The inspiration behind the memorable opening scene of Patton is a photograph taken in June 1945 at General Patton’s home in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He had just completed a war bond-selling tour throughout the United States and was enjoying his first real vacation since March 1940. Unlike George C. Scott’s Patton, the real George Patton never simultaneously wore all his medals and ribbons. That one day on the back porch of Green Meadows, he only did so at the request of his close friend, Dr. Peer Johnson.
Hollywood’s tendency toward creative license made the Patton family reluctant to consent to a movie, not to mention the anger Beatrice felt toward the press regarding their treatment of her husband in the last few months of his life. In 1950, she began fielding calls from movie studios but categorically refused—as did her children after she died in 1953. However, one man wasn’t willing to give up on the project.
Brigadier General Frank McCarthy was a movie producer who graduated from VMI and enlisted in the Army Reserve at the start of WWII, becoming General Marshall’s aide and eventually the secretary of the General Staff. McCarthy respectfully waited almost twenty years for the Patton family to change their mind, until he and Twentieth Century Fox decided they had waited long enough. Francis Ford Coppola wrote the winning script, which focused on the General’s WWII years, while George C. Scott assumed the title character’s role.
When Patton was finally released in 1970, General Patton’s children were pleasantly surprised. Upon watching the iconic opening scene, his son’s first reaction was consternation that George C. Scott sounded nothing like his father. (You can view a video of General Patton speaking at the LA Memorial Coliseum here.) As the movie progressed, though, he realized Scott did have his Pop’s gestures, and he was particularly moved by the scene of him walking with his men toward Bastogne. The General’s daughter came away with similar feelings, brought to tears not only by Scott’s portrayal but also by the audience’s reaction, and she admitted the family had been wrong in fighting the movie for so long.
In the end, it was George C. Scott who was not happy with the final result, and he refused to accept his Oscar for Best Actor. Ashamed of the movie’s lack of breadth and dimension, he produced The Last Days of Patton in 1986 and reprised his award-winning role to show a more personal side of General Patton alongside his wife, portrayed by Eva Marie Saint. However, no movie or book can ever capture the complex personality of the true General Patton.
In a way, George S. Patton was as much an actor as George C. Scott, playing his role so well that he eventually became one with the character. Beatrice might have found some solace in the fact that Patton helped perpetuate the memory of General Patton. Still, it would have been disappointing to her that George C. Scott did such a good job portraying him that he pretty much replaced her husband in the public’s mind.