“PATTON” REMAINS GREATEST WAR FILM EVER MADE

By STEVEN TRAVERS

Some weeks ago in honor of Memorial Day I wrote a review of William Manchester’s American Caesar. In honor of Independence Day, I now give you a retrospective of the 1970 classic Patton. This is one of Dr. Michael Savage’s favorites. He has often said, “More Patton, and less ‘patent leather,’ ” in response to the half-hearted way our leaders fought the War on Terror. There was nothing half-hearted about George S. Patton or the movie depicting him, but its backstory may surprise you.

First, from a personal perspective, I read two books while still in high school that formed the essential political philosophy that motivates me to this day. Those two books were Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. Cutting to the chase, those two books told me that 1) There is evil in the world and 2) In this world at least the best way to combat evil is with a strong United States of America!

My mother took me to see Patton when it came to theaters. Its impact was immediate. It struck me that the Nazi Wehrmacht was the most powerful military juggernaut in the world in 1941-42, and I was incredibly proud that men like General George S. Patton and America came along to make us powerful enough to defeat them. 

Patton the man was born and raised in Southern California, his family part of a steady migration of Southerners from the Old Confederacy who settled in Los Angeles after the Civil War because they chose not to live with all the Yankees in San Francisco.

Patton’s ancestors were all war heroes. He grew up learning how to ride horses and fire guns in the rolling hills of San Marino until he was shipped off to West Point. After graduation he competed in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in the modern pentathlon. Like Douglas MacArthur, he cut his teeth serving under General “Black Jack” Pershing fighting the Mexican bandito Pancho Villa before earning many medals in France during World War I. He demonstrated absolutely no fear on the battlefield. Farago describes superhuman acts of bravery in which Patton rode directly into the breach, saving the lives of his men and disrupting the enemy Germans. At one point he met Doug MacArthur standing above the trenches of no-man’s land, each conversing with the other seemingly without a care in the world amid bombs and bullets exploding around them, not to mention the threat of gas. The soldiers who observed this were in awe and their descriptions of it turned both men into legends.     

Patton was an early advocate of tank warfare, which most of his superiors thought to be a farce, but like Billy Mitchell warning of the importance of air power, he convinced the military to invest in tank technology. He was not happy in the peace time Army of the 1930s, which President Franklin Roosevelt allowed to be so disarmed that it invited both Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo to launch world war. Unlike MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, Patton did not do “political” duty, learning to grease the skids of his career. He was shipped off to the hinterlands, the California desert, where he was in charge of the tank divisions. However, when war broke out and the U.S. began fighting in North Africa, it was Patton who was best prepared to combat the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel and his vaunted Afrika Korps.

After suffering dismal defeats, the Americans put Patton in charge and he defeated Rommel’s forces at El Guettar, leading the U.S. to victory. His strategies in Sicily were not put into use, but he managed to win major battles that gave the Allies victory there. He was not put in charge of the Italian campaign after slapping soldiers in two separate hospital incidents. He also blundered in a speech to a British women’s group, predicting world domination by the United States and Britain, not by the Soviet Union. The Communist sympathizers that made up the Democrat Party and media howled, and he was almost sent home in disgrace. This is the ordeal described in Farago’s book.

However, he was put in charge of “dummy” troop formations that fooled the Germans into thinking he would lead the D-Day invasion at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy. This helped make those landings successful. He was sent to France where his old underling, General Omar Bradley, was now his superior. Bradley put Patton in charge of Operation Cobra, which helped the Allies break out from the hedgerow country into the open field, and soon Patton was destroying the Wehrmacht, seemingly on his way to victory in Berlin by Thanksgiving.  

But politics again interfered, when General Eisenhower unwisely chose a plan by British General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, who insisted on an ill-fated airborne invasion in Holland, setting the entire war effort back by months. Again, Bradley and Ike turned to Patton to bail them out of their mistakes. He was smart enough to predict Hitler would mount the first Winter offensive since Frederick the Great, and in his greatest moment, rescued the town of Bastogne, winning the Battle of the Bulge. After that, the rest of the war was a bloody “mop up” operation in Europe and the South Pacific.

Patton was furious when many of the areas of Eastern Europe he liberated were turned over to the enslavement of the Soviet Union, and garnered great controversy arguing that the Russians should be our next enemy in war. Again the Communists in America, who had manufactured a deadly spy apparatus, despised him, but he was a hero to Republicans and patriots.

He died in a strange car accident after the war, and many conspiracy theories have been postulated around the idea that he was stirring up World War III with the U.S.S.R. and needed to be eliminated by Harry Truman.  

Patton wrote diaries of the war and many letters to his wife, who came from an aristocratic old money Boston family. These made up a book called War As I Knew It. Around 1952, a former Army officer who had served under Patton named Franklin McCarthy moved to Hollywood to become a film producer. His idea was a Patton bio-pic. He went to Daryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, who loved it and contacted the Patton family asking for life story rights. He met a road block. Mrs. Patton hated Hollywood liberals and was convinced they would bastardize her husband’s good name, refusing to sign anything. Patton’s sons and grandsons were all hawks who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Their opinion of Hollywood was just as negative.  

McCarthy and Zanuck insisted they were patriots who would laud the memory of George Patton, but the Patton’s were adamant. About 10 years passed and the project languished. After producing The Longest Day, they felt they had the right ingredients in place. John “Duke” Wayne would star as Patton. In 1963, Farago published Ordeal and Triumph, which was bought by 20th Century Fox. An English screenwriter was hired, but his efforts were not satisfactory. He claimed the Patton biography did not have a “property” within it; it was a dry historical document lacking the color and flair of his life. 

A few years later, McCarthy hired a young filmmaker out of UCLA with almost no credits named Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola wrote a very interesting, beautifully nuanced script that emphasized Patton’s odd personality quirks, which included a belief in reincarnation, his terrible temper, his idiosyncrasies, his bombast as well as his insecurities. But mainly, Coppola wrote an anti-war screed, attempting to show that Patton was an unhinged Right-wing war hawk, the kind of man who cannot be trusted and must be harnessed by good liberal civilians. This aspect of the script was disconcerting to McCarthy, and reenforced the suspicions of the Patton family. Coppola was eventually let go. Another screenwriter with more war experience, Edmund North, was brought in for a third re-write.

Also, Omar Bradley wrote A Soldier’s Story, offering great insight into Patton. He re-married, this time to a screenwriter, and moved to Los Angeles, where he was made an advisor to the film.

In the mean time, Duke Wayne dropped out of the project to make The Green Berets. Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster and Robert Mitchum turned down the part. Academy Award-winner Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night) was offered the lead. He turned it down because he did not want to “glamorize war.” Charlton Heston always believed turning down the Omar Bradley part was a big mistake. By this time, a power struggle was under way at 20th Century Fox between Daryl Zanuck, Sr. and Daryl Zanuck, Jr. The younger man actually fired his father, taking over the studio, and the project. Desperate to make a successful war movie, 20th made one last long shot attempt, offering the lead to George C. Scott.

Scott was a wild card. A marvelous actor and veteran of the stage, he had starred in Dr. Strangelove, but he was a tempestuous alcoholic known for beating his wife, Ava Gardner. Despite being an ex-Marine, he like Steiger had no desire to glamorize war, but his career was stalled and he needed a hit. He was given the different versions of the screenplay, and finally told McCarthy and 20th Century he would do it if they used the Coppola version. This threatened to make the movie a typical Left-wing hit job, engendering a lawsuit from the Patton family who had never signed on to the project.  

It was a very delicate balancing act that threatened to explode altogether. On top of everything, the Vietnam War had taken a turn for the worse and the country was seemingly not in the mood for a film glorifying war and killing. But Franklin Schaffner (The Planet of the Apes) was hired to direct. The production went to Spain, using military equipment the U.S. had given the Spanish, and Schaffner skillfully pulled off a brilliant shoot on time and under budget. Word of mouth spread: Scott was brilliant, at least when not drunk; the film magnificent.

After being relieved of his screenwriting duties, Coppola was unaware Scott insisted his script be used. He moved to San Francisco, founding Zoetrope to make artsy films and documentaries. He had given up on Hollywood, with no desire to return. Then one day he got a call from 20th Century Fox. They were using a sophisticated European editing machine, one that Coppola had used while working for Roger Corman. The machine had broken and the word was that the only person this side of the Atlantic who knew how to fix it was Coppola. Would he fly to Los Angeles and fix the machine? “Sure,” he said, “why not?”

So he did, and began working on the machine. Above him were dailies from 20th Century Fox’s latest film. He looked up and saw Scott dressed as a general mouthing swords he had written. “What’s this?” he asked.

“That’s Patton, our big hit for 1970,” he was told. It was only then that he even knew the film he penned was being produced.

The film opened early in 1970, just as the invasion of Cambodia was going on, but it was an immediate huge hit, with lines out the door and laudatory reviews from the Left, the Right and in between. Most importantly, the Patton family had a lawsuit prepared to be served on 20th Century Fox the day after its opening. When they saw Patton, they loved it so much they dropped the suit altogether.

***

Patton opens with Scott in full dress regalia, including a sash given him from France for heroism during the Great War, standing before a huge American flag. He gives an insane speech emphasizing that “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.” If there has ever been a more startling beginning to any movie I am unaware of it.

But the film follows a roller coaster of emotions, with highs followed by lows. Next we are at Kasserine Pass, North Africa, where Karl Malden as General Omar Bradley observes the devastation of our first defeat at the hands of the German Army under Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler). Only Patton, he says, is tough enough to round this motley crew into shape. Patton is brought in and does just that with tremendous discipline and loud orders. 

He is Bradley’s superior but respects him greatly, making him his deputy commander. There is some sparring with the British, who seem unimpressed with the American fighting spirit, over air superiority, followed by a German plane strafing Patton’s headquarters. Patton seemingly ends the fracas by firing at the plane with his ivory-handled revolver.  

Finally Patton gets his chance when he learns Rommel is planning to attack him at El Guettar. He gets the jump on his adversary and after the battle is won he declares that he has read the book Rommel wrote on tank battle tactics.

Patton now moves on to Sicily. He and his aide Charles Codman (Paul Stevens) plan a carefully conceived dinner party attempting to woo the British brass into siding with his plan to invade Sicily. Both men speak perfect French. We also see German Colonel Alfred Jodl (Richard Munch) employ Captain Oskar Steiger (Siegfried Rauch) to understand Patton the man. Briefing Field Marshal Rommel, Steiger emphasizes that Patton is wealthy, reads poetry, is highly educated, prays on his knees, but curses “like a stable boy.” He is a military historian who believes he has fought in all these battles in the past, as emphasized in an earlier scene in which Patton visits a Roman-Carthaginian battlefield, claiming to have died their 2,000 years earlier, all emphasized in a poem he wrote. Rommel understands he has met a worthy nemesis.   

Patton wishes to attack as Alcibiades did during the Peloponnesian War, aiming to capture the port city of Messina. His plan is turned down by Eisenhower who adheres to Monty’s worry that their forces would be “chopped up piecemeal” if divided. Patton must protect his flank, but when the battle stalls he veers to the west, capturing Palermo, the most “conquered city in the world,” amidst much fanfare and cheering from happy Sicilians. He tells Codman the city has been conquered by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Arabs, the Lombards, “and now come . . . the American Army!” It is an enormous moment emphasizing that America has arrived as a world power on par with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, whose ghosts constantly haunt Patton.  

But the film pulls no punches when it comes to Patton’s ego and eccentricity. While Patton is glorified in Palermo Bradley must fight his way up tough mountain roads against heavy resistance. Patton orders General Lucian Truscott (John Doucette) to mount an amphibious invasion that Truscott does not believe he can accomplish. Bradley tells Patton if he succeeds he’s a “big hero,” but if he fails, “What about the ordinary combat soldier? He’s stuck here, day by day with death tugging at his elbow.” Bradley is the “G.I. general,” as writer Ernie Pyle called him, but Patton thinks he is Caesar. 

“There’s one big difference between you and me, George,” Bradley tells him. “I do this job because I’m trained to do it. You do it because you love it!”  

We see carnage among the American troops; discouraged, injured G.I.s, Patton riding through them without making eye contact. Ordeal.

But Patton instinctively understands that boldness and initiative will win the day, ultimately saving more lives via decisive victory than long, drawn out battles such as those fought in the trenches of World War I. Patton “kicks some butts,” firing commanders, urging aggressiveness, and his troops do achieve victory in Sicily. Bradley laments the casualties. Patton tells him there would be more if they were still “crawling along that Godd—-n road.” 

He meets up with Monty, by now seething with hatred over his American rival, in Messina where both men have assembled marching bands to liberate the city. 

“Don’t smirk, Patton,” Monty says, trying to smile. “I shan’t kiss you.”

“That’s a pity, General Montgomery,” replies Patton. “I shaved quite close this morning in preparation of being smacked by you.”  

These scenes provide a window into Allied superiority, too. Here are armies and generals so great that they can concern themselves with glory while, increasingly, the once-haughty Nazis are concerned with pure survival. In another scene Monty declares, “Messina is reserved for the British Eight Army . . . and me.” 

It took such audacious characters to defeat Adolf Hitler. Michael Bates is just as charismatic playing Monty as Scott is as Patton. This is where audiences began to realize they were watching a masterpiece. While Coppola had meant the screenplay as a cautionary tale about war, meant to downgrade support for Vietnam, he had in fact created a patriotic classic, at least when infused with the color and charisma of Scott. The actor turned all of his foibles – reincarnation, bloodthirstiness, lack of respect for authority, self-glorification – and turned it all into a portrait of brilliance.  

But Patton constantly gets in his own way. Flush with victory, he slaps a “shell shocked” soldier in a hospital tent, forcing him to make a public apology that reduces him in the eyes of his men. On New Year’s Eve, 1944, he is relieved of command. The look on his face is of utter defeat. He has lost all his mojo. Instead of command in Italy, or the D-Day invasion, he is made a puppet in charge of “dummy troop concentrations,” meant to distract the enemy. He thinks this a huge put down, but when the Germans hear of his firing over the slapping incident, they express disbelief that the Americans “best general” would be disciplined over such a thing. 

While the movie does not emphasize this, Ike’s bluff using Patton as a decoy was brilliant and a big reason Normandy succeeded. Patton scraps with Ike’s top aide, Bedell Smith (Edward Binns), who talks down to him like he is a recalcitrant school boy. Patton tells English volunteers America and England will “rule the world,” and this brings further recriminations. In a scene in a large hall of mirrors, Patton tells his aide he fells he is meant to “achieve some great thing, what I don’t know. But this latest incident is so trivial in its nature yet so devastating in its consequence, it must be an act of God. God will not allow this to happen. I WILL BE ALLOWED TO FULFILL MY DESTINY. His will be done.” 

If I have witnessed better acting I am unaware of it. 

He is whisked off to France where he meets Bradley, now his superior., The contrast between the mansions and palaces Patton has used as his headquarters heretofore, with the small country “rig” Bradley uses (“What are you, bucking for Archbishop?” Patton asks after seeing the confessional-like room) are distinguishable. One is Napoleon, the other Huck Finn, but as Ike later said, “Sometimes Huck Finn wins.”

Bradley has a plan to break through a month after the landings, and tells Patton Ike decided “three months ago in London” he would be the general to lead this operation. Patton begins to call Ike a “dirty son of a _” but stops, having promised Bedell Smith he would shut his mouth, he would “play the game.”  

Now the classic Patton theme music begins, written by the marvelous John Williams. Audiences were roused in theaters and if given the chance would have taken up arms like a “band of brothers,” so inspiring is it. It coincides with Patton blasting through the formidable Wehrmacht defenses, moving so fast Bradley and Smith do not know where he is, beyond the available maps, liberating French cities and towns while cheering civilians shower his men with love. The sheer patriotism of the moment is impossible not to fill any American with pride.

He moves through one town where a G.I. asks, “Where you going, general?”

“To Berlin. I’m gonna personally shoot that ‘paper-hanging’ son of a bitch.”

Cheers. We have a man so bold, so audacious, so brilliant that he will destroy the little Austrian painter once and for all. A man of God who will defeat the man of sin.

But of course it is always something. Flush with victory, Bradley meets Patton in a field where he directs tank traffic.

“You woulda made a good traffic cop,” Bradley tells him.

Then Bradley says he has to take his gas away. “There are serious issues at stake. Political issues,” he says.

“By God it is Montgomery,” Patton says, urging that if he gets gas, he’ll “kill Germans” and soon be in Berlin. Alas, he is outranked

Bradley dresses him down. His biggest enemy is his “own big mouth.” He is a “pain in the neck.”

Then this classic bit of the self-contemplative Scott-as-Patton.

“I got a lot of faults, Brad, but ingratitude isn’t one of them. I owe you a lot. Hell, I’m a prima donna. I admit it. What bothers me about Montgomery is he won’t admit it.”

Patton strolls away and Bradley just shakes his head, a small smile on his mouth. What a character. He cannot help but like him on some level.

We see a tank battle in which the Americans suffer severe casualties after running out of gas. In the aftermath, Patton and Codman walk the battlefield, a scene of carnage, burned out tanks, headless bodies. It is the sin of violent, warlike mankind. 

Here Patton sees the future. He is in “precisely the right place, at precisely the right moment of history,” like “a planet spinning off into the universe . . . a moment like this won’t happen again for a thousand years.” He, George Patton, almost sent home in disgrace, can win World War II and be in Berlin in 10 days, the realization of his destiny.

“All I lack is a few lousy gallons of gasoline,” he says.

Of the Siegfried Line he says, “If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything built by man can be overcome.”

He sees a vision from a past life, in Napoleon’s Grande Armee, the “endless, agonizing retreat from Moscow,” equating it with the carts in the distance used to move the wounded, the timeless cycle of death caused by war, which as MacArthur said,” only the dead” have the seen the end of. Then Patton excoriates himself.

“I love it,” he says of death and war. “God help me I love it so.”

It is utter confession. The man of war shamed by his own love of such a dreadful tragedy. If men like George Patton do not live among us, perhaps we never have war, but they are always with us. As God has willed, in this crucial moment, he is on our side. Thank God for it.

Next we see Patton in the cold of the oncoming winter of 1944. Victory seems assured. He hums a tune. He is ready to cross the Saar into Germany, like a glorious Julius Caesar taking Gaul. Then Bradley, the old party pooper, tells him to halt and meet Ike at Verdun the next day, adding “I don’t have time to argue with you.”

“Yes, sir,” Patton says.

Patton the man of vision predicts that the Germans will embark on their first Winter offensive since the War of the Seven-Year Succession. In a conference Monty’s man says he cannot be ready to rescue the Belgian town of Bastogne, where the101st Airborne Division are holding on for dear life, for “some weeks.” Patton says he can attack the next day at full strength. Confronted, he says Monty never understood they are in the “business of miracles,” that his men do not love him but he has trained them and they will fight because if we lose here, the war will stagnate or worse.

Thus the Battle of the Bulge begins in full snow flurries. Told the commander of the 101st replied to a surrender demand with the one-word answer, “Nuts,” Patton smiles and says, “Keep moving, Colonel. A man that eloquent’s got to be saved.”

He commands a chaplain to write a prayer asking for good weather for battle to “stop the oppression and wickedness of our enemies.” The prayer works. Terrible scenes of carnage follow but Patton rescues Bastogne. The war is essentially won.

Now we are in Berlin at a large party of Russians and American celebrating victory. Patton hates it. He hates the Russians. Asked to drink a toast, he insists the interpreter tell the Russian general, “I don’t care to drink with the Russian general, or any other Russian son of a bitch.” Told “the Russian general thinks you are a son of a bitch too,” Patton relents, smiles, and drinks the toast.

Finally Patton gets in more trouble for advocating we destroy the Bolsheviks here and now. He is almost killed by an ox cart, a foreshadow of his strange death after a car accident, says good-bye to his troops, and here the film is so poignant.

After all the victories, the glory, the “pomp and toil of war,” he is reduced to a solitary man walking his dog in an empty field, next to a windmill in a nod to Miguel de Cervantes’ novel about the ultimate pointlessness of man. In voiceover he tells of Roman generals given a great celebration, but with a slave whispering in his ear, “All glory is fleeting” (sic transit gloria).

Cue end credits and again Williams’s score. What a movie.

***

Scott refused his Oscar, saying he eschewed the “competition” of such an award. Patton won eight. Francis Ford Coppola was on the verge of being fired as director of The Godfather when he won for Best Screenplay, saving his job. 

President Richard Nixon was so inspired by it he ordered the invasion of Cambodia. Some thought it would fire up the country to fight in Vietnam the way we needed to in order to win, but no such luck. It remains like A Few Good Men a liberal point of view that, when given over to a charismatic actor (like Scott or Jack Nicholson, or Robert Duvall) turns the message around so the film becomes a favorite of war jockeys, West Pointers and barracks movie watchers.  

In 2022, this film is still shown regularly around Memorial Day, and it holds up 100 percent, not dated in any way. It is realistic, made with real explosions, not computer graphics. It is better than Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, which is no shot at those two great films. It remains, in my opinion alongside Apocalypse Now, the best of all war films. A classic in the classic sense.

Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the brand new Best Sports Writing Ever and Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now (2016). One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation (2007) is currently under development. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.

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