How accurate is the movie Patton?

Patton starring George C. Scott

"Patton" is a biopic of one of America’s greatest generals in World War II. The motion picture portrays the role of General George S. Patton, the most famous Allies tank commander of WW II. It concentrates on Patton’s career from 1942 to 1945. The movie begins with Patton's career during the North Africa campaign and his battle with Rommel, the Desert Fox. It then follows his part in the invasion of Sicily, his disgrace for striking a soldier and his role in the liberation of Europe after the D-Day landings and his role in the fall of the Third Reich. The feature also briefly deals with his role in post-war Germany and his death in an accidental car crash in the winter of 1945.

The movie shows the strengths and weakness of this most difficult and brilliant man. The movie Patton was released in 1970 during the midst of the Vietnam War. When it was released it was both a critical and financial success. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the movie was scripted by Francis Ford Coppola of Godfather fame and Edward Hill [1]. The film was produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The role of Patton was played by the American character actor George C Scott. The movie was enthusiastically received by both the public and the critics and won several Academy Awards. This article will discuss how accurate was the movie and did it reflect the reality of Patton’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Patton and the opening Speech

The movie has one of the most memorable opening scenes in Hollywood history. George C. Scott emerges as Patton and gives a remarkable speech in front of a huge banner of the Stars and Stripes. The opening scene was written by Francis Ford Coppola and was not intended to be in the final cut of the movie but the director had second thoughts and luckily left it in. The speech of Patton was a unique blend of patriotism, nobility and crudities. However, Patton never gave such a speech. Yet it would be wrong to state that the speech was just a fabrication. Coppola cleverly took quotes from Patton’s speeches and interviews with reports and combined them in a brilliant way.[2] The words in the speech are Patton’s apart from some lines used by the screenwriter to integrate the quotes into a coherent speech. The result was one of the most outstanding introductions in movie history but strictly speaking the American general never gave such a speech.

Patton in North Africa

One of the uniforns worn by George C Scott during Patton

The movie after the opening credits show the aftermath of a terrible American defeat in Kasserine Pass in Tunisia. Rommel had ruthlessly exposed the weakness and lack of experience of the Americans and inflicted upon them a severe setback. It is believed that some 2000 American G.I.s died in the disaster. We first see Patton inspecting the battlefield after his appointment as commander. George Patton was a great admirer of Rommel and he studied his work and tactics. The movie correctly shows how the American general based his strategy against Rommel on the Desert Fox’s own ideas.

The 1970 feature shows Patton reforming the army units that were defeated at Kasserine Pass and imposing strict discipline on the soldiers. He was a stickler when it came to the rules and discipline. This had a powerful impact on the G.Is and Patton did manage to transform them into a formidable fighting force. In the next battle, they did manage to defeat the Germans under Rommel and this was a very important victory for America as it showed to their allies that they could defeat the Germans on their own[3]. However, the part played by Patton in the allied victory over the Afrika Korps is overstated. It took until 1943 for the allies to wear the Germans down in Tunisia and Patton did not play the decisive role in the Allied victory that the movie implied and that the General would often claim.

Patton in Sicily

Patton in 1944

The film does accurately relate the leading role played by Patton in the liberation of Sicily. His daring use of armor was crucial in the defeat of the Nazis on the island. The movie does show Patton being motivated by the desire to do better than General Montgomery, the victor at El Alamein. There was a great personal rivalry between the two men who were both driven and wildly ambitious and in many ways alike. The rivalry between Montgomery and Patton was a feature of the Sicilian campaign and was perhaps a factor in why it ended so quickly and with a decisive Allied victory. In fact, the rivalry was not as intense as the motion picture suggests and the two men worked together when needed for the good of the Allied cause[4].

The movie shows Patton after visiting the wounded seeing a shell-shocked soldier. The G.I. was unable to continue fighting and had been sent behind the lines for treatment. Patton is outraged when he sees the soldier who does not have any physical wounds and is assumed by him to be a malingerer and he verbally and physically assaults him. When this was seen by a reporter it was widely publicized in America and elsewhere [5]. This incident did lead to Patton being ordered to stand down and he was not given a front-line posting for almost a year. However, what the movie failed to show was that Patton slapped two different soldiers who he accused of being cowards. The scene where Patton apologizes to the soldier was accurate. The movie accurately reflects Patton’s reaction to his disgrace in Sicily.

The movie portrayal of Patton

It is generally accepted that Patton or "Old Blood and Guts" as his men liked to call him was an outstanding soldier who possessed an oversized personality. He captures the essence of the man and his many contradictions. Patton was a cultured man and believed in traditional values yet he could also be crude and a bully.[6] The drive and the ambition of Patton are also brilliantly captured in the movie. He was a very ambitious man and believed that he was a great leader and from childhood he believed that he was destined for greatness.

The physical bravery of Patton is shown in many instances. It also accurately catches the outspokenness of the General and his love of publicity. Never shy to boast about his exploits, Patton was regularly in the papers and was a very well-known figure in America. The movie also traces the relationship between Patton and General Omar Bradley and indeed the two men were close friends and colleagues. The movie gets right many of the details of Patton’s life such as his pearl-handled revolvers and his white English bull terrier [7]. These were part of the public image of Old Blood and Guts, which he cultivated assiduously. The movie does catch the character of the General.

Patton and the Phantom Army

Patton is shown in the wilderness after his disgrace in Sicily. He is show in the movie as appointing the famous ‘Phantom Army.’ [8] This was the case in real life and Patton was placed in charge of a phantom army that was designed to deceive the Nazis concerning the location of the D-Day landings. Patton was part of an elaborate plan of misinformation that fooled the Germans into thinking that the invasion of Europe would happen at Calais and not in Normandy.

This deception known as Operation Fortitude was very successful and helped to ensure that the D-Day Landings were a success. This is all accurate and it shows Patton’s deep unhappiness at this time. He regarded his command of the Phantom Army as a humiliation and believed that he was being denied a share of the glory of D-Day. The movie also shows how desperate Patton was to return to combat despite General Dwight Eisenhower’s, the allied army’s Chief of Staff, doubts about his reliability. The film also shows Patton begging for his old position but this was not the case. While he was a proud man, it had already been agreed that he would return to a front-line command role after D-Day.[9] The movie while not completely accurate does capture Patton at this personally difficult time for him before and after D-Day.

Paton and the Liberation of Europe

Patton was appointed commander of the US Third Army a few weeks after Normandy. This was accurate. It was in this campaign that he displayed his greatest skills as a commander. The movie shows Patton brilliantly employing his tanks to break out of Normandy and allow the allied army to advance into the central plains of France and onwards to Paris. The movie captures very well Patton’s advance towards the German border and how the advance was halted because the 3rd army had run out of fuel. This was the case and the movie shows the anger and frustration felt by Patton at this fact[10].

He truly believed that if he had been given more fuel that he could have ended the war in Europe much more quickly. The movie does not really show Patton’s role in the Lorraine campaign on the German-French border. Here Patton defeated a counter-attack by a Panzer Army but was told that he could not advance into Germany. This was a bitter disappointment to Patton as he once again believed that General Eisenhower was frustrating his efforts to bring the war in Europe to a swift conclusion. This crucial part of Patton’s story is not presented in the movie.

The Battle of the Bulge was one of Patton’s and indeed the American army’s finest hours. The General led his units in a counterattack that was pivotal in driving the German counter-attack back. The role of Patton in the Battle is not exaggerated and he played a very important role in the American victory. One famous scene in the movie is incorrect. We are shown Patton as praying for the weather to improve so that he and his men could receive air support to defeat the Nazis.[11] Patton ordered an army Chaplin to compose a prayer to ask God for clear weather. This happened but not as shown during the Battle of the Bulge but rather during the 3rd army’s campaign in Lorraine.

Patton and Reincarnation

One of the sub-themes in the movie was Patton’s belief in reincarnation. In one scene Patton is shown as visiting the battlefield of Zama where the Romans had defeated Hannibal. Patton is shown as sensing, that in a previous life he had fought in the battle, over 2000 years earlier. This visit with Bradley was highly unlikely. The belief in reincarnation is shown to be very important in Patton life’s and gave him a sense of purpose and a belief that he was a person apart. This was probably very important in the development of the mental outlook of Patton.[12] The movie has a German intelligence officer whose duty it is to monitor Patton and to understand him, the Steiger, as he is referred to in the movie. There was no such officer and the character is a pure invention. The scriptwriters created this figure to expand upon the theme of reincarnation in the movie epic.

How accurate was Patton?

Hollywood and history usually do not mix. It is quite common for filmmakers to take a historical subject and to distort it for their own purposes and to dumb- it down for entertainment purposes. In the case of Patton there was no real attempt to distort the story of Patton. There are glaring inaccuracies such as Patton’s opening speech in the movie but even this was based on his own statements and captured the character of the man, something even acknowledged by the Generals’ family. Much of the details of his role in the defeat of Germany are true. The only real omission was the lack of focus on Patton’s Lorraine Campaign, where he distinguished himself. There are some exaggerations in the movie and some minor distortions such as in the weather-prayer scene. In general, the movie managed to produce a great overview of the character and career of an extraordinary American leader.

References

  1. Cousins, Mark. The Story of Film: A Worldwide History (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006), p. 213
  2. Cousins, p. 214
  3. D'Este, Carlo, Patton: A Genius for War (New York City: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 113
  4. D’Este, p. 119
  5. Lovelace, Alexander G. "The Image of a General: The Wartime Relationship between General George S. Patton Jr. and the American Media", Journalism History, 40 (no. 2 (Summer 2014)), pp. 108–120
  6. Essame, H., Patton: A Study in Command (New York City: Scribner & Sons, 1995), p. 67
  7. Essame, p. 203
  8. D’Este, p. 2013
  9. D’Este, p. 213
  10. Essame, p. 203
  11. Farago, Ladislas, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (New York City: Ivan Sergeyevich Obolensky, 1964), p. 145
  12. Fargo, p. 213