Saturday, April 2, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "Patton" (1970)

George C. Scott
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: April 2, 1970
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola & Edmund North (Screenplay), Landislas Farago (Novel), Omar Bradley (Novel)
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young
Genre: Biography, Drama, War
Running Time: 172 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (George C. Scott)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Sound
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Cinematography
-Best Visual Effects
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Five Easy Pieces
-Love Story

And the winner is...

There's a lot of value that gets put into the opening sequence of a film. It is the first image that people have into a universe and will determine how willing they are to accept it. For director Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton, the opening is itself one of the most iconic and familiar to cinema history with nothing more than George C. Scott and a flag mural. It's a powerful image that sets up the atmosphere for a film that immediately grips the audience and takes them through one of the most unique and captivating biopics in history as well as a unique perspective into World War II. It's an epic film that helped to launch careers while telling a unique and effective tale that has been imitated since, but rarely matched.

The story begins in 1953. For 15 years, there has been an attempt to make a George S. Patton biopic. This included help from the actual Patton family by providing the General's personal diaries and articles that would help them to formulate a plot. There was also assistance from two books, written by Landislas Farago and Omar Bradley, which most of the stories were pulled. The most significant screenplay for the 1970 Patton came in 1966 from writer Francis Ford Coppola, whose script was initially was rejected. However, it was eventually accepted when the producers liked his approach to the story. Oddly enough, the moment that they decided to work on a movie was also when Patton's widow died, so assistance was removed entirely. Edmund North is also credited with writing the script, but he never met Coppola (whose script served as the predominant resource) until the awards circuit.

Among the early directors chosen was William Wyler, who was very familiar with war films. However, he dropped out when it was discovered that he didn't like working with George C. Scott. It was eventually given to Schaffner, who took the assignment easily. However, there was general conflict around the opening sequence, which saw Patton rallying the troops in front of an American flag. Coppola had written it as the opening scene, but Scott decided that it was inappropriate for an opener and should be, at earliest, placed after intermission. Through manipulation, Schaffner told Scott that it would be the last scene, and thus was the last filmed. It was also pretty easy, as it took place over one day in front of a mural. The speech itself is cribbed from many Patton speeches and edited for profanity - removing vulgar language for softer words like "fornicate."

Scott for the most part was cooperative with the production. However, co-star Karl Malden once claimed that Scott delayed production due to his fascination with beating a world-champion table tennis player in a ping pong tournament. He supposedly just wanted to beat him once and would sustain an occasional injury from this. Another perk of the filming was that it featured a cast who resembled their real life counterparts. The film was shot entirely in and around Spain, which managed to feature a diverse climate that allowed for everything from desert sequences to snowy fields. Among the few things not featured, but heavily mentioned, is the presence of President Dwight D. Eisenhower - of whom was alive upon the film beginning production, but had died in 1969, months before the film's actual release.

Composer Jerry Goldsmith also felt inspired by Patton when composing the music. Based on the diaries and the General's belief in reincarnation, Goldsmith used a echoplex loop to play the trumpets in his theme. This created a layered effect that made a call to war have a spiritual undertone, partially thanks to an accompanied organ. It was the perfect balance, and one that would compliment the film nicely. In the subsequent years, the score has become one of the most iconic and immediately recognizable scores in history. The film was expected to be released under the name Patton: Salute to a Rebel, but was shortened at the last minute (some marketing materials feature this longer title). There was even an alternative title in England, though their final print didn't actually feature the subtitle.

That year's Academy Awards proved to be rather successful for Patton. With 10 nominations, the film won seven of them. Following a strange pattern of the first Rated G film (Oliver!), and the first Rated X film (Midnight Cowboy) winning subsequent years, Patton became the first Rated PG film to win. However, the real surprise of the night came when Scott won Best Actor. He openly refused to accept the award, calling the event a "meat parade" (on an interesting note, this didn't stop him from being nominated a few more times). While actors hadn't shown up in the past, this was the first vocal backlash from a winner. It has since gone on to become one of the most iconic moments in Oscar history, only second to Marlon Brando's Best Actor refusal two years later for The Godfather.

The film's legacy has even influenced American politics. It was believed that President Richard Nixon would watch the movie before making any strategic war move. It was considered his favorite movie and he had a personal print. Due to the film not having any opening credits, it has also confused a handful of military soldiers. When the film unknowingly opens with "Ten-hut!," there are a few soldiers who rise to command, believing it to be real. Along with this, Patton has been lampooned several times, specifically the opening scene - including in an episode of The Simpsons. While short lived, Patton also inspired a trend of other biopics on war generals, including MacArthur about Douglas MacArthur, as played by Gregory Peck. 

While there have been hundred of war films, there have been few that have sympathized actual figures quite like Patton. While some would say it took away his mystique, there is something to Scott's performance that is lively and engaging. With plenty of focus and dedication, he convinces audiences that he will save the day. Of course, this is necessary for a real life figure as powerful as Patton. While many have found fascination with the subject of war and the people behind it, there are few films that capture the allure of being in battle with as much discretion and power as this film. Even if it is best remembered for the opening scene, it's a great three hour movie into the look of one man who had the bravery to save the day. For that alone, it is an impressive achievement of cinema.

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