February 14, 2013 8:58:28 AM
The image of George C. Scott emerging in front of a gigantic American flag in all the regalia of the dress uniform of General George S. Patton is part of our collective movie memories. The initial scene of the movie Patton has been effortlessly parodied because it is so well known; the Simpsons, the Muppets, Johnny Carson, and more have all had a go at it. You'd think that a movie that has seeped so deeply into the American consciousness would have been green-lighted as soon as someone proposed it and would have had the enthusiastic participation of everyone who worked on it. This is far from the case; the producer had the idea for the film in 1951, and it was not released until 1970, and at many points it might have come to a dead end and not have been made at all. The amazing behind-the-scenes story of the heroic efforts to get the movie made are detailed in Making Patton: A Classic War Film's Epic Journey to the Silver Screen (University Press of Kansas) by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes. The author might be a movie buff, but he is also an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and has written histories of aspects of World War II. The producer of Patton was to say, specifically about the filming of the battle scenes, "It's like fighting the war all over again. The only difference being that in the real war we didn't have to clean up after the battle." He might just as well have been talking about all the strategy, tactics, negotiations, and failed campaigns over almost two decades it took to get the film made. The movie is all done, and is a classic, but its torturous back story is truly fascinating.
That producer was Frank McCarthy, and he made it his obsession to get a film about Patton made. He had gone to school at the Virginia Military Institute, and then went into the Army as the British were evacuating Dunkirk. Another VMI alumnus, General George C. Marshall, spotted him for his writing skills and put him on his staff. He was Marshall's main subordinate through the war, and he met in his duties Stalin, de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Roosevelt (for whom he eventually planned the funeral), Churchill, and, indeed, Patton. After the war, in the reserves, McCarthy made brigadier general. For a couple of years after the war, he worked at trying to get the European accounts owed to American movie studios straightened out. Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox respected the work McCarthy had done, and offered him an apprenticeship in the studio. He became a producer at a time when realistic war movies were in demand, and his background was perfect for the job. He produced Decision Before Dawn (1951) and Sailor of the King (1953); he also did A Guide for the Married Man (1967). He loved the work, saying near the end of his life, "People don't usually think of the producer as being creative, but I think he has to be - because if he's not there's no way he can supervise creative people like writers, directors and actors. He must understand the creative process to be effective and successful."
The idea for a film about Patton's life seemed like a winner, but there were various obstacles. Among them was that Patton's wife and children were very much against such a film. When Patton's widow died in 1953, a producer from Warner Brothers called the family on the day of her funeral to attempt to have their children sign on to a Warner's biopic; the timing of the call only ensured further Patton family hostility. In hindsight, the family stalling only meant that a better film was eventually produced. Finally, Twentieth Century-Fox announced it intended to make the movie, but then in 1963 the disaster of Cleopatra nearly bankrupted the studio. It survived and after a few years, the movie was a going concern again. The range of talent considered for the movie was huge. John Huston was offered the job of direction and would get his name inserted in the title: John Huston's The Life of Patton. William Wyler was considered, but had had a difficult time directing George C. Scott in How to Steal a Million. Wyler insisted on a new script, and a change in actors, and then just bowed out.
The directing job went to Franklin J. Schaffner, just peaking in his career after making the blockbuster Planet of the Apes. He eventually did an outstanding job, but he originally objected to that opening of Patton's harangue in front of the big flag. He wasn't the only one; George C. Scott didn't like the idea of putting that at the front of the picture, either. The objections were that such a blockbuster start could only face anticlimax afterwards. Zanuck wanted the opening, and so did McCarthy, and they carried the issue into film history.
The person who wrote that beginning of the film and much of the rest of the movie was none other than Francis Ford Coppola. McCarthy read some screenplays by the UCLA graduate, hired him, and then mentored him by giving Coppola stacks of books and articles on Patton for research. The two discussed history every day, and Coppola would write after the conversations were ended. There were later modifications to his script, and Coppola would imply that he was let go because of the "totally strange" opening, but the truth is that Coppola had a chance to go off to direct his screenplay of You're a Big Boy Now, and left on good terms with McCarthy and Zanuck.
Good terms were harder to find with the actor eventually chosen for the title role. It is interesting to think what might have happened to the film if other actors proposed to play Patton had been selected. Ronald Reagan was considered too lightweight; Robert Mitchum was regarded as too fat. Rod Steiger was asked, and regretted that he was too anti-war at the time to play a general. "Maybe if I had done Patton just as well as Mr. Scott," he reflected, "I might have got to play 'The Godfather.'" John Wayne was considered, as were Gregory Peck, Lee Marvin, and William Holden. Burt Lancaster was in line for the role and was making suggestions about the script. George C. Scott was a bankable actor, whom Zanuck favored after his role as Abraham in The Bible. Seeing Patton now, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Scott was enthusiastic about the part, and allowed his hairline and nose to be jimmied with so that he looked a touch more like the general. He did not, though, try to mimic Patton's voice, which was incongruously high pitched. "The more excited he got, the higher it got," Scott said after studying films and tapes of the general. "I didn't use that. People are used to my gravel voice and if I tried to use a high little voice it would be silly." Scott was an extremely difficult actor to work with, admitting, "Something goes wrong, I find a bottle." His drinking caused delays in the picture, and then when the producer and director would not accept his on-set revisions, he went public with his frustration. "I'm thoroughly disgusted with the entire project," he told the Sunday Times of Britain in the middle of filming, but he got the job done.
Marketing the picture took a special effort during those anti-war days. The effort was helped by the movie being more of a study of Patton's greatly flawed personality rather than being any sort of heroic glorification of the man. It was an enormous success with critics and the public, beating for best picture Oscar the more counterculture M*A*S*H. Sarantakes spikes the legend that Nixon watched the movie over and over to help himself take action in Cambodia and Vietnam; Nixon did see Patton three different times, but had been a student of Patton's life for years. Sarantakes also places the film into Hollywood history. Coppola won an Oscar for his script, for instance, and to this day thinks he only was able to keep directing The Godfather because the studio would have been embarrassed to fire him after such a win. Read this surprising account, and then see the movie again and you will greatly appreciate both of them. This is a terrific book with lots of details about the messy way movies get made, including for Patton about a hundred contingencies that could have gone some other way and resulted in a completely different movie or no movie at all.