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11 April

President Truman fires General MacArthur, 1951

Today in 1951, President Truman fired his most popular, successful general, Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur had been chief of staff of the US army in the 1930s, had been commander of the US Army in the Far East and supreme commander of the southwest Pacific during the Second World War. It was MacArthur who accepted the surrender of the Japanese in 1945 ,and it was MacArthur who effectively governed Japan between 1945 and 1951.

It was also MacArthur who led the United Nations forces into Korea, where he was initially successful, before being pushed back south of the 38th parallel, the dividing line between north and south Korea. In early 1951, under General Ridgway, the US eighth army retook Seoul and pushed on to the 38th parallel.

It was at this point that MacArthur wrote a letter to the US Congress – bypassing the president, the commander-in-chief – which criticised Truman’s policy both in Asia and globally. Truman responded by firing him, which made the already unpopular president even more unpopular – his approval rating of 22% being an all time low for a serving president.

Patton (1970, dir: Franklin J Schaffner)

Patton is the film that the less successful 1977 biopic MacArthur wants to be. And that’s largely down to the casting of George C Scott as the bulldog general, knocking Gregory Peck’s somnolent MacArthur into a braided hat.

Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay (written with Edmund North) is heroic too, injecting that fierce love of combat into the character of Patton, as Coppola would later into Lt Col Kilgore (Robert Duvall) in Apocalypse Now. The sense of the epic is here too, with Coppola and North painting Patton as a general whose dedication to his craft and his country are founded on something almost supernatural, certainly something bigger than himself (whether Patton actually believed that in a previous life he had been an imperial Roman warrior I don’t know, but Coppola has him state it here).

Released at the height of opposition to Vietnam, the film managed to be well received on both sides, thanks to Coppola’s work on a script which plays to a certain anti-war sentiment. And here’s where Scott comes in, playing Patton as at least 25% mad, the sort of man who you want inside the tent pissing out, as Lyndon Johnson said of J Edgar Hoover, rather than vice versa. Devotees of Dr Strangelove will notice more than a touch of Scott’s bonkers General Buck Turgidson in his Patton too.

It’s a long film, and Scott is there for most of it. Though it concentrates mostly on the closing years of the Second World War, Patton’s finest hour, it opens with the iconic shot of Patton, huge, standing in front of the American flag, even huger – and in its original 70mm awesome – then moves to his defeat of Rommel in North Africa and the invasion of Sicily, where he disobeys orders in order to beat the British general Montgomery to the prize of Messina.

In the “boy loses girl” segment, structure borrowed from romantic comedy, we also see Patton forfeiting his command for slapping an apparently uninjured soldier he happens upon in a hospital. Before he comes back stronger than ever to win battle after battle as the Allies head towards Germany after the D-Day invasion. Ra ra ra.

In an echo of MacArthur’s dismissal, it is Patton’s unguarded remarks that get him fired, bringing to a muted end a glorious life of service.

Fox chucked a vault of cash at Patton and it’s all there on the screen – big names, lots of locations, a cast of thousands, and cinematography of remarkable virtuosity. And at nearly three hours’ running time, it gave Coppola a taste for the epic. He followed up, enabled by the success of Patton, with The Godfather.

Why Watch?

  • George C Scott won an Oscar – which he declined
  • Schaffner’s follow-up to Planet of the Apes
  • Great support from Karl Malden, Michael Bates, Jack Gwillim
  • Fred Koenekamp’s 70mm cinematography

Patton – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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