George C Scott in Patton


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Patton – at Amazon





Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 December



Joseph Conrad born, 1857

On this day in 1857, Jozéf Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, later known as Joseph Conrad, was born in Berdichev, in what was then the Russian Empire. Conrad was the son of Polish nobility and considered himself Polish. Conrad’s father was a political campaigner against the Russian occupation of his country and his activism got him first imprisoned in Warsaw, then exiled to Vologda, 500 km north of Moscow. Conrad was home-schooled by his father, who instilled in him a love of Polish literature and Shakespeare. By 1869 both Conrad’s mother and father were dead and his upbringing was taken over by an uncle, who eventually enrolled him in the French merchant navy. After four years Jozéf joined the British merchant navy, where he spent most of the next 15 years. Somewhere during this stint he spent three years working for a Belgian trading company, and he became captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Conrad took up writing aged 36 in 1894, by which time he had moved to England and anglicised his name. Though English was his third language (after Polish and French), Conrad chose to write in it, most probably because he lived in that country. His stories were often tales of sea-going adventure, with a romantic touch that allied them to the Poland of his birth, though their manner was reminiscent of the French authors he so admired. This polyphony of styles made Conrad unique in English. An emotional, nerve-wracked, pessimist who was always in poor physical health, Conrad had attempted suicide when he was 20, though he lived to the age of 66 before dying, most probably of a heart attack.




Apocalypse Now (1979, dir: Francis Ford Coppola)

Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t the first to adapt a Conrad story for the movies. Victor Fleming had made Lord Jim into a film in 1925. Hitchcock had tackled Sabotage in 1936 and Ridley Scott had taken on The Duellists (from Conrad’s The Duel) in 1977. But they all take a back seat to Apocalypse Now. The film’s title had been coined by screenwriter John Milius, whose antipathy to hippies and their blissed out slogans, such as “Nirvana Now”, had prompted the legendary right-wing blowhard to blow right back. It is the notoriously difficult, non-appeasing, truculent, anti-peacenik view of the Vietnam War that gives Apocalypse Now one of its many edges, and Milius’s prickly dialogue pointing up the glamour of war – “napalm in the morning” etc – that gives it a lot of its enduring appeal. War is hell, but it’s also great fun – especially as seen by a generation who were casting aside the bonds of family. The story of a ship going up river to where a man named Kurtz has established himself as a god is lifted directly from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the film’s atmosphere is a read-across from the impressions that Conrad himself formed on his own journey up river, the horror of which never left him. That simple arc – a ship goes up river, things getting worse all the time – is the skeleton on which Coppola hangs his film, a film that lays out the truth of the Vietnam War in one of Marlon Brando’s closing speeches, the one about North Vietnamese hacking off arms inoculated against polio – that “Charlie” is going to win the war because he is prepared to do anything to win it. That said, Apocalypse Now doesn’t function as a bag of ideas about Vietnam, it’s more a sensory approximation of the war, which Coppola perhaps foolishly described with his vainglorious line “This isn’t a film about Vietnam. This film is Vietnam”. Take the enduring images: that mad entertainment spectacle of Playboy bunnies in the middle of a tropical nightmare; the helicopters flying to the Ride of the Valkyries; the explosive finale; Martin Sheen emerging glistening from the river; the cow being slaughtered; Dennis Hopper skittering about with the cameras jangling around his neck. Most films would kill to have one of those. And the film uses voiceover, usually the sign of a film in trouble. But when you’ve got “Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon” as a foundation, no wonder the movie is this great.



Why Watch?


  • Walter Murch’s editing
  • Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography
  • Young Harrison Ford, even younger Laurence Fishburne
  • Even the making-of film is great


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Apocalypse Now – at Amazon





The Rainmaker

Danny DeVito and Matt Damon in The Rainmaker



A half-hearted, second-rate vehicle designed to help carry Matt Damon to stardom, in which he takes his shirt off to play a principled rookie lawyer taking on a big bad medical insurance company. It’s written by John Grisham and while it’s in legal territory Grisham’s thrusting plot dynamics carry it forward. But that wouldn’t have suited the film’s agenda, which is more about Mr D’s career progression than telling a decent story. So as well as legal drama we have rather a lot of sub-plot in which Damon does the amorous hokey-cokey with the winsome Claire Danes, a client worth bending his professional ethics for. Other ornaments in this enjoyably decorated firmament include Danny De Vito as a squawking legal factotum called Deck Shifflet (full marks for that name, Mr Grisham) and Jon Voight as a bruising lawyer with “the man” engraved where his soul should be. It’s solid in the courtroom, shaky pretty much everywhere else, though Damon’s role is well delineated – he’s a rookie and he quite properly doesn’t have all the answers. The director’s credit goes to Francis Ford Coppola, who claims he read the book and asked to direct the film. Though it’s hard to shake the suspicion that this is strictly gun-for-hire work.

© Steve Morrissey 1998


The Rainmaker – at Amazon