Patton (1970) Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
“I love it, God help me, I do love it. I love it more than my life.”
Released at the height of an unpopular war in Vietnam, Patton is a powerful cinematic contemplation of the incredible, albeit controversial, legacy of General George S. Patton. The script was written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, who based their screenplay on Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago and General Bradley’s memoir entitled A Soldier’s Story.
George C. Scott delivers one of the great performances in all of Hollywood history as General George S. Patton, “old blood and guts,” the gruff, recalcitrant, disciplined, well-read, profane yet virtuous Allied leader. Apparently the role was offered to numerous other leading men such as Burt Lancaster, Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne, but it is impossible to imagine anyone else besides George C. Scott playing filling these shoes. Scott was a billowing tower of a man, a drinker, a Shakespearean actor who tread uncomfortably through the circles of Hollywood, and so he predictably refused to attend the Academy Awards ceremony in which Patton won him Best Actor as well as the coveted Best Picture award. He refused to accept the award on philosophical grounds.
There are so many famous scenes in this movie, images of a triumphant war hero, to a dejected aging veteran. The most famous shot is the opening scene which features General Patton addressing an unspecified band of American troops before a giant American flag, though there are many other classic scenes -one that comes to mind occurs during an unexpected German air strike which finds General Patton hopping out a window and firing a pistol at the oncoming planes overhead. We realize Patton is a reckless, intrepid, maverick -a feverish jingoist whose unbreakable strength is only paralleled in his candor and his callousness.
It begins in North Africa in Tunisia in 1943. The American troops of II Corps are demoralized after a devastating loss to the German leader Erwin Rommel at Kasserine. The Allied command looks to General Patton to restore discipline in order to secure victory, and that is exactly what he does. When Patton arrives he immediately whips the troops into shape, starting with a rigid dress code. Then he secures a decisive victory in a battle of tank warfare in North Africa proudly declaring to Rommel -“I read your book!”
Next, we see the invasion of Sicily. In a nod to Thucydides and the infamous Sicilian Expedition from classical antiquity, Patton proposes a plan wherein Patton’s British counterpart captures Syracuse while Patton cuts off the enemy inland at Massine. The plan is scrapped by General Eisenhower who instead favors a more steady, cautious approach. However, Patton grows impatient and, defying orders, he marches his troops through Sicily anyway capturing both Palermo and Massine, comparing himself to the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs and so on who came before him. Patton’s stunt withers his trust with central command, despite the fact that he was correct in his assessment. In addition Patton faces another scandal when he is forced to apologize for his uncouth behavior. While in Italy he makes an infamous visit to a hospital where he encounters a soldier suffering from “battle fatigue” (or what we might call today PTSD). Instead of supporting the soldier, Patton publicly berates him, slaps him, calls him a coward, and demands that he be immediately relocated to the frontline. In truth, there were actually two such incidents and they plagued Patton for the rest of his life. Throughout the film, his erratic nature is what allows for his success, but it also leads to his downfall. When Eisenhower announces an invasion of Normandy, Bradley is placed in command, instead of Patton. He lamentably lost his good standing among the generals.
Patton’s flaw is that he is not a political man like his foil General Bradley –“your worst enemy is your own big mouth.” He is too ensconced in the the Jungian warrior spirit, and his joie de vivre is contrasted with the cold bureaucracy of the military. In the rigid chain of command, the soldier-diplomat reigns over the reckless, untamed conqueror. However both types are mutually dependent upon one another. Patton is hated by by his troops but loved for his victories, his persona is compared to the relics of warriors past -Ajax, Themistocles, Alexander the Great, Scipio, Caesar, Henry V, Napoleon, and so on. In fact, Patton did truly believe he was the living reincarnation of great historical warriors from antiquity. He was apparently quite a superstitious man.
At any rate, at the invasion of Normandy, Patton is placed in charge of a decoy British cohort intended to distract the Germans. Patton stumbles into another controversy when he claims the future post-war order will be dominated by the United States and Great Britain, neglecting to mention the Soviet Union (then allied with the U.S. and Great Britain). After D-Day, Patton is given command of the Third Army which plows though France, liberates Belgium, and performing the daring, record-breaking rescue of the 101st Airborne Division trapped at Bastogne. He then continues onward, invading Germany but his controversies continue. In the end, we see the graying General walking his dog, reflecting on warfare in ancient Rome, and musing that “all glory is… fleeting…”
While we are given glimpses of his many controversies, and some have noted some minor historical inaccuracies (i.e. the real Patton had a much higher, squeakier voice than George C. Scott), however for a three-hour film Patton covers a perfectly suited balance of warfare and quiet reflection -just enough for the audience to admire yet disdain the man.
The film offers a strategically ambiguous stance on the controversial legacy of Patton -it is often accused of either being extremely hawkish, in glorification of war, and yet it is also chastised for being written by doves, afraid to showcase the true greatness of General Patton. In fact, I was reminded of Xenophon, the great warrior and writer from ancient Greece, in particular his magnificent adventure The Anabasis of Cyrus is contrasted with his aging life of an honored veteran in Sparta. Elsewhere in the Hellenika Xenophon considers what rare qualities must be present in a man who is capable of successfully commanding thousands. Surely George S. Patton was the embodiment of that man.