Strike the Tent! Can Will Patton Tackle the Role of History’s Most Beloved General?

A fan composite of Patton as Lee.

The third and final commander of the Confederate Army, General Robert E. Lee, is often referred to as the most beloved military figure in American history. While many may dislike him for his stances on the war and involvement with the rebellious army, few can refute the sheer brilliance that he showed on the battlefield time and time again. Whether it was forcing Ambrose Burnside to attack his heavily protected entrenchments on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, or launching a daring surprise attack on the Union’s unguarded flank at Chancellorsville, Lee always made do with what he had, which often times was not much. For the first two years he commanded the army, taking over in 1862 after Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded towards the end of the Battle of Seven Pines, Lee made the Union Army and all their commanders look like fools. He led George McClellan on a wild goose chase up and down the Virginia Peninsula, and then made John Pope’s command look like such a disaster, that Lincoln had to replace him with the man he loathed, McClellan again, for a second stint.

Lee has been personified many times on film, the two most memorable performances being by Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall. While I love both, Duvall’s stood out to me, not only because of his resemblance (and actual family lineage tracing back to the Virginia-born General) but because of his mannerisms and how he responded to certain situations. To me, and I have not done as much research as I would like to on the matter, Lee seemed to be a very calm and reserved individual. How else could someone maintain an army that lacked supplies, food, and manpower like that, and not only keep up to par with a far more advanced Union Army, but actually beat them several times?

There is a lot going on with Robert E. Lee, both in his personal life, physical health, and fighting on the field. The name attached to the production of To Appomattox, is Will Patton, who to me, through viewing his past acting, can give that calm, almost grandfatherly demeanor to a very revered, and to some, detested figure. In seeing Patton’s performances in The Agency and Mothman Prophecies, I will say that he is right for the job, as long as they can get a good beard and hair style for him. After speaking with actor Bo Brinkman a few months ago, as part of my coverage of Gods and Generals, I asked about his role as Walter Taylor, Lee’s aid, and which actor, Sheen or Duvall, was more accurate. His assessment shows the complexity that Patton, as well as all others finding themselves in historical roles, will have to face:

…at the time Lee was at Gettysburg, he was ill, so Sheen was kind of playing reluctant to go into war, and he was also playing his illness a little bit, because historically, all during the battle, Lee was not at a hundred percent. Some people feel that he gave this vague performance of Lee, but he did not have a vague performance at all. He was playing Lee’s illness, and Lee was a humanitarian, he truly was—he was way above his time, and at the time of Gettysburg there was a certain reluctance, and Sheen was playing that. With the performance that Duvall turned in, he was more of a war-horse, and he, not to critique Duvall, seemed to have less humanitarianism. He approached it as a warrior, and not a reluctant warrior, as did Sheen.

This is what happens every time two different actors play the same part years from one another. Which one is more accurate? That is the question always asked. It is possible for them to both be accurate though, as Brinkman says, because Lee changed throughout the course of the war. In order for Patton to “get it right”, so to speak, he needs to be energetic for the Mexican War scenes and arrest of John Brown, then a competent but not yet legendary commander before the war begins, when he is offered command of the Union Army, one which he famously declined. Once he takes command, he must transform into the trusted and confident general, who wants to put an end to the war. The reason why Lee invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania was because he felt that victory was within the grasp of the Confederate Army, but when he failed at Gettysburg, all of a sudden, that confidence turned to a sort of reluctance and sadness.

It was then, for the first time, that Lee was seen as human by his adversaries who thought they were squaring off on the field of battle with a God. As much respect and awe as his own men showed him, the enemy was more inclined to respect that at any given time, Lee could turn an impending defeat into a sure victory. But with the Confederates severely hindered upon the loss at Gettysburg, it all changed. When Grant was transferred to the east to put the final nail in the coffin, the God-like aura that surrounded Lee since 1862 had shrunken to the point where Grant knew that if he pursued him long enough, the war would be over. He saw through the intensified persona and looked to reality, when he so famously stated to one of his subordinates, “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what are we going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.” This is a quote, much like Lee’s quip about government, “I have been up to see the Congress, and they do not seem to be able to do anything except eat peanuts and chew tobacco, while my army is starving”, that I would love to see included in the script of To Appomattox. Few people realize that those wooden figures staring out at us from dusty history textbooks actually had a sense of humor.

Can Patton encompass all of this—so many emotions and viewpoints from both his own men and those opposing him? I would not necessarily call it a fall from grace, but one could argue that is in fact what happened. After Pickett’s Charge, the slippery slope to destruction began to form. Lee rode amongst his men to exclaim that it was his fault. What general in human history has ever admitted fault, and on a scale of that nature? Lee was a brilliant man, but he was also very down to earth, and very, very human. When I see Patton’s acting, I get that vibe. The characters in this series are not going to put anyone up on a pedestal to be worshiped, but to bring them down a notch and to a level that we can all relate to. How can people like you or I relate to a man such as the great Robert E. Lee? Because we all have faults and make mistakes—every single one of us.

Lee was not perfect, and as J. David Petruzzi told me in our interview a few weeks ago, “Angels didn’t sing when Lee walked into a room.” The best way to understand history is to humanize our heroes. That is my personal belief and something I try my best to bring into every lecture or appearance in a classroom that I make. Just because someone lived a hundred and fifty years ago does not mean they did not laugh, cry, live, and love the way we do. It is hard to look at a grainy black and white photograph and see them come alive, but close your eyes and picture Lee—have him act out in your mind. Whenever I do this, and put Will Patton in his place, I am comfortable in doing so. Not many people can be both a warrior and humanitarian all in one shot, on top of being a devoted father and husband. Every character in history is complex and no one will ever be portrayed in a way that everyone will love. Author Jeff Shaara once told me that he has actually received emails from perturbed readers telling him, “How dare you put words in the mouth of Robert E. Lee?”. Well, if we think of him as human, then answering that question is not so difficult. That is more important than anything To Appomattox can ever hope to accomplish—we do not want to see people playing around as our favorite generals, we want to see actors AS our favorite generals, to the best of their abilities, positive and negative aspects both. Not many actors and actresses out there can do this, but those that can, I am sure will find their way into this production.

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8 Responses to Strike the Tent! Can Will Patton Tackle the Role of History’s Most Beloved General?

  1. What an intuitive, reasoned assessment. Those are exactly all of the things I try to do as well when attempting to picture these great actors/actresses in the roles of these people we ‘think’ we know so well. There’s always an enormous difference betweent that old photo in a book and the color portrayal on the screen – oftentimes it’s hard for us to make the transition. These are all the sorts of emotions and expectations I will have both on the set and when I see the final product on the screen.
    You’re doing an amazing job with these roles, and giving the reader much to think about.

  2. Good job on the article, Greg. Anybody who thinks that Will Patton will not make a good Robert E. Lee need only look at his performance in the 2000 football drama “Remember the Titans.” Although Denzel Washington gives a fantastic performance in the film, this was the first movie where I recognized Mr. Patton as an actor, and he was fantastic. He gives a well-rounded role, and even though the character he plays is a real-life character, the performance he gives is very reminiscent of who Lee was.

    For starters, the character he plays in the film, Bill Yoast, is a man of calm reserve, that doesn’t let his anger show a whole lot. And when he does, he’s still more calm and reserved about it. But at the same time, under the calm demeanor hides a man of intense fighting spirit, and the will to do what is necessary to win, even regardless of what that will do to his career. One of the best scenes in the film comes after the half-way point, when in an intense game, people behind the scenes have rigged it to make sure Washington’s character loses his job, just so Coach Yoast can be head coach of this team again. However, after seeing what is going on fully, Yoast confronts one of the referees, and in no small terms threatens to bring him down if he don’t play fair. “I don’t care if I go down with you, but before God, I will see every last one of you in jail.” In that scene, you can see his fighting spirit behind the calm, reserved man.

    Lastly, there is a part to the story about Yoast that also shows a comparison with Lee. Even though Yoast may not be full of hate, he does have some bigotry toward blacks, and Washington’s character as well. While Lee may not have been a full racist, he did feel that blacks could not be considered equal because of their lack of education. However, during and after the war, both men change, and are willing to accept the new norm. One scene from “Remember the Titans” that did not make it into the film (Although it maybe in the Director’s Cut, I’m not sure) is where Patton’s character attends a Church service with Rev, one of the black players on his team. Here, he shows a willingness to accept people of a different color, and even worship the King of Kings side by side with them. At the end of the Civil War, when a freed man of color walked up to the Communion Bar at an Episcopal Church near Richmond, the first man to kneel beside him was non other than Robert E. Lee. In both cases, these men accept the “new norm” by going before the Most High together, side by side.

    Will Patton is going to do a terrific job as Lee. He has big shoes to fill, as Robert Duvall and, to a lesser extent, Martin Sheen, gave terrific performances as Lee in Maxwell’s previous films. I cannot wait to see it personally!

  3. Both Gregs essay and yours, in the comments, Steven are wonderful. Mr. Patton does not use a computer, but I have shared this link with his manager. MFB

  4. Malene Overgaard says:

    I can´t imagine, that mr. Patton shouldn´t be able to give a very accurate portait of General Lee.
    He is very talentet. So far,everyting I´ve seen him in (TV, movies etc.) he has been very convincing, so much, so that I almost… thought he was that very person. One of his best played roles, I think, was as General Bethlehem in “The Postman”. I loved his protrait of Yoast in “Titans” too. So go for it Will Patton!!

  5. Marsha says:

    Will Patton is the best actor we’ve got. I’m absolutely sure he will pull off this role with the same believability he puts into every other role. If he can’t do it, then no one can. (But i would have cast him as my favorite General, William Tecumseh Sherman.)

  6. mary says:

    will patton vale mucho!!!!!

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