50 Years Later: Patton

Words: Manvir Basi
Thursday 02 April 2020
reading time: min, words

Franklin’s J. Schaffner’s Oscar-winning epic celebrates its 50th anniversary this year…


Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Bates
Running time: 170 minutes

1970’s Patton was a critical and commercial success, winning a total of seven Academy Awards including Best Actor, Picture, Director and Screenplay. The film, starring George C. Scott - who controversially turned down the Oscar because he did not recognise acting competitions - examines the controversial life of General George S. Patton. 

Taking an approach commonly found in many of today’s biopics, the film focuses on a short period of Patton’s career: from his entry into the North Africa conflict where he faced off against Erwin Rommel, through to his victorious sweep into Germany at the end of the war. 

Fifty years on, the film is widely known for the famous opening sequence where General Patton addresses his troops in front of an American flag. An image that at the film’s release in 1970, marked a sharp contrast with reality, with America stuck in the midst of the Vietnam War.

While Scott is simply superb in the titular role, the star of the piece is the Oscar-winning screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North. The screenplay depicts Patton as a man fit for a different era, or rather a 16th century man stranded in the 20th century; one who has more in common with the Romans than his contemporary military officials. 

Almost the American response to Lawrence of Arabia

Indeed, that is the inherent tragedy of Patton, as by the film’s conclusion, we come to realise that he is somebody who understands everything about war but little else, and the dissolution of war marks the dissolution of Patton.

The screenplay emphasises this by comparing Patton with two other generals, General Bernard Montgomery, the British General and General Omar N. Bradley, who served as a historical adviser on the film. Both of whom understand how to play the system and use it for their gain, gaining a flurry of promotions and honours in the process, unlike Patton.

In some ways, Patton is the almost the American response to Lawrence of Arabia, another film which wrestles with the “great man” theory of history. Yet, like Lawrence of Arabia, at the film’s conclusion, we are in no doubt that not only are we in the presence of a great man but a great film too.

Did you know? A made-for-TV sequel based on Patton’s last days was released in 1986, with Scott reprising his role.

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