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Directed by Franklin Schaffner, written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young, Michael Strong, Michael Bates, 1970, 169 minutes, color, rated PG

"NOW I WANT YOU to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country." So says General George S. Patton (George C. Scott) in the speech that opens this film biography. The scene has become a bit of classic cinema, yet screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola says it got him fired when he first tackled the story of the controversial general in the 1960s. Studio heads thought the opening sequence was too strange, so they dumped Coppola and later put the whole project on hold. Years afterward the screenplay earned-Coppola an Academy Award.

The big speech remains a bit of an aberration in what is otherwise a more straightforward approach to the story of Patton in World War II. The movie picks up the story in 1943 North Africa, where American forces have suffered an embarrassing defeat at the Kasserine Pass. Patton arrives to straighten things out with his strict, no-nonsense approach. It's not long before the volatile general is standing in the middle of the street, firing his ivory-handled revolver at strafing German planes.

Love him or hate him, Patton's approach works, and his forces defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Germans at El Guettar. In Sicily he spurs his men to even greater efforts in a successful, and personal, bid to beat Britain's General Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates) to the strategic town of Messina, whether or not this dovetails with his orders.

Patton's career stumbles when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier in a field hospital and the incident goes public. General Dwight Eisenhower (who never appears onscreen) sidelines him for the Normandy invasion and promotes one time subordinate Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) over him. But Patton comes roaring back as commander of the Third Army, storming across Europe and coming to the relief of the American forces bottled up at Bastogne.

Once the shooting stops, he finds he is ill-prepared for a postwar world. As a German adversary assigned to study him had come to realize, Patton was both a "pure warrior" and "a magnificent anachronism."

It's a challenging role, but Scott rises to the occasion, becoming more Patton than perhaps even Patton himself. His general is a poet and a warrior, explosive and contrite, profane and religious. The latter qualities are perfectly captured in a scene where a chaplain asks Patton whether he reads the Bible. "Indeed I do," Patton replies, "every goddamn day." While the portrayal avoids some of Patton's less admirable qualities, such as his unabashed anti-Semitism, it does show how the outspoken general could be his own worst enemy.

It's a tremendous role, and Scott sinks his teeth into it. In fact, he won the Academy Award for his performance (though he refused to accept it because he thought the Oscars were a sham). Malden provides solid support as Bradley, the soldiers' general who subtly reproaches Patton when Patton gets out of line. (The real Bradley served as the movie's consultant, which might explain why his cinematic version appears blemish-free.)

The movie does take some liberties with history. The rivalry between Patton and Montgomery during the Sicily campaign, for example, was not quite so pointed or personal as it is here.

The battle scenes are done well, with Spain standing in for Northern Africa, France, and Germany and the Spanish army providing enough equipment and soldiers to flesh out some epic combat scenes. The equipment may not always be historically accurate, but it's refreshing to see real tanks and men rather than computer-generated simulations.

--Tom Huntington

Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
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Author:Huntington, Tom
Publication:America in WWII
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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