George C. Scott's performance in the title role of the 1970 Oscar-winning bio-epic "Patton" revived at the Music Box Theatre Wednesday through Sunday is such a remarkable feat of acting that it may have all but obliterated in the public mind the image of the film's real subject.
How many now remember what the actual Gen. George S. Patton looked or sounded like even though he was America's greatest World War II combat generaland an explosively irreverent figure constantly in the newsreels until his 1945 death by car accident? The movie, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner in a style that could perhaps be described as liberal-imperial, is an impressive but sometimes over-stately and even stolid-looking spectacular.
But there's nothing stolid or stately about Scott's performance. With his magisterial bearing, reptilian eyes and half-maniacal smile, his brow shaded by a three-star general's helmet and his left hand clutching a little whip, Scott strikes an unforgettable figure.
From the moment in the film's opening scene, when he strides toward the camera before a huge American flag-pattern backdrop and begins gruffly hurling out profane epithets and bloody battle lore in the movie's amazing first six-minute monologue Patton supposedly addressing the troops in a speech culled by writer Francis Ford Coppola from the general's actual speeches he hooks us completely.
Scott dominates our collective image of Patton just as he dominates the movie and just as he dominates the other actors, including Michael Bates as Patton nemesis Field Marshal Montgomery and Karl Malden as Patton's superior Gen. Omar Bradley. (Sometimes, this role and Malden's performance seem like long mash notes to Bradley for serving as the film's official military technical adviser.)
"Patton" won seven Oscars, including one for Scott (which he refused) and a Best Picture trophy that might better have been awarded to a more populist '70 war movie, Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H." "Patton's" win reflected the contentious times: "M*A*S*H," "Little Big Man," "Five Easy Pieces" and other plausible Best Picture candidates were too counter-culture. But "Patton," released during the height of the Vietnam War, successfully had it both ways. It could be appreciated by hawks, as a celebration of Patton's courage and battlefield genius, and also by doves, as an exposure of his failings: from his postwar toleration of ex-Nazis to his hospital ward striking of a frightened soldier (played by Tim Considine, Spin of TV's "Spin and Marty.")
The movie holds up far better than its detractors guessed splendidly, in fact not only thanks to Scott's spellbinding acting, but to the epic imagery, Coppola's (and Edmund North's) highly intelligent script and Schaffner's lucid, perfectly controlled direction.
Schaffner may have been overrated at the time of his "Patton" Oscar, but he's underrated now. The maker of "The Best Man," the original "Planet of the Apes," "The War Lord" and "Papillon" (and the winner of four Emmys for TV direction) was an often masterful filmmaker, whose style and viewpoint were ideal for this kind of psychologically intimate epic and for this brilliant, volatile actor.
If you're going to see "Patton" again, you should definitely catch it in the near-pristine 70 millimeter Dimension 50 print the Music Box is showing. We forget sometimes what the old road show big movies really looked like, in first-class prints on a huge screen. "Patton," overpoweringly, reminds us.
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner; written by Ladislas Farago and Omar N. Bradley.
George C. Scott...Gen. George S. Patton
Karl Malden...General Omar N. Bradley
Michael Bates...Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery
Stephen Young...Captain Chester B. Hansen
Ed Binns...Major General Walter Bedell Smith
Lawrence Dobkin...Colonel Gaston Bell
John Doucette...Major General Lucian K. Truscott
James Edwards...Sergeant William G. Meeks
Frank Latimore...Lieutenant Colonel Henry Davenport
Richard Munch...Colonel General Alfred Jodl
Morgan Paull...Captain Richard N. Jenson
Siegfried Rauch...Captain Oskar Steiger
Paul Stevens...Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Codman
Michael Strong...Brigadier General Hobart Carver
Karl Michael Vogler...Field Marshal Erwin Rommel