Army in North Africa. This Patton did with zeal (with a little help from the British and her colonial allies), pushing the German Afrika Korps out of North Africa and Sicily.

But it was after the victory in Sicily, and while Patton was visiting a hospital to award medals, that, as the film shows, he blotted his copybook.

He’d just pinned a Purple Heart on a badly wounded GI when he saw another GI, still in battledress, sitting on the edge of a bed. Patton went over to him. The conversation went like this:

“What are you in here for, son?” asked Patton.

“ I can’t take it, sir, the shelling, I can’t take it anymore.”

“ You can’t take it? See that poor son-of-a-bitch over there, he took it. I’ll tell you what you are, son, you’re a dirty coward, and cowards don’t belong in the same room as heroes.”

With that Patton slapped the GI around the head and ordered him out of the hospital and back to the front line where, if he was lucky, he might just get killed.

The slapping scene

In the film Patton then pulled one of his pistols and pointed it at the soldier’s head. Patton’s aides ran to the general and restrained him.

That incident resulted in Patton having to make a public apology in front of his troops, and accept, with as good a grace as possible, his recall, via Eygpt and Malta, to England where he was to take command of the US Third Army.

To fool the Germans into believing that the invasion of France was likely to be at Calais Eisenhower created the US Third Army — which did exist, but not to the extent the German’s believed — basing it in the south east of England, with Patton ‘visibly’ in charge. With the use of dummy tanks, dummy buildings, and dummy aircraft — created by the special effects departments of the British film industry — and a huge amount of false intelligence information sent back daily to Berlin by double agents, the German High Command was totally fooled into believing that Calais was to be the invasion point. Even when the Normandy invasion was well underway on the 6th of June, 1944, the German’s truly believed it was a diversionary raid and that the real invasion would still take place at Calais. And because of this false belief the German High Command refused to allow an entire Armoured SS Panzer Division to move south to defend the Normandy beaches. Had they done so the invasion may very well have faltered, or even failed completely.

In the six weeks after D-Day the US Third Army was brought up to strength as a real fighting force, and under Patton, a formidable one, and one that would see the job through to the bitter end.

General George Patton was fatally injured in a road accident near Neckarstadt, Germany on December 9, 1945. He died on the 21st of December from a pulmonary embolism.

Patton’s Funeral. Photo: Nico’s Space

Schaffner’s film is a good, and honest,reconstruction of Patton’s life, from 1942–45, with George C. Scott portraying Patton in a wholly believable way.

After that opening speech you know that, with George C. Scott, you’re in safe hands.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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