Patton: Brass Target (1978)

Who first hypothesized that General Patton was assassinated? And when? We have the detailed work of Robert K. Wilcox in his book Target Patton, published in 2008. How many years before that did rumors of his assassination appear?

It’s of interest that a star-studded movie appeared in 1978 named Brass Target, and it portrayed a full-blown fictional account of Patton’s assassination built around gold thefts that never were solved. The movie was based upon a novel written by Frederick Nolan in 1974 titled The Oshawa Project and published in America as The Algonquin Project.

Robert Vaughn, an army officer in Germany immediately after the war, engineers a train robbery in which 59 soldiers are ruthlessly gassed to death. He has conspired with Edward Herrmann, his bed buddy, and Patrick McGoohan, among others. They’ve made off with $250 million of gold, never found. General Patton (George Kennedy) was in charge of it. After being chastised by a Russian general for losing the gold, Kennedy vows to recover it. Vaughn, fearing the General’s tenacity, arranges to have him assassinated by an unknown but top-notch hit-man, Max von Sydow. The idea is to make it look like an accident. Meanwhile, Bruce Davison has brought John Cassavetes into the case to locate the gold and robbers, he having been quite the OSS operative earlier in the war and having himself led a similar attack on a train in a tunnel. Cassavetes knows both McGoohan and von Sydow, but the latter has always maintained cover stories. He is known for some shady dealings but not as an assassin certainly, and he carefully covers all his tracks. All three have in common that they have been lovers of Sophia Loren, who has managed by this means to avoid becoming a penniless and driven refugee. Her role in the plot is critical to Cassavetes’ success or failure in two places that relate to him in his hunt for the unknown assassin, von Sydow.

Supporting the official story, critic Vincent Canby of The New York Times dismissed the film as dubious conspiracy theory. Yea or nay, Brass Target is actually very enjoyable entertainment. It’s very much like a spy story, featuring machinations and conspiracy. In view of Wilcox’s work, author Nolan seems to have had some sense of something fishy in how Patton died.

The cast does a great job. In his rather small part, Herrmann is a nervous Nellie. Vaughn is excellent. I cannot possibly analyze what, in his case, goes into a lifetime of acting and immersion into acting and directing from age 4. I can only report that the result is his top-notch ability to capture the screen and hold our interest without any obvious gimmickry.

George Kennedy clearly decided to play Patton his own way, very differently from George C. Scott’s version. He lets his New York accent come through. He’s loud and confrontational, not what we expect. Von Sydow is a great, great actor. Anything he’s in is worth taking in. His role here is quite substantial. Cassavetes is strong, and has the Italian capacity to use his eyes very expressively. McGoohan goes out of his way to create a novel character, with an affected American accent that underscores my typical refrain that British actors have enormous difficulty doing American.* Sophia Loren floats through the story, finally making a commitment.

The script is terse, not explaining quite a bit of the action. One must stay on one’s toes to follow what’s going on. It’s sometimes preceded by only a sentence or two. The challenge here is that Vaughn is trying to cover his tracks and get rid of Cassavetes too, and von Sydow is also engaged in covering his tracks as an assassin.

The criticism heaped upon this movie surprises me. Part of it is a vain search for historical truth. Movies like this don’t so that. They’re made up stories. History is often simply a jumping off point.

But in this instance, we wonder if perhaps the story really did capture
the elusive truth about Patton’s untimely demise in such an improbable way.

Patton was extremely well-educated and experienced in command, points discussed in More Than a Tank General. This article is especially interesting in discussing Ike’s real personality, his failings, and his treatment with Bradley of Patton. In particular, they treated Patton’s intense loyalty as a commodity to be traded upon by them personally. The discussion helps form a context in which Patton’s frustration with the strategic impulses and personal limitations of his superiors may have stoked the fires of OSS antagonism.

*McGoohan was born in America but shortly thereafter his family went to Ireland and later England.


1:39 pm on June 19, 2019