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Chuck Ross

It’s Movie Time! This Year Marks the 50th Anniversary of An Astonishingly First-Rate Screenplay. And Even Though the Resulting Movie Won the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, No One Else Will Be Writing About This Until 2020. Why We are Jumping the Gun

Mar 28, 2015

David Lean, often the most dazzling of directors, was once asked about the main characters in his two war epics, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”: “Characters like T.E. Lawrence or Colonel Nicholson seem to be almost symbolic of all that may be thought of as the worst in British character. They’re very curious people, but they’re also very contradictory. Is there any deliberate attempt to do that in your films?”

Lean’s reply, like the question, can be found in “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute,” the indispensable 2006 book edited by George Stevens, Jr. Lean said, “No. I’m just interested in people who are nuts.” He added, “Lawrence is a fascinating character. This Oxford don on camelback. I mean, it was absolutely nutty.”

Similarly, the screenwriter of the 1970 movie “Patton,” when asked, in 1972, if that movie captured his conception of the character, said, “I read all about Patton, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this guy was obviously nuts. If they want to make a film glorifying him as a great American hero, it will be laughed at. And if I write a film that condemns him, it won’t be made at all.’ So I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution, to make him a man out of time, a pathetic hero, a Don Quixote figure. That conception was from my script. I thought I would have the best of both approaches. The people who wanted to see him as a bad guy could say, ‘He was crazy, he loved war.’ The people who wanted to see him as a hero would say, ‘We need a man like that now.’ And that’s exactly the effect the movie had, which is why it was so successful.’”

The screenwriter I’ve just quoted is Francis Ford Coppola, from an interview in “Sight and Sound” magazine. Coppola is best known for directing “The Godfather,” “The Godfather, Part 2,” and “Apocalypse Now.” What most people don’t realize is that Coppola, who will turn 76 a week from Tuesday on April 7th, has won a record three Academy Awards in the writing category, for co-writing the screenplays of “The Godfather,” “The Godfather, Part Two,” and “Patton.” And each of those films also won Oscars for Best Picture.

The reason I’m writing about “Patton” today is to alert our readers in the Los Angeles area that you can catch a rare screening of “Patton” on the big screen – in a widescreen 70 mm format called Dimension 150 – at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood tomorrow, Sunday, March 29th at 9 a.m. (yes, in the morning), as part of this year’s TCM Classic Film festival. [For tickets and other Festival information, please click here.]

If you can’t make it to the Egyptian on Sunday, “Patton” is currently available to stream on both Netflix and Amazon Prime. While it’s best to see on the big screen in a movie theater, I consider the film to be one of the best movies ever made and a must-see in whatever format, though the bigger the screen the better. The best non-theater viewing experience would be the 2-disc 2012 remastered Blu-Ray issue, which is of far superior picture quality to the 2008 Blu-Ray 2-disc version. Importantly, both have the must-listen to commentary by Francis Ford Coppola.

And while this is indeed the 50th anniversary of Coppola’s screenplay, any hoopla about the movie itself would likely not appear until 2020, which is the 50th anniversary of the movie’s actual release.

The battle to get “Patton” on the screen took almost 20 years, some of which I will now recount. And here’s a spoiler alert, as I will be talking very specifically about some scenes in the movie.

To those of us who are fans of Coppola, many of us have long-wondered — since that film has a co-writer who worked on the screenplay after Coppola did —  how much of the “Patton” script he actually wrote was used in the final film.

Well, here’s the story:

“On Oct. 21, 1951, Frank McCarthy a staff producer at 20th Century Fox sent a cable to Darryl F. Zanuck, then the studio head, suggesting a movie about Gen. George S. Patton Jr.,” The New York Times reported in an article written on April 21, 1971. “From Europe, Mr. Zanuck cabled, ‘Get going on it.’”

On and off, for almost the next 20 years, McCarthy struggled to get the movie made. Along the way some of the directors said to be connected to the project included William Wyler, John Huston, Richard Brooks, John Sturges and Henry Hathaway, according to the Times. Some of the actors said to have been offered the part of Patton at one time or another included, the Times said, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, Rod Steiger and Burt Lancaster.

We’re going to pick up the story in 1965. One of the best sources of information about the making of “Patton” is Professor Nicolas Evan Sarantakes’ 2012 book titled “Making Patton: A Classic War Film’s Epic Journey to the Silver Screen.” I highly recommend it. Sarantakes, by the way is not a film professor. He’s an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. One of his primary sources of research were the papers of “Patton” producer McCarthy, which are housed at the Virginia Military Institute’s George C. Marshall Research Library. During World War II McCarthy was an aide to Marshall, and McCarthy actually knew Patton.

In the spring of 1965 it looked like Burt Lancaster was interested in playing “Patton.” Calder Willingham, who was primarily a novelist and who co-wrote the screenplays for “Paths of Glory” and, later, “The Graduate,” was hired to write a treatment and then, if options were exercised, a script. Lancaster pal John Frankenheimer was interested in perhaps directing the project.

McCarthy didn’t like Willingham’s treatment. According to “Making Patton,” McCarthy then “decided to look for another screenwriter. He found him in the person of Francis Ford Coppola. ‘He arrived with a full beard,’ McCarthy recalled. ‘I wouldn’t say exactly a hippie. He had more of a Bolshevik look than anything else.’”

Over the years, Coppola, in various interviews and commentaries, has said that he was anywhere from 24 to 28 when he was hired by McCarthy. In fact , he was 26-years-old. By then Coppola had already graduated from UCLA with a film degree, had written and directed a low-budget movie for Roger Corman called “Dementia 13,” and had co-written, with Gore Vidal, the script for “Is Paris Burning?”

It was the latter work that most interested McCarthy in Coppola. As Coppola later told a contributing writer for the Los Angeles Times Calendar arts section while he was working for McCarthy, “’It’s ridiculous. I was 5 when World War II ended,’ Coppola grinned a little nervously when we met the other day at the [20th Century Fox] studio. ‘But since “Is Paris Burning?” I’ve become a Second World War specialist. But lots of things are ridiculous. People hire you because you might bring with you “fresh ideas,” then they make you do what they’ve always done.’”

According to “Making Patton,” “Coppola delivered a finished screenplay to McCarthy on Nov. 10, 1965. The studio quickly decided to exercise its option…Coppola would revise the script, ensuring the writer got paid [his] full $50,000. McCarthy made no effort to exaggerate his influence in the development of the script. ‘Now, I don’t claim one iota of credit for the script, of course. However, I’m glad that I got a man who was malleable and whom I could guide in certain well selected channels.’”

Coppola handed in his revised script on Dec. 27, 1965.

For reasons that remain unclear – which we will discuss a little later — Coppola then left the project.

On the director level, John Huston become involved and then uninvolved. Then came William Wyler. Wyler didn’t particularly like Coppola’s script. Another script, from James Webb, was commissioned.

By now Lancaster had dropped out and McCarthy was talking to George C. Scott about playing Patton. Scott had liked the Coppola script, and didn’t care for the Webb script. He passed on playing the role. (Are you still following all this?)

Then Wyler decided to drop out of the project.

Franklin Schaffner, who had earned his directorial stripes in live TV drama on CBS’s “Studio One,” then came aboard. He had just directed a huge hit for Fox, “Planet of the Apes.”

Writes Sarantakes in “Making Patton,” “It was 1968. Seventeen years into the project, McCarthy had a director and two flawed scripts. He now needed to find an actor that could play the role and figure out what to do with the screenplays.”

McCarthy went back to George C. Scott. Scott agreed to play the part for $600,000. He had just one stipulation—that Fox use the Coppola script. According to “Making Patton,” McCarthy had once said in a 1969 interview, “Coppola’s script was effulgent, imaginative, airy, really awful good, but in need [of] some restructuring. We lined up [Edmund H.] North, who is a very good writer and craftsman. He took the Coppola script and worked it to the point where it had more cohesion and hung together better, and had a much more workable dramatic structure.”

One of North’s great screenplays was for the 1951 sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Coppola and North shared the screenwriting credit on “Patton,” though Coppola, who had left the project years earlier, never actually worked on “Patton” again, either with North or without him. On April 16, 1971, when, at the Academy Awards ceremony at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles, it was announced that their screenplay had won the Oscar, only North was in attendance. Coppola was in New York, filming “The Godfather,” and, up to that point at least, he had never met North. (Whether Coppola finally met North at some point before North died in 1990 at age 79, I don’t know.)

As I mentioned, the question many of us have always wondered is how much of the script that Coppola turned in on Dec. 27th, 1965, was in the final picture.

In preparing to do this piece, I discovered several weeks ago that North’s papers are housed here in L.A. at UCLA. And among those papers is a copy of Coppola’s second and final draft of “Patton” from Dec. 27, 1965. An “Eureka!” moment. I arranged to go to UCLA and read the Coppola screenplay. As far as I know, this second and final draft of the Coppola screenplay of “Patton” has never been published. For the 5oth anniversary of the film’s release in five years perhaps Fox will publish it, along with the final shooting script that had been revised by North.

Here is the opening of “Patton,” as 26-year-old-Coppola wrote it in 1965:

FADE IN

EXT. PLATFORM – DAY

MED. VIEW

Our entire frame is filled with the image of an American flag, stretched   tight. We HEAR a jumble of conversation in the b.g.; then:

VOICE (o.s.)

At-ten-shun!

Now we HEAR the click of hundreds of boots. GENERAL GEORGE S. PATTON, JR. steps into our VIEW; more than six-feet-tall, he looms high against the b.g. of the flag. He glares down at us, the audience.

A MILITARY BAND plays THE STAR SPANLED BANNER, [and] Patton comes to a smart salute and we watch him for the duration of the anthem. He is straight and husky and as gaudy as a peacock. His helmet is lacquered and shines with three silver stars. He wears a tailored tunic, with three stars on each shoulder, thirty brightly-hued decorations on the left breast, five horizontal and three diagonal gold stripes on the sleeve. Beneath the tunic he wears a shirt with three stars on each lapel, making a total of fifteen stars. A vivid blue sash is draped across his breast, parallel to one of yellow. A red collar sash weighted by another medal hangs from his neck. The rest of his costume consists of a gold-buckled belt, with his ivory-handled pistols on either side, riding breeches, boots, and a riding crop. Three stars on the handle of his pistols brings the grand total to twenty-one stars. On his fingers he wears four conspicuous rings.

As the anthem is finally concluded, Patton completes his salute. Now this twenty-one star general scans us carefully. In a vibrant voice, and with a cold, mean look, he speaks directly at us.

PATTON
At ease, men. I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

Abruptly, but silently, our MAIN TITLE: P A T T O N is flashed over this image, not interrupting the speech. The credit titles continue, throughout the speech and the single view of Patton.

PATTON

Men, the stuff we heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war was a lot of horsedung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle.

When you were kids you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the big-league ball players, the toughest boxers.

Americans love a winner and do not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, for the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.

An army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a lot of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real battle than they do about a sock full of silt.

We have the finest food, equipment, the best spirit and men in the world. Why, by God, I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against – By God, I do. We won’t just shoot the bastards. We’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel.

Many of you boys are wondering whether you’ll chicken out under fire. Don’t worry about it; I can assure you you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them and spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly! When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face. . .you’ll know what to do.

There’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying: “We are holding our position.” We’re not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We’re advancing constantly and are not interested in holding anything, except onto the enemy.

We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and kick him in the ass. We’ll kick the hell out of him all the time. We’ll go through them like crap through a goose.

And then when this war’s over and we’ve shot the heads off those cocky Hun bastards, we’ll go over to the Pacific and get those purple-piffling Japs.

All right – you sonsuvbitches know how I feel, and you know I want the fightingest little sonsuvbitches that’ve ever fought a war.

(pause, AS THE DIRECTOR’s CREDIT IS

GIVEN)
One more thing, I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere.

He stares sincerely, almost wet-eyed, at us for a moment.

PATTON

That is all.

 

 

When this scene was actually filmed, four years later, in 1969, remarkably, it was filmed almost exactly as Coppola had written it. There was no national anthem played, and the movie’s credits actually ran after the speech was over. And Patton was dressed as a four-star general, not a three-star general. But the speech itself, which Coppola said he cobbled together from various speeches Patton actually made, was delivered by George C. Scott almost verbatim.

The final speech varied in only two places. In the first instance, Scott says that the “bastards from the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real battle than they do about fornicating.” Many thought that was likely a substitute for the word that Patton probably really used – the more earthy “fucking” – to help ensure that the film get nothing stronger than a “Mature” rating. In fact, Coppola had used neither word. In the final script he turned in he had written that the “bastards from the Saturday Evening Post don’t know any more about real battle than they do about a sock full of silt.” Whether or not Coppola had chosen the word “silt” as his euphemism of choice, I don’t know.

The other place the speech differed from what Coppola wrote was its end, where Patton starts taking about fighting in the Pacific. It’s likely producer McCarthy dropped those lines, as he didn’t want to offend potential moviegoers in Japan.

So here’s what Scott said instead:

PATTON

Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you: “What did you do in the great World War ll?” you won’t have to say: “Well, I shovelled shit in Louisiana. ”

Scott then ends the speech the way Coppola wrote it:

PATTON

All right – you sonsuvbitches know how I feel. I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere.

He stares sincerely, almost wet-eyed, at us for a moment.

PATTON

That is all.

Let’s spend a little more time talking about this opening. Coppola was quite proud of its conception and thought it was the best scene he wrote in his screenplay. He felt it was a particularly smart and clever way for the audience to quickly get a handle on who Patton was without having to show a lot of exposition or back story.

The most expansive Coppola has been about his involvement in writing the “Patton” screenplay that was later revised by Edmond North was in a commentary he recorded to accompany a 2006 DVD release of the film. That commentary, recorded when Coppola was 67, was also included in Blu-Ray releases in 2008 and 2012.

Here’s how his commentary begins: “Hello, I’m Francis Ford Coppola. I was about 27 or 28 when I was given the job to write a screenplay for this movie.” As I said, for some reason Coppola rarely recalls his real age when he wrote this screenplay, which was 26.

Coppola later says, “I remember taking every book written on the subject and I began to put little cards of every incident that I found interesting and try to take out what the essence was. And for me, the most important, interesting fact was Patton, as sort of a Southern Gentleman, was literary. He had read history. He had a sense for this poetic metaphor of the idea that perhaps he had lived in other times. When there had been a battle in ancient times, he had been there. I seized upon that as a possible concept that would make him very interesting, and therefore, make his story be acceptable to both the liberals, who might say he was just a brute and a right wing military hawk, and also to the right wing people, who would say, well, he was a great general, and no doubt he was.

“My screenplay begins [with] people [saying] “Ten-Hut!” and you hear hundreds of boots, and I just had Patton make a speech right to the audience as though the audience was his men.

“This was very odd for its time, and that famous speech George C. Scott gives is mostly Patton’s words, but from five or six different speeches.”

“At any rate [after turning in his revised screenplay] the project was just kinda dead. I was let go, sorta in failure, and specifically I was let go because of the opening sequence. They told me they found the script very odd and this opening sequence which just begins with Patton in front of a big flag talking to the audience was totally strange.

“Now, all you young people bear note that the things you are fired for are often the things in later life that you are celebrated [for] and given life-time achievements for. So, don’t worry when you, you find that your ideas are, are put down. It’s just because they are new or they’re, they’re against the grain. And indeed, I was fired from ‘Patton’ for the opening scene of the picture, which you all know and which has become a famous scene. So, a word to the wise.”

This commentary, recorded in 2006, was not the first time Coppola said that the opening scene of his screenplay was so offbeat that he was fired from working on “Patton.”

I have read a number of interviews with Coppola, and the first time I could find him mentioning this scenario was in 1994. It’s possible he said it before 1994 in an interview I have not seen.

What Coppola said in a June, 1994 interview with the Academy of Achievement, is this: “I wrote the script of ‘Patton.’ And the script was very controversial when I wrote it, because they thought it was so stylized. It was supposed to be like, sort of, you know, ‘The Longest Day’ [ a more traditional war picture about D-Day that Fox had released in1962]. And my script of ‘Patton was — I was sort of interested in the reincarnation. And I had this very bizarre opening where he stands up in front of an American flag and gives this speech. Ultimately, I wasn’t fired, but I was fired, meaning that when the script was done, they said, ‘Okay, thank you very much,’ and they went and hired another writer and that script was forgotten. And I remember very vividly this long, kind of being raked over the coals for this opening scene. My point is that what I’ve learned is that the stuff that I got in trouble for, the casting for ‘The Godfather’ or the flag scene in ‘Patton,’ was the stuff that was remembered, and was considered really the good work. “

When Coppola is recounting his “firing” in 1994 it’s almost 30 years after the fact. Professor Sarantakes, in “Making Patton,” says flatly that “In later years, Coppola has distorted the facts, claiming he was fired.” Sarantakes makes his pronouncement based on the trove of McCarthy’s papers that he researched. He said McCarthy and most everyone at Fox praised Coppola’s screenplay and did not have a problem with the opening speech.

Sarantakes said McCarthy –and Richard Zanuck at the studio – knew that Coppola had been offered to direct his own screenplay of “You’re a Big Boy Now,” and, knowing that Coppola ultimately wanted to direct, did not want to stand in his way of that project. “So I reluctantly recommend that we release [Coppola] tomorrow,” McCarthy wrote to Zanuck in a February, 1966 memo, writes Sarantakes. Zanuck then wrote in the margin of McCarthy’s memo, “I agree,” and Coppola was let go.

Sarantakes could very well be right that Coppola has not remembered correctly the circumstances of his leaving the “Patton” project. However, of course, McCarthy’s memo does not preclude the possibility that McCarthy himself or some other studio executive at Fox had told Coppola that they hated his opening, leaving Coppola feeling that that was the real reason he was not asked to stay with the “Patton” project.

What I can tell you, having now read Coppola’s 202-page revised script of “Patton” that he turned in on Dec. 27th, 1965, is that most of the key scenes (and dialogue) of the film, as shot four years later and released in 1970—are in that script. That’s not to say Edmund North’s contributions were not invaluable, primarily in tightening Coppola’s scenes and creating some more historical accuracy and continuity.

Not only was Coppola lucky as to the respect that McCarthy, Zanuck and George C. Scott had for his script, but Coppola was also fortunate that director Franklin Schaffner and the other craftsmen and craftswomen on the film bought into that vision as well.

In a film that lasts nearly three hours there is only about a half-hour of music, but Jerry Goldsmith’s score is nothing short of stunning, especially the haunting echoing trumpet motif representing Patton’s connection to the past.

The widescreen photography, by Fred Koenekamp, is spectacular. Not in a Freddy Young/David Lean manner of taking one’s breath away, but in a razor-sharp, you-are-there sense.

As Coppola himself notes in his DVD/Blu-Ray commentary, the logistics of the production were mind-numbingly difficult, and Schaffner’s directorial management, combining the epic and the personal, is quite an accomplishment. And, mind you, all the spectacular pyrotechnics are “real” in that “Patton” was filmed before the use of computer generated images.

Critic Joseph Morgenstern, writing a review in Newsweek on Feb. 16, 1970, wrote, “Time and again Patton is portrayed as a deceitful, self-justifying megalomaniac who can’t follow orders. Yet the movie makes shrewd, sentimental capital of the soldier-slapping incident and Patton’s subsequent fall from favor.”

Robert K. Johnson, then an English professor at Suffolk University, who also notes Morgenstern’s criticism, then writes in his 1977 book “Francis Ford Coppola,” that “Patton” “does drift toward an ever-more-sympathetic, affirmative view of Patton. It is hard to conceive of its becoming a big-box-office success if it did not do so. This gradual tipping of the scales, however, is never so blatant and insistent as to offend the members of the audience who would find a romanticized depiction of war and the warrior intolerable. Furthermore, the film very much appealed to those viewers (and there may have been many such viewers) who were neither one hundred per cent for war nor one hundred percent against war, but who had ambivalent feelings about war and this kind of national hero.”

I think that’s right. And I also think that’s one of the reasons “Patton” holds up today. As Johnson goes on to say, “What is finally most important is that the portrait of Patton does contain so much ambiguity—so many richly realistic contradictions….[Patton] is one of the most complex and fascinating characters shown on the screen. At its frequent best, the presentation does make it difficult to label this character. For he will not simplify himself in order to make it easy for someone to judge him. “

How smart of Coppola, at 26, to come up with the presentation of “Patton” as he did, and how fortunate that when it was finally filmed four years later it was primarily that vision that made it to the screen.

Dunno about you, but when I was 26 I was still selling cable TV subscriptions door-to-door every night, hoping I’d get home in time to check out this new show on ABC called “Vega$” that looked pretty cool.

Oh, oh, one last anecdote about “Patton.” This is Coppola again, speaking during his DVD/Blu-Ray commentary about the movie: “Years later, ‘Patton’ had come out, much as I had written it, [and] I was working on ‘The Godfather.’ And I was really almost about to get fired from ‘The Godfather.’ And it turned out that ‘Patton’ won Best Screenplay and I won an Oscar.” [The actual day of the Oscarcast Coppola had been on-location directing ‘The Godfather’ for about a month.]

“And I really think, to this day, that had I not won that Oscar, for sure I would have been fired off ‘The Godfather,’ because it looked that way. But you know, it’s a big thing to win an Oscar, and maybe [the executives at Paramount] would [have been] embarrassed to fire me after such a nice thing.

“In a funny way, I think my work on ‘Patton,’ which was many years before, saved me and enabled me to make ‘The Godfather’ and not get fired. And so, in life, all these things are connected.”

pattonGeorge C. Scott Stars in “Patton”

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