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Back to the Feature: Patton (1970)

  
                As though a curtain is being drawn back, we feast our eyes on an enormous American flag. Onto the stage struts General George S. Patton who delivers a stirring speech to the audience, one with unconventional profanity and controversial remarks. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country; He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country” he exclaims. “Americans love to win and will not tolerate a loser.” He dispels notions of individuality in the military and makes no qualms about what they’re going to do to the Germans: “We’re going to murder those lousy hun bastards by the bushel …When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do.” Once finished he has succeeded in spelling out exactly the realities of war while also creating effective propaganda. ”Now you sons of bitches, you know how I feel” he says, corroborating the audience’s response: that they know precisely the kind of man he is.
                 Patton has one of the most famous openings in cinematic history for good reason. It’s terrifically shot, visually unique, expertly performed, but also right off the bat presents its unreserved protagonist for exactly who he is through one of the greatest speeches in film. It sets the stage for the focus in the film to come in an outright brilliant way. Rather than detract from the rest of the narrative it invests you more in seeing this character in action.
                George S. Patton is one of the most fascinating military commanders of the twentieth century. He was a skilled tactician, great leader, and commanding force that earned him a high reputation with not only the Allies but the Nazis during the Second World War. For a while after his death there were plans to make a film about him but it wasn’t until 1970 that it finally came out. Directed well by Franklin J. Schaffner, amazingly co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, and starring the inimitable George C. Scott in the title role, all of whom won Oscars for it in addition to Best Picture, Patton is a superb character study framed within an epic war film.
                It follows General Patton throughout his career during the Second World War beginning in North Africa where he wins the Battle of El Guettar earning a reputation through his victories in Europe including one that’s in defiance of orders purely to prove he can take two cities before a British plan can take one. We also see the controversies that got him in trouble, his loud mouth being something of a personal flaw, as are some of his ideals. He is dismissed for a time only to eventually return and lead the Third Army to the Battle of the Bulge and on to Berlin. All the while we’re seeing this man react to the war, the irritating intrusiveness of his commanding officers, and an array of situations bringing out all sides of his attitude and convictions. To convey all this, keep focus, and carry the weight of this kind of movie takes some serious talent, and luckily Patton had it.
George C. Scott is already one of my favourite actors (I highly recommend his underrated but perhaps unmatched performance as Scrooge in 1984’s A Christmas Carol), but Patton is the part he was born to play. There’s such a perfect coalition of character and actor at play here and it’s absolutely magnetic! Scott served in the military for a time in the ‘40s and no doubt looked up to Patton as you can tell by how deftly he researched the role. And he conveyed the many dimensions flawlessly. You learn so much and strive to learn more about this person. I think Scott even expanded on the legacy. If you look up footage of General Patton, you’ll see a man who’s undoubtedly skilled at what he does, but who it seems unbelievable was this imposing and mammoth of a figure! Hitler and Stalin respected him as a worthy adversary and true strategical master, but only in Scott’s performance can I really buy that.
Patton’s a man seemingly bred for war who thrives in a wartime environment not really caring for diplomacy. He’s inspired by the classic military greats like Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon and Nelson. He’s courageous, shows off his command status to enemies, something long ago abandoned as dangerous, rouses the dedication and loyalty of his troops effortlessly, and even shoots a handgun at planes during an air raid. He’s a badass and an unbeatable force. But he’s not a nice guy, something the film takes care to reinforce. There are scenes that bathe in his shortcomings of human decency. The incident that got him reprimanded is shown in a terrific scene where upon visiting the injured men who he already holds in high regard (downright heroes if battle-scarred), he comes across a clearly shell-shocked patient and slaps him repeatedly, calling him a coward and threatening execution. To him, all that matters are flesh wounds and he’s an unbeliever in combat having adverse psychological effects; something which temporarily loses him his command. But you don’t hate him the way you would someone else who’d done that. Because in many ways, he’s an asshole. But he’s an asshole you’ve got to respect because of how good he is at what he does and that he does it for objectively good reasons. He still has the utmost respect for the men who serve under him as he makes clear in the opening monologue and while he is unlikable in his personality, the instrumental role he plays in winning so many battles is to be admired. I like these aspects of the film but I love even more how the film touches on how Patton’s been molded in unnerving ways by his experiences with war.  I’m not talking about his belief in reincarnation and that he was once one of the soldiers at the Battle of Zama (though that is bizarre), but the responses of affection that war elicits in him.
Before he moves on to his big gambit to take both Palermo and Messina, his subordinates confront him over the extreme risk of the situation and lack of foresight. The scene ends with General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) pointing out “I do this job because I was trained to do it. You do it because you love it.” And Patton doesn’t deny it, nor would he. It’s even further illustrated later on. There’s a great poignant and somehow beautiful scene in spite of the subject matter where he’s overlooking a decimated field of bodies and equipment. He recalls to his second in command his experiences with this more gruesome, costly side of war. And you expect it’s going to turn into lamentation on the impermanence of life and the price of war. Something like out of All Quiet on the Western Front. However Patton takes in the horrific sight and says solemnly “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life.” Scott is breathtaking in this moment, and you can see somewhere in his mind he’s tortured by this reality. But it can’t help but be the truth. He loves war, in its ghastliness and all.
Patton is a grand film, a thoroughly fascinating study of a thoroughly fascinating man; one who had so many talents and attributes, but also so many flaws and worrisome demons. And it’s all played exceptionally. The directing, writing, cinematography, pace is all astounding, but what holds it all together is George C. Scott’s performance which relates this character purely and unmitigated. Scott deservedly won the Oscar but refused to accept disliking the concept of acting as a competition, being the first in history to do so. It shows that he like Patton has some stern and somewhat admirable principles.
I hope that people continue to see this film, one of the last of the classic epic war movies. I’m not sure if there are a lot of fictitious elements to it (Omar Bradley was a consultant), but regardless this film made General Patton even more of a household name following the war. He died shortly after the fighting ceased in 1945 and in this film he says “all glory is fleeting.” I don’t know about that. Because this film shows why the legacy of George S. Patton will stand the test of time. 

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