Patton selected his .357 Magnum and a baseball bat. MacArthur chose an original Model of 1911 and a bolo knife. I met their ghosts at dawn at a nondescript grassy plain somewhere alongside the Hudson River. After a bit of friendly but restrained banter, I outlined the rules of the day.
And …, wait, hold on. [shuffles papers] [unintelligible muttering] I know, hold on. [throws papers] Yeah, okay, that didn’t happen.
But what did happen is a long while back I visited MacArthur’s ivory skeleton box.
So for whatever reason I decided to rewatch Patton and then watch MacArthur the whole way through for the first time. Then I decided to compare the two, because why not. For those who have seen both movies you know how this is going to end. But this is all for fun, so why not.
All the pieces were in place from the start. Patton pulls a decent director in Franklin J. Schaffner who made some good films beyond just this one and also served in combat in said war. They got some c-grade hack named Francis Ford Coppola to write the script.
MacArthur gets stuck with some guy named Joseph Sargent and a writer known as Hal Barwood who you all will surely remember as the guiding hand behind the Oscar nominated video game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Oichalcum plot twists my ass, Hal, what the hell were you thinking? Indy wasn’t like that. [throws chair]
MacArthur also pulled a budget 1/4 less even though it was made seven years later. For whatever reason MacArthur’s creators then decide to compound the impending misery by covering a span of ten years instead of Patton’s three, all with a running time 40 minutes shorter than Patton.
In terms of MacArthur, I think a bunch of producers got together and decided to shoehorn a Patton clone, they somehow got Gregory Peck involved, and figured even though they were setting it up for failure that it’d somehow all work it and still make a bunch of gold. It didn’t.
MacArthur made a fraction of Patton’s money, lives with justifiably poor reviews, and just leaves you with sense of apathy. When you’re done with Patton you get the idea you’ve just watched something powerful. When MacArthur’s over you shut off your television and go get another beer.
Peck, who remains one of my favorite actors, touched on this:
I admit that I was not terribly happy with the script they gave me, or with the production they gave me which was mostly on the back lot of Universal. I thought they shortchanged the production.
No kidding. Yet for some reason Peck would still go on to say this was one of his most favorite roles. Maybe because MacArthur was a victorious general, famous and mostly beloved, and Peck got to do a whole bunch of long monologues.
A good example of the disparity is that Jerry Goldsmith did the music for both flicks. You can hear Patton right now, picture the light notes of the trumpet across the North African desert. You know that music. It will live forever. Now you go ahead and try and remember one note from MacArthur. You can’t because Jerry phoned it in. So did everybody else.
MacArthur is just going through the motions, they portray MacArthur’s evacuation of the Philippines in the first ten minutes of the film. It’s one of his most controversial and gut wrenching decisions and we see it immediately with no buildup, no time to establish the film. It’s jarring how quickly this scene shows up.
Conversely the movie is nearly an hour long by the time we see Patton confront his inability to keep his mouth shut and the ever eternal slapping of one of his men. These scenes have power because the movie has taken its time to build a character and story.
The crazy thing about Patton is that so many of the memorable parts we take as genius, thus making MacArthur look silly, almost never happened at all. Nobody wanted to go with the opening flag speech scene. George C. Scott wanted nothing to do with it. So Schaffner just lied to him and said it’d be filmed at the end.
Says Coppola on the commentary tack, “All you young people, bear note, that the things that you are fired for are, are often the things in later life that you are celebrated and given lifetime achievements for.
Patton also has to deal with the enduring reality that it was made without Patton’s input, family, diary, notes, and thus relied heavily on Omar Bradley. I can say what I want about MacArthur’s poor film execution, but the content at face value is likely almost entirely accurate. The same cannot be said of Patton.
If you ask me, the most controversial aspect of the film is not Patton himself but Bradley’s presence. It’s open to interpretation just how much of Scott’s portrayal of Patton’s personality is a mythical creation inside Bradley’s mind. It makes for wonderful movie, but maybe perhaps not the look Patton himself would appreciate. From my end, I think this is how Patton was, some of the time, as in an act. A deliberate act of leadership. The rest of the time he was likely the thoughtful military professional his writings depict, but that which does not make for entertaining movie.
In the end, the best part of these two movies though is that I think that bizarrely, both Patton and MacArthur got the movies they would have personally wanted. Patton got to be played by George C. Scott and seen forever as an eternal warrior monk badass. And MacArthur gets Gregory Peck, who gives a bunch of cool long speeches for two hours. In this sense, they both win the duel. As always, in their own way.
Gentlemen! I will now count off the paces. No General MacArthur, I do not know the current exact time of day. General Patton, please wait till my countdown is completed before you wield your bat. General Patton!