The legendary general’s renowned biographer reveals the true story of how the iconic movie was made.
One of the most recognizable opening scenes in modern cinema occurs in the Academy Award-winning film about General George S. Patton Jr. Ask virtually any American born after World War II what immediately comes to mind when the name “Patton” is mentioned and chances are they will conjure an image of an empty stage dominated by an enormous American flag, when a tall, uniformed soldier with a chest full of medals and badges suddenly strides to its center and begins to address an unseen audience of soldiers.
What has been termed “The Speech” in this film is completely accurate; only a few lines have been omitted in the scene due to time constraints. It was an oration the real Patton delivered countless times to units of his 3d Army before the invasion of France in June 1944.
That a film about Patton was even made was a triumph of perseverance over adversity that would have made a great plot for a television soap opera. The film could never have come to the silver screen without the unwavering tenacity of one man: producer Frank McCarthy. A former journalist and graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, McCarthy rose to the rank of brigadier general in World War II as U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall’s secretary of the War Department general staff.
McCarthy knew and admired Patton, and when he became a film producer in Hollywood after the war, McCarthy first proposed the idea of a movie about the legendary general in 1951. He wrote to Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of production for 20th Century Fox, regarding his desire to make a film about one of the war’s most colorful and controversial generals. Zanuck also knew Patton from the war and told McCarthy, “Get going on it!”
But as it turned out, nearly 19 years would pass before the film was finally made. When at last it was screened in 1970, it was only thanks to McCarthy and his unwillingness to abandon his dream.
Why did it take so long to make? The reasons are as complex as the man the film portrays. McCarthy would not make the film without the blessing of the Patton family, and Patton’s widow, Beatrice, prior to her death in 1953, believed the media was responsible for her husband’s controversial reputation and wanted no part of it.
After Beatrice’s death, McCarthy renewed his attempt to make the film but soon learned that Patton’s son, George, and daughter, Ruth Ellen, were fiercely opposed to a movie about their father and at one point had thwarted an attempt by Warner Bros. to make one. The message of rejection was loud and clear when George, a career Army officer, also rebuffed a request to be the proposed film’s technical adviser. With the Patton family refusing to cooperate, the U.S. Army likewise declined to participate in deference to the family, who had successfully lobbied for the Army’s non-support.
Years passed and there was scant progress on the film thanks to a series of setbacks, conflicts and Hollywood infighting. For a time the Patton project was reassigned from McCarthy to others, yet they also failed to make progress on it. Whenever there was a positive step forward toward making the film, there inevitably were two steps backward, including the near-financial collapse of 20th Century Fox in the early 1960s.
Eventually, however, Patton’s family signed on; but the Department of Defense did not, and without the cooperation of the U.S. Army McCarthy could not make the film. Then, when the time came that filming could commence, the military equipment needed to make it was no longer available.
Finally, in the 1960s McCarthy discovered there was a large quantity of surplus military hardware in Spain used by the Spanish army. This meant that the film could be made without DOD support.
The production of an acceptable movie script proved to be a nightmare that involved a number of people. Columnist Robert S. Allen, a former colonel on Patton’s 3d Army staff (and author of Lucky Forward: The History of Patton’s 3d Army) did some writing on the script, as did author Calder Willingham, who was paid a hefty fee but whose treatment was deemed unacceptable.
When that effort failed to produce a suitable script, McCarthy next commissioned an up-and-coming 23-year-old writer named Francis Ford Coppola, whose only military experience was serving in the band at the New York Military Academy before he, in his words, “deserted.” McCarthy said of his first time meeting Coppola: “He came in with a beard, dressed as a hippy. I asked him if he knew who Patton was and he said, ‘World War II, wasn’t he?’”
Twentieth Century Fox paid $75,000 to best-selling author Ladislas Farago for the rights to use his book, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph. The company also paid General of the Army Omar N. Bradley $90,000 for the rights to use his World War II memoir, A Soldier’s Story, and to serve as the senior military adviser to the film.
As time passed, the problems of producing the Patton film continued to mount. The second Mrs. Omar Bradley, the former Esther Dora “Kitty” Buhler, a one-time freelance writer and screenwriter who was a thoroughly controlling figure in Bradley’s life (Frank McCarthy once called her “contentious and troublesome”), insisted that Charlton Heston play the role of her husband. Eventually a compromise was reached and the role went to Karl Malden, who turned out to be superb in the role of Bradley.
Coppola eventually produced a script based mainly on the Farago and Bradley books – but the script was too long and therefore was revised by writer Edmund H. North. Although it took a long time and resulted in a great deal of angst between McCarthy and Zanuck, the original Coppola script finally became the basis for the film.
Then, there was not only the question of who would direct the film, but also who would be cast in the role of Patton. One of the first actors tabbed for the role was John Wayne, who was under contract to the studio but who would have been an awful choice had anything ever come of the proposal. Others who were either considered for the role of Patton or who turned it down were a who’s who of big-name stars: Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin and Rod Steiger. Best Actor Academy Award winner Steiger later said that snubbing the role of Patton was the biggest mistake of his career.
The film’s original director was William Wyler, who not only disliked the Coppola script but who later pulled out at the urging of his wife because of his age and the physical demands of filming on location in Spain.
With all of the various actors either turning down or unavailable for the role of Patton, McCarthy was still missing the biggest piece of his film until the day Zanuck summoned McCarthy to a film room where he began rolling a 1966 movie called The Bible: In the Beginning directed by John Huston. Zanuck froze the screen on the Old Testament figure of Abraham and said, “There is your Patton.” The actor playing Abraham was George C. Scott, who at that point in his career had become an increasingly well-known stage and film actor. Although Scott initially accepted the role of Patton, because of Wyler’s dislike of the Coppola script, Scott – who liked it – said, “Count me out.” With Wyler also out, “Now I had no actor and no director,” said McCarthy.
A number of excellent contenders who were either considered for or turned down the job of directing the film included Richard Brooks, John Sturges, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Henry Hathaway, and several others. McCarthy finally landed a first-rate director in Franklin J. Schaffner. He also finally persuaded Scott to play the part of Patton, and Scott jumped into it full bore, determined to bring an authentic Patton portrayal to the role.
Eventually, Patton filming began in Spain. McCarthy hired 4,000 Spanish soldiers as extras, and as an added bonus to Spain’s government the film served as four months of practical maneuver experience for the Spanish army – at the expense of 20th Century Fox. But that then presented another problem: the Spaniards were darker and shorter than American troops. McCarthy explained, “We had to use about 100 of the permanent floating population of ski bums and the like – English, Germans and Scandinavians who are male camp followers of film companies. We had to put them out in front of the Spaniards for shots close to the action.”
That was not the end of the problems with the Spanish army. McCarthy said, “When we showed them the script, they refused at first to believe our portrait of Patton was accurate; for where Patton was a bastard, George C. Scott depicts him as a bastard. They wouldn’t use the army to make the film, they said, because it would be an insult to the comradeship of arms. I had to get the authenticity and the portrayal of Patton certified by the U.S. Army’s historical section before they’d agree.”
Nor were the Spaniards the only issue: Scott had a serious drinking problem that more than once caused delays on the set when he went on a binge and either showed up late or not at all. Scott also had a health issue that delayed filming for two weeks while he recovered.
Nevertheless, Scott’s great acting carried the day, and when the film was finally released in the spring of 1970 it earned over $61 million at the box office and catapulted both Patton and Scott to center stage, a place neither ever lost.
Patton also earned Scott an Academy Award as Best Actor. Altogether, Patton won seven Academy Awards at the April 1971 ceremony, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and several others.
Yet the controversy that had dogged the film for 19 years did not end with the movie’s release, widespread box office success and awards. Although George C. Scott was nominated for and won the Oscar, he had a long-standing disdain for the Academy Awards and declined to attend the ceremony, and McCarthy accepted it on Scott’s behalf. The next day Scott formally refused his Oscar, and McCarthy had to return it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Although Scott had once been unsympathetic to both Patton and his role in the movie, he later said of the film and his character that what made it unique was Patton’s individualism and his understanding that “you live and you die alone – [Patton] knew it and he lived it.” He added, “But foremost about Patton, I believe this man was an individual in the deepest sense of the word. If that is the only message, it’s the goddamndest finest one we’ve had come along in a long time. It is my conviction that had Patton been in charge, the war would have been perceptibly shortened, with thousands and thousands less casualties … our position today would have been different in regards to Russia.”
Patton, said Scott, “possessed qualities and elements in his personality that are sadly lacking in men today.”
Patton’s family, which for so many years had resisted efforts to make a film about the general, loved it. The critics, however, had mixed views. Some praised it, while others loathed it and thought Patton was a warmonger, or they argued that the film glorified war. Other perceptions varied, from those of Eleanor Roosevelt, who thought Patton was the devil, to the belief of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper that Patton was the greatest man who ever lived.
What the Patton film did accomplish was to significantly alter the public’s perception through an honest attempt to portray the real Patton, reflecting both his virtues and his military genius while never sugarcoating his dark side. McCarthy once said he made the film “to study this unique man,” not to lionize him. Only to study him and to say, “My God, what a fascinating character this was!”
Although hardly noticed by those who viewed the film, Patton was paradoxical in that, as one critic later observed, if it glorified anyone it was Omar Bradley, not Patton. Moreover, for decades our collective knowledge of Patton has been based on this popular film and the opinions of Omar Bradley, who detested Patton, but who nevertheless owed him a giant debt for his support during the waning months of the war and for pulling Bradley’s chestnuts from the fire during the Battle of the Bulge.
Although Patton strove to be historically accurate, there was inevitably some Hollywood license. For example, the condescending 1943 meeting between British General Bernard Montgomery and Patton in Messina, Sicily, as portrayed in one of the film’s smarmiest scenes, never occurred. Nor did Patton give his apology for slapping two soldiers in the lush surroundings of a palace. Instead, it mostly took place in hot, dusty Sicilian fields where soldiers in some units, like the Big Red One 1st Infantry Division, had no idea why Patton was even there.
There was one final challenge facing the producer and director: how to end the film. In real life, Patton died in December 1945, shortly after an ill-fated traffic accident in Mannheim, Germany. (See History’s Mysteries, November 2010 ACG.) However, the filmmakers could hardly kill off the hero of their movie; so instead they ended it by having Patton stroll into the sunset in Bavaria, his faithful dog Willie at his side.
When Frank McCarthy died in 1986, at the age of 74, his enduring legacy was the film seen by millions that he had doggedly devoted so many years of his life to making a reality.
Carlo D’Este, Consulting Historian for “Armchair General” magazine and an “ACG” advisory board member, is a renowned historian and biographer who received the 2011 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing. His acclaimed books include “Decision in Normandy,” “Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life,” “Patton: A Genius for War,” and “Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War.”
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Armchair General.