Patton, one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 1970s, opened with George C. Scott as United States General George S. Patton, addressing the audience in front of a giant American flag. His speech combined inspiration with profanity: "Now I want you to remember, that no bastard ever won a war by giving his life for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."
Based on Omar Bradley's memoirs, Patton presented an un-flinching look at the volatile general during the European battles of World War II. General Patton was given to poetic, occasionally vulgar evocations of the duty of soldiers in the heat of battle, claiming that he had been a warrior during past lives ("The Carthaginians were proud and brave but they couldn't hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their swords and their tunics and lances. The soldiers laid naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago. I was here"). To his military colleagues, Patton was a brilliant strategist but emotionally unstable. His instability reached critical mass when, in a fit of rage, he slapped a wounded soldier.
The box-office success of the film surprised many 1970 movie-goers. Hollywood had been inundated with World War II movies since the 1940s, and a movie about the toughest American general seemed a risky commercial proposition during the unpopular Vietnam War; the extensive profanity of the screenplay was also unprecedented for a major studio release in 1970. But director Franklin J. Schaffner, screenwriters Francis Ford Coppola and Edward North, and star Scott crafted a compelling, sophisticated movie that satisfied both conservative and liberal audiences. Critic Pauline Kael observed that Patton's character "is what people who believe in military values can see as the true military hero—the red-blooded American who loves to fight and whose crude talk is straight talk. He is also what people who despise militarism can see as the worst kind of red-blooded American mystical maniac; for them, Patton can be the symbolic proof of the madness of the whole military complex."
The outstanding cast included Karl Malden as Omar Bradley and Michael Bates as Field Marshal Montgomery. Patton won seven Academy Awards in 1970, including one for Best Picture. Scott won a well deserved Oscar for Best Actor, but he publicly rejected the award (the first such rejection in history), saying he did not wish to compete against fellow actors. Scott had already portrayed a war mongering general (Buck Turgidson) in Stanley Kubrick's landmark 1964 comedy Dr. Strangelove, but his performance in Patton was more nuanced and sympathetic, and caught the pathos in Patton's gradual loss of control; indeed, it became his signature role. Scott reprised his role in a 1986 made-for-television movie, The Last Days of Patton.
One of the most prominent fans of the film was President Richard Nixon, who reportedly watched Patton over and over prior to announcing the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia in April 1970. Coppola and North won an Oscar for their screenplay, and on the strength of Patton's success, Coppola was able to green-light his next project—directing The Godfather (1972).
Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Kael, Pauline. 5001 Nights at the Movies. New York, Holt, 1991.