Directed by Franklin Schaffner
In preparation for the role that came to define his career, George C. Scott read 13 biographies of General George S. Patton, some of them twice. His performance made him the almost-immediate favorite to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in the spring of 1971, but even before he was nominated he made it clear that he wouldn’t accept based on his rejection of the idea of competition between actors. Nevertheless, he was nominated and won (while Scott was at home, asleep). What’s important isn’t that Scott won an Oscar for his role in “Patton” (or that the film also won, among other awards, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture) but that his performance really was worth awarding. For those less familiar with the general or the actor, it wouldn’t be hard to conflate the two in your mind. That is how iconic this performance is. Great performances sometimes have a bad habit of calling attention to how great they are. That isn’t the case here. Scott manages to project just enough gravitas without making the movie about him.
Framed as a sort of Don Quixote figure by a German captain in the film, George Patton (Scott) was a contemporary man with an old-fashioned sense of chivalry. He was well-read in military history and often would use Greek and Roman battle scenarios from hundreds of years earlier to inform his own combat decisions. That sometimes got him into trouble, and he was famously slighted when General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) was promoted to four-star general before he was. For Patton, the chance to lead a command into battle and come out victorious—like one of the military heroes he had spent his life reading about—was the ultimate dream. He fought hard to get there. “Patton” tells the story of his World War II experience, up until about the time he would lose his life at the age of 60.
For those who wince at the idea of a three-hour war movie, “Patton” comes with a mercifully quick pace. Scott brings a fair amount of wit to the famously obscene jokester, and the humor helps to chop up the somber stretches that any war movie must have. A great amount of credit must go to screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola, who earned his first Oscar nomination and win for the script (two years before “The Godfather”). Finding over 70 filming locations around Europe helped, too. Rarely was a scene set in the same place twice. When we talk about historical epics, we don’t often mention a character study like “Patton.” Why not? It packed quite a punch while sticking to the facts (I mean, mostly…as much as any three-hour biopic).
George C. Scott was a famously private person, and “Patton” made a star out of someone who didn’t want to be one. Regardless, his contribution to this very unconventional war movie made a great impact on cinema, and I appreciate it very much…whether or not he accepts the appreciation.