Summer 2020

The Quiet General

As we approach the centenary of his birth, and the 50th anniversary of his magnum opus Patton, the legacy of Franklin Schaffner looms larger than ever

By Peter Tonguette

Director Franklin J. Schaffner (Photo: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Even in the midst of his grandest projects, Franklin J. Schaffner remained interested in the people at the center of the wide-canvas epics that cemented his legacy as a filmmaker. "There is a temptation, I suppose, to turn your cameras on the more dramatic battle and crowd scenes," the director said in 1971. "But you cannot lose sight of the individuals with which the audience is emotionally involved."

That included working with mercurial actors who often played larger-than-life figures. As a kind of late-game chess move while making the WWII epic Patton, Schaffner held off on shooting the scene that memorably opens the film—in which Gen. Patton (George C. Scott) presents himself to the audience while standing at attention before a gargantuan American flag—until the final day of production.

"Scott was very concerned that the scene would start off the picture too loudly, that the rest of the picture would seem unbalanced and it would never bang so loudly again," Schaffner told a reporter in 1988. "We put it off and put it off."

Calming the waters with temperamental leading men like Scott became something of a Schaffner specialty. During the making of Papillon, Steve McQueen lacked confidence in his own abilities, co-star Dustin Hoffman tells DGA Quarterly. "I don't think that Steve would've had that kind of success in the part unless he was somehow cajoled and coaxed by Franklin," Hoffman says.

If Schaffner wanted to roll more than a few takes of the master shot, McQueen would sometimes object. The director knew when to advance, and when to retreat, however. "I think that Franklin knew he could only push him so far," Hoffman says. "He was like a general, and he was not about to put Steve on the firing line."

The nickname stuck. "On the set, we called him 'the General,'" says actor-turned-director Eric Stoltz, who starred in Lionheart (1987), Schaffner's account of the Children's Crusade. "I don't remember if we called him that to his face or not. He was very relaxed, knew exactly what he wanted and was a consummate professional."

Schaffner, who would have turned 100 this year, returned repeatedly to the widescreen Panavision format, which he used to show off his productions' far-flung locations and ample use of extras. Even in postproduction, Schaffner dreamt in big and bold terms, more often than not, turning to the romantic scoring of his longtime collaborator, composer Jerry Goldsmith.

"He stands out in the 50 years I've been working in this business," says Hoffman. "He's at the top of the list in terms of being first rate in his preparation."

"The General" was no less revered for his industry leadership, dating back to when he worked in television on such shows as Studio One in Hollywood and Playhouse 90. Schaffner's involvement in labor matters, including a stint as the president of the Radio and Television Directors Guild from 1953 to 1954, culminated with his term as the president of the Directors Guild of America from 1987 to 1989. "In some way or other, you've got to give back," Schaffner told the DGA Newsletter in 1987.

From top: Schaffner discusses a scene with Laurence Olivier on the set of The Boys from Brazil (1978); with actress Linda Harrison on Planet of the Apes (1968). (Photos: Photofest)

A Law Career Derailed By the War

Starting at an early age, Schaffner experienced challenges that prepared him for the leadership he later demonstrated on and off movie sets. When the boy was 5, his father died unexpectedly. According to his biographer Erwin Kim, (Franklin J. Schaffner, Scarecrow Press, 1985)—the only male in the household—was placed on a fast track for a career in law at Franklin and Marshall College, from which he received a degree in 1942, he participated in the Law Club and was selected for an oratory prize. The only hint of Schaffner's future career, Kim writes, came when he happened to see two films that would emerge as his favorites: Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (both 1941). Even so, the future director proceeded with the expectation that he would enroll in Columbia Law School—that is, until the Second World War got in the way: Navy Lt. Schaffner served with the amphibious forces in Europe and North Africa and later with the Office for Strategic Services in the Far East.

When the war came to an end, Schaffner lucked into a job as a spokesman for an organization called Americans United for World Government, which eventually morphed into United World Federalists. The new group began producing a program on ABC Radio, which aired an episode penned by Schaffner in 1947.

Bitten by the media bug, Schaffner found employment as part of the unit that produced the March of Time documentary short series and then, in 1948, at CBS Television, where his portfolio included news and live events. His work on Playhouse 90 earned him his first DGA Award nomination. The director kept a hand in news by directing countless episodes of Edward R. Murrow's interview series Person to Person. "I loved that program," Schaffner told Kim, "I got a big kick out of doing that goddamned thing."

The big screen beckons

Yet Schaffner had larger canvases in mind than those that television could provide. "Frank liked to move his camera around," producer Herbert Brodkin, who had worked with Schaffner on TV, told Kim. "Frank liked the big picture; it was tough to get Frank to move in close…. So you always were trying to cut Frank down a little bit—he tended to be too big.

The year after Schaffner directed the DGA Award-nominated A Tour of the White House—with first lady Jacqueline Kennedy serving as White House chaperone—the director found himself at the helm of his first feature, The Stripper (1963). Yet the modest drama based on a William Inge play—starring Joanne Woodward as a past-her-prime showgirl—did not meet the director's own expectations, he would reveal later in his career. "I was very struck by the fact that except for a couple of instances, it was a television movie," Schaffner said in 1981. "I had no concept at all of how to use the screen."

The Best Man—an early credit for cinematographer Haskell Wexler—had more visual punch, but Schaffner's taste for all things epic began to coalesce with his third film: The War Lord (1965), starring Charlton Heston—significantly, his first shot in Panavision. "I think it is perhaps overwhelming for some kinds of storytelling, but it can be just as flexible as the standard ratio," said Schaffner of the format.

Audiences agreed, making his subsequent two features—Planet of the Apes and Patton, the latter of which also won Schaffner an Oscar for Best Director—unqualified hits.

Schaffner's directorial talent was appreciated by those whose words he translated to the screen—including Francis Ford Coppola, who won an Academy Award for co-writing Patton. (In total, the film walked away with seven Oscars, including Best Picture.) "From my perspective as a screenwriter, Franklin J. Schaffner demonstrated his clarity, imagination and brilliance as a film director," Coppola says. "The work I contributed to his film Patton could not have been in better hands."

Schaffner felt casting accounted for 80 percent of the quality of a screen performance. "On a film, unlike the theater, there is very little rehearsal time," Schaffner said. "The actor has more responsibility for his performance." Referring to the best actors with whom he had worked—including Scott, Henry Fonda on The Best Man and Laurence Olivier on The Boys from Brazil (1978), Schaffner said, "The smartest thing a director can do with talent like that is help them with shading in certain moments, maybe suggest certain attitudes. But most of all, you have to provide them with a secure set and atmosphere."

Working with Schaffner on location, Hoffman says he did not fully appreciate the qualities the director was bringing out in Papillon. "When I saw the film, I felt there was a poetic aspect to it, which you didn't see when you were working with him," the actor says. "He was just a guy who was like head of construction."

From top: A scene from Islands in the Stream (1977); George C. Scott as the title character in Patton (1970); Schaffner, left, with producer Sam Spiegel on the set of Nicholas and Alexandra (1971). (Photos: (from top) Everett; Photofest; Everett)

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick

The film some consider to be Schaffner's most accomplished melded his magisterial style with a story notable in its intimacy. Closely adapted from a posthumously published novel by Ernest Hemingway, the family drama Islands in the Stream (1977) starred George C. Scott as a character with a striking similarity to the man who dreamt him up: a quietly brooding artist named Thomas Hudson who whiles away his days on a Bahamian island. Chicago Reader critic Dave Kehr was unstinting in his praise for Schaffner's progress. "It's the first of his films to consistently show the creative force of a director," wrote Kehr, "a director, moreover, of an unusually refined and subtle sensibility."

Schaffner may have blossomed artistically, but director and DGA member Hart Bochner, who appeared in the film as one of Hudson's three sons, found that the man he, too, knew as "the General" remained a calm presence. "I learned to lip-read because he was so quiet," Bochner tells DGA Quarterly. "He'd come over to me and look at me, chomping on his cigar, and he'd just give me notes, but I couldn't hear him. He was so gentle and quiet."

Schaffner concluded his career with several unlikely projects, including an adventure set in Egypt (1981's Sphinx), a romantic comedy built around the personality of tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1982's Yes, Giorgio) and the ill-fated Lionheart, a would-be epic shot in Hungary that Stoltz says was underfunded. "There were money issues on the picture," Stoltz recalls, pointing to a planned scene featuring a horse, a tiger and an invading army. "I asked him about the scene with the tiger," he says. "Franklin's face dropped a little bit and he told me that it wouldn't be happening nor would a lot of other terrific things in the script because the money hadn't come through and they had to slash the budget at the last minute."

Standing His Ground with the Guild

In his later years, Schaffner had reached the apex of his leadership within the wider industry thanks to his DGA presidency. Early in his tenure, Schaffner told the DGA Newsletter that he was concerned about the impact of productions heading to Canada and nonunion states, as well as changes in technology.

In 1988, Schaffner declined to back down when the WGA attempted to work with producers to give writers on television and independent films the ability to more greatly influence principal casting and the choice of director, publicly objecting that such concessions would "undermine the role and authority of the director."

"He would brook no efforts to minimize directors," the late Gilbert Cates, whom Schaffner succeeded as president, told DGA Quarterly. "The writers were trying to get the studios to align with them against us, and there was never a question for him that we would fight."

After Schaffner's death in 1989, Arthur Hiller—who followed Schaffner as Guild president—did not hold back in honoring his colleague. "We worked together, we fought together," the late Hiller said at the time. "And he was not just our president, but our leader."

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