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Patton: A cinematic salute to a rebel


‘Patton’ (1970), based on the life and times of a general of the United States Army, General George S Patton, an arrogant and egotistical military figure in US history, is perhaps one of the most applauded and popular Hollywood biopics.

Producer Frank McCarthy was a retired Brigadier General, who served on the staff of General George C Marshall during World War II. He was in fact working for nearly 20 years to make a film about General Patton. Attempts to make the film had commenced in 1953. The filmmaker desired access to Patton’s diaries as well as input from his family members, and contacted the family the day after Beatrice Ayer Patton, the general’s widow, was buried. The family however refused to provide any assistance to him. Finally, screenwriters Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H North wrote the script based largely on the biographies, ‘Patton: Ordeal and Triumph’ (1954) by Ladislas Farago and ‘A Soldier’s Story’ (1961) by Omar N Bradley.

Bradley, himself General of the Army, served as a consultant for the film though the extent of his influence and input into the final script is largely unknown. While Bradley knew Patton personally, it was also well-known that the two men were polar opposites in personality, and there is evidence to conclude that Bradley despised Patton, both personally and professionally.

Interestingly, actors like Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all turned down the offer to play General Patton in spite of being an author-backed role. Steiger, who had turned it down because he did not want to glorify war, later called this refusal his “dumbest career move”. The producers then approached George C Scott, who researched extensively for the role, studying films of the general and talking to those who knew him, finally coming out with a riveting performance.

Similarly John Huston, Henry Hathaway and Fred Zinnemann declined to direct the film. William Wyler agreed to direct, but differed with Scott over the script and left for another film. Franklin J Schaffner, fresh from the success of ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1968) was finally chosen to direct the film.

The critically acclaimed score for ‘Patton’ was composed and conducted by the prolific composer, Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith used a number of innovative methods to tie the music to the film, such as having an echoplex loop recorded sounds of “call to war” triplets played on the trumpet to musically represent General Patton’s belief in reincarnation. The main theme also consisted of a symphonic march accompanied by a pipe organ to represent the militaristic yet deeply religious nature of the protagonist.

‘Patton’ was shot in 65 mm Dimension 150 by cinematographer Fred J Koenekamp. Only two films were made in Dimension 150, the other being ‘The Bible: In the Beginning’ (1966) directed by John Huston, which also starred Scott. Dimension 150 was a variant of Todd-AO, a super high resolution format that used 65 mm frame negatives which were then converted to 70 mm prints. The extra 5 mm was for audio sound tracks.

Most of the film was shot in Spain. One scene, which depicts Patton driving up to an ancient city that is implied to be Carthage, was shot in the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, Morocco.

‘Patton’ opens with Scott’s rendering of Patton’s profane speech to the Third Army – the real-life Patton never made such a speech – set against a huge American flag. Screenplay writers had to tone down Patton’s actual words and statements in the scene, as well as throughout the rest of the film, to avoid an R rating; in the opening monologue, the word fornicating replaced fucking when he was criticising ‘The Saturday Evening Post’. Also, Scott’s gravelly and scratchy voice is the opposite of Patton’s high-pitched, nasal and somewhat squeaky voice. ‘Patton’ contained too much cursing and obscenity by Patton.

When Scott learned that his speech would open the film, he refused to do it, as he believed that it would overshadow the rest of his performance. Finally, Schaffner lied that the scene would be put at the end of the film. The scene was filmed in eight takes one afternoon, at Sevilla Studios in Madrid, with the flag having been painted on the back of the stage wall.

The film cost $12.6 million to make and nearly half of this budget was spent on soldiers and equipment borrowed from the Spanish army.

One of the film’s premieres was held at West Point, Patton’s alma mater, while the grand gala premiere was held in Washington DC. When released the critics and the audiences hailed the film. It went on to make $61.8 million at the Box Office in the United States.

The film won seven Academy Awards, including in the Best Picture and Best Director categories. Scott won the Academy Award in the Best Actor category and famously refused to accept it, stating that competition between actors was unfair further calling it a “meat parade.” McCarthy accepted the award on Scott’s behalf at the ceremony, but returned it to the Academy the next day in keeping with Scott’s wishes. Scott later admitted that, at one point in his life, he was quite anxious to have an Oscar on his shelf. In 1960, he was so demoralised when his nominated performance in the Best Supporting Actor category, for ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959) didn’t earn him the award, he swore that he would never again focus on such shallow things.

Schaffner too was not present at the awards ceremony. Karl Malden, who played Major General Omar N Bradley in the film, accepted the award on his behalf. Furthermore, Francis Ford Coppola was also not present at the awards ceremony and could not collect his Best Original Screenplay Oscar personally.

A made-for-television sequel, ‘The Last Days of Patton’ was produced in 1986. Scott reprised his title role. The film was based on Patton’s final weeks after being mortally injured in a car accident, with flashbacks of Patton’s life.

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