Tuesday, November 23, 2010

PATTON (1970): American General and Enigma

In the remarkable opening speech (which was actually an amalgamation of speeches given by Patton), General George S. Patton (George C. Scott) states: “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”  Whether the irony was intentional or unintentional, America was in the middle of losing a war when the film Patton was released to theatres.  Nevertheless, the filming of Patton was nearly flawless.  Any mistakes made can mainly be attributed to the director and the lead actor trying to do too much rather than too little with the vast amount of material that they were given. 
Patton is strictly a chronological retelling of Patton’s military leadership after 1941.  Following the disastrous battle of Kasserine, Patton is summoned away from Morocco by General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) to assume lead of the allied forces in Africa against Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler).  We then follow Patton’s distinguished World War II military career from Tunisia to Sicily to Normandy, where Patton was placed in charge of the Third Army.  Along the way, he stirs up controversy by insulting British commanders including Field Marshall Montgomery (Michael Bates), by disobeying orders including entering the city of Palermo without permission, by allegedly pushing his soldiers too hard, by slapping a soldier, by personally shooting two mules that were holding up a convoy, by insulting our Russian allies, and being too lenient towards his former enemies while serving as a military governor of Bavaria following the war.  Patton is portrayed as being outspoken, flamboyant, grandiose and profane, even towards his superiors including General Walter Bedell Smith (Edward Binns) and General Harold Alexander (Jack Gwillim).  His inner demons prevented him from ever being at peace with anyone – including himself.  Yet despite his shortcomings, Patton makes virtually no errors when it concerned military judgment (or at least this is the case according to this movie).  His constant pushing of his men prevented even more casualties from occurring on the island of Sicily, and it saved the 101st Airborne Division from being slaughtered at Bastogne.  In his own way, Patton is a religious man that believes in reincarnation, the virtues of honor and courage, and loyalty to the United States and especially the United States Military.  He was also a poet and self-made philosopher.  Relieved of command following the war, he seems saddened by the knowledge that he there are no more wars for him to partake in.  As the movie closes, we hear the voice of Patton stating that “all glory is fleeting.”
If this movie had a flaw, it was only that it overstated the virtue of Patton’s military brilliance and understated the virtues of the man.  Only one time in the movie do we even ever note the suggestion that Patton may have made a rash military judgment, and that is during the invasion of Sicily. Patton insists to General Bradley and General Lucian Truscott (John Ducette) that the battle must go on in order that Patton arrives in Messina before Field Marshall Montgomery.  Right before entering the Sicilian city, Bradley asks Patton if he has seen the casualty reports (implying that the death toll was quite high).  Patton responds by telling Bradley that we have to consider what the casualty rates would be if the battle was still continuing on the roads into Messina.  We’re never let to know whether Patton was or was not right on this point.  Other than this one incident, Patton is given a kind of omniscience concerning all things military that seems to be beyond the realm of most possibilities.  It seems a bit too good to be true that Patton knew of the dangers of gasoline engines in the tanks (which, apparently, despite the movie’s claim notwithstanding, even German tanks used early in the war), that every leader that opposed his judgment (including Montgomery and sometimes Eisenhower) were generally proven to be greatly in the wrong, that Patton anticipated a German offensive in the Rhineland during the month of December, 1944 when such an offensive seemed all but impossible, and that Patton seemed to be the only American that understood the consequences of the Russians arriving in Berlin before the remainder of the allies.  And it’s probably more than coincidental that hindsight backed Patton up on every military outcome – or at least we are led to believe by the editing of the material in this movie.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to note that Patton the man was probably somewhat more reachable than portrayed in the film.  Apparently, the real Patton felt great remorse for the slapping incident and apologized to the soldier prior to being ordered to do this by General Eisenhower.  Patton had not slept for 48 hours when the slapping incident took place.  Patton was also one of the first generals to embrace the idea of desegregating of the troops.  And what was barely mentioned in the entire movie was that Patton was an extremely devoted family man.  In the film, we’re almost led to believe that Patton had absolutely no social skills whatsoever.
Patton is a long sprawling movie (171 minutes in length) and won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor.  Yet for all of its accolades there were a number of unexpected consequences with this film.  Scott declined to accept the Oscar for this film because he refused to take part in what he considered to be a “meat parade” at the Academy Awards.  (In fact, what was to occur was that probably the most gifted movie actor ever was from this point forward typecast as a result of taking the lead role in this film.)  Scott also was not impressed with either his own performance, which he felt did not give justice to such a complex man as George S. Patton, or any of the other actors in the film (especially Karl Malden who he deprecatingly referred to as “Old Smiley”).  Some viewers criticized the film as a glorification of the military, or as a romanticizing of an unsavory person.  Some that praised the film did so for the wrong reasons.  President Richard M. Nixon, for example, was allegedly so enthused with the film that he watched it several times right before the ordering of the bombing of Cambodia. 
Still, despite all the controversy, this remains as one of the greatest movies ever filmed.  Patton makes us respect and even admire an extremely flawed person who seemingly had little patience for the frailties of others.  That General George S. Patton must have been a charismatic individual would hardly surprise anyone since he was a well known military commander, but his great appeal was actually being a maverick in a type of position that invited conformism.  Despite his early talk in the film that an army is a team and individuality has no place in fighting a war, Patton was the epitome of the rugged individual admired by so many Americans.  He could not help but be contrarian in the face of all opposition and fight for his own way of doing things.  Patton was a loner, an eccentric that reveled in talking and acting differently than everyone else.  He held onto a set of beliefs that were uniquely his own.  And coincidentally, so did the actor that played the role, George C. Scott.
Apparently, John Wayne had long sought this role, but director Franklin Schaffner had never felt that Wayne was adequate for the role.  The movie certainly would have been different and far less complex if Wayne had received his wish.  John Wayne was too establishment, too unlikely to question any kind of authority to ever have captured the essence of a soldier like Patton.  Patton was driven by forces that John Wayne, who was never an outsider, would have failed to understand.  George C. Scott, like General Patton, was never comfortable with the colleagues of his own profession.  On the evening that Scott won an Oscar for his role in this film, he was sitting at home watching his sons play hockey and deliberately kept his mind unaware of what was going on in Hollywood.  And for many years during his long acting career, George C. Scott criticized and even kept aloof from those in his profession.  He was satisfied with the acting of no one – including his self.  It is alleged that Scott apologized to Schaffner for how he played the role of the General.  Yet it was Scott’s ability to project Patton’s magnetism more than any other factor that made this a magnificent movie.  It wasn’t the repetitious screenplay that over and over again put Patton in opposition to the powers that be – such a screenplay took the risk of making this movie far too long.  It wasn’t the remainder of the cast that did a decent job in support – it would take more than simple support to make a movie an epic.  It wasn’t the cinematography or the soundtrack, which were both well done.  It wasn’t even the director, though Schaffner deserves a great deal of credit for keeping his temperamental star in line.  This film’s great virtue concerned George C. Scott playing the role of George S. Patton.
The Patton portrayed in the movie and played by Scott is unbearably real and recognizably human.  There is not a single moment in this film that Scott does not make us feel like we know how Patton feels under any given situation.  We actually seem to understand this complicated man and feel it an injustice when he was deprived of the opportunity of leading all of the allied forces into Berlin.  We end up identifying with the man when by all standards practically none of us would have had anything in common with him.  This is not hero worship.  More than seeing the best of the man, we see the worst of the man and still end up admirng him in the end.
March 31, 2009 
©  Robert S. Miller 2009


  1. Great review!

    We're (once again) linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!