General George S. Patton, Jr. was a real sonofabitch. Ask his superiors; ask his infantrymen; ask the Germans and Italians; ask the Russians. Gen. Patton was the biggest sonofabitch of them all.
George C. Scott was also a real sonofabitch. Physically and intellectually gifted as an actor – with comically ironic roles in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove alongside the many iterations of comedic genius Peter Sellers and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler alongside man’s man Paul Newman – Scott’s most important and visceral role came with his adaptation of the celebrated US Army General in 1970’s Patton.
Here’s the most true assumption of Patton: George S. Patton and George C. Scott, the character and the actor, were not so far apart in reality that for Scott, playing Patton was no more a role than his left arm was an appendage. He carried the weight of one of the United States’ most controversial field generals so convincingly that he even refused the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1970 (for supposed political reasons), something, after having seen the film would not seem so out-of-place for the real-life Patton to have done. For one of the most underrated war dramas (even though it might be the best) the actor was not done acting when the camera stopped. It adds to the mystique of the film.
Patton is best known for its iconic opening scene where we first meet the curmudgeonly field general against an iconic backdrop of an oversized American flag. He is giving a pep talk to a most-likely beaten-down unit of the American army; time is unknown, place is undisclosed, but with his words, Scott is able to set up the viewer’s expectation and limits of his Patton. In the resulting 160+ minutes, no action or reaction is unexpected or . This is not a movie about plot twists and chaotic politicking. The internal narrative, that exclusive look into the character that only the viewer gets to see, is transformed, instead appearing as a history of battle sequences, from the early Peloponnesian triumphs of Ancient Rome to Napoleonic victories of the early 19th century. Because General George S. Patton, you see, was there, not in a figurative sense. It is the courage and immediacy of Scott that we the viewer can see that Patton truly believed he had a very real part in these wars of old. He reads the Bible, it seems, to infuse his very person from it a form of divine battle strategy. There is little doubt that, to him, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, read less as a philosophical treatise and more of a cut-and-dry guide. Perhaps War of War would have been a better title.
We can read Patton’s victory for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1970 as a send-off for the old guard of modern filmmaking. Later in the 70s, directors and producers brought in the more modern age of avant-garde, perhaps perfected by Stanley Kubrick in the 1960s, but explored more fully in the following decade. Patton, perhaps the last truly great war epic, is also great metaphysical wall between the old and new and performed its role in the fullest way possible, even against stiff competition in Airport, Five Easy Pieces, MASH, and Love Story, all of whose themes fit the role of 1970s cool dad rather than 1960s grandfather.
If there is a quote that sums up the actor George C. Scott and his counterpart General George S. Patton, Jr. it is this:
I thought I would stand here like this so you could see if I was really as big a son of a bitch as you think I am.
In addressing his demoralized troops after an incident he started (brilliantly nonchalant for such a major plot point) he is characteristically a sonofabitch. But, hey, whose Grandpa doesn’t have a little bit of that in him?