By Marc S. Sanders
You may find this hard to believe but as I was watching the epic Best Picture winner of 1970, Patton, I was actually thinking of a dreadful film I had seen the day before called Under The Cherry Moon, featuring and directed by Prince. How in the hell could that be? Well, both films are laced with the vanity of their films’ main characters to the umpteenth degree. However, I’ll save Prince’s piece for another column, when maybe I’m out of excuses to avoid death or a root canal. The point is both films never tire of the close ups of its featured player to enhance the pride, ego and conceit they do not hesitate to thrive off of. The difference is that director Franklin J Schaffner knew that to really show what motivated General George S Patton you had to drill for the American warrior’s drive, and Patton’s motivation was truly his own self-worth. (Prince just wanted one more close up on top of one more close up as a means of self service. Sorry but that’s not enough of a reason for a character to live.)
Patton is portrayed by George C Scott in an Academy Award winning performance. No one else could have played this role. No one else should ever play this role again. Scott and Patton are symbiont in a camera’s lens. One can not be imagined without the other. Schaffner’s film opens in front an American flag that fills the entire screen. Patton steps up in front. Somehow, his figure seems like a bigger, more prominent figure than the large backdrop of the stars and stripes. He delivers a monologue that was aimed at the troops fighting in the second World War, but this is really an introduction to the audience of what to expect for close to the next three hours. He reminds us that the blood and guts of the Nazis will be used to grease down the tread of our tanks and he will be proud to lead his men on any battlefield that calls for the bloodshed of Hitler’s regime. In the film’s first five minutes, you know that this biographical character will never sway from what he stands for.
The theme of the film tests the egotism of General Patton. We see him get dressed in his military uniform before heading in to battle. His subordinates put his military jacket on. Another one places his helmet upon the great battalion leader’s head, but it is done with great detail. This helmet will never fall off. I can promise you that. Early in the film, the two star general takes it upon himself to decorate his shirt collar with three stars. He’s reminded that President Eisenhower has not made his promotion official yet. Patton proudly dismisses that detail. None of this has to do with the strategist Patton became known for on the battleground. George C Scott demonstrates that the General knew when to bestow himself with another honor in his proud military career. No one else, not even the Commander in Chief, would determine when the General was worthy of another star.
In the heat of battle, Patton happily volunteers historical facts about the regions he is fighting on. He even insists that he knows for sure what happened before. He, General George S Patton, was there. He’s not kidding. He truly believes that. History did not deliver General George S Patton. Rather, General Patton delivered history.
All throughout the film, Patton is seen in moments of great pride. He’ll be standing as his jeep caravans his military forces through conflicts in Tunisia and war torn Europe. General Patton loved to lead, but his leadership was specific to sending a battalion into one conflict after another and what was most important was earning the glory for himself. The British couldn’t have the accolades. Certainly, his fellow generals couldn’t either. Patton is who the Nazis feared. Patton is the towering six foot tall man who must be seen walking off the bow of a ship into battle when the US back home gets film updates.
Scott’s character is tested however as Ike loses confidence in the great general. Patton’s mentality on war does not mesh well with the propaganda of the United States with the other allied countries, particularly Russia. Patton is not interested in making friends with Russia as he is more concerned with anticipating an eventual disagreement with them and thus, we must be prepared for war.
More significantly, Patton only cared for the bravery of his men. Early on in the film, Patton arrives at the camp site of a US battalion to take over its leadership. George C Scott’s presence is all that needs to be said as he visits the mess hall followed by an office and then an infirmary. Men will no longer show up late for breakfast. If other men are going to sleep, well then that’s fine as long as it is a means to end with an advantage towards military victory. Doctors will don their helmets even if it means drilling holes in them to continue properly using stethoscopes, and any man who is being treated for self-inflicted gun shot wounds will not be entitled to a bed for healing. Get those cowards out immediately. Hospitals are for those soldiers who proudly shed their blood in the name of the United States of America.
This last detail is further echoed at a pivotal point in the film. Patton chastises a crying soldier who is simply terrified of the shelling of war. No man who dons a military uniform should ever be crying in fear. Following slapping the boy around, Patton orders that the soldier be sent to the front lines. My question is how useful is this kid going to be on the front line if he is crippled by his own fears. Patton would have then slapped me around, most likely. The front line will certainly wake this kid up and load his weapon to spill some enemy blood.
The other interesting dynamic to the film falls upon the role of General Omar Bradley played with contradictory delicateness by Karl Malden. The script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H North display Bradley as a man who came up through the ranks of General Patton. Yet, because of Patton’s controversial nature as a proud war hero and not a politician representing the ideals of Ike’s administration, Bradley is eventually put in charge of the United States’ positions in the War. By the time this arrives, the film is only approaching the beginning of its second hour and I could only imagine how Patton is going to take this. He’s advised by his friend Bradley to calm his nature and maybe even question his motivations for battle. Yet, Patton can only see that his apprentice has taken over and he has been grounded or meant to serve as a decoy to Hitler’s armies. This is a complete misuse of his skills and his pride as an American symbol. Patton is relegated to delivering speeches to gracious European women. This is beneath him. Adding insult to injury, the dog he proudly walks by his side is a fraidy cat when confronted with a woman’s little yappy pup. The great general’s ego has been terribly bruised.
General Patton might have been controversial but the film serves as a means to show his imperfections ahead of his historical conquests. When Patton is questioned as to how he can overthrow Hitler’s positions in various parts of Europe within two days of heavy snowfall, Patton is proud to say that he alone has trained his men to overcome any ordeal they are faced with. His men are killers; killers of Nazis. The doubt of other military leaders is proven wrong thanks to the General’s insistence. Sure, the old general might have been a pain in the ass for the United States, but how would the war have really ended for the Nazis if they hadn’t have had to deal with the great leader? Periodically, during the course of the film we see how the Nazis try to gage what Patton will do next. It makes no difference how the United States are censoring their general. The Nazis stare at a proud photograph of him, knowing he is still out there. Where is Patton leading his forces to, and how will they ever explain it to their Fuhrer?
George C Scott is truly a great presence here. Schaffner’s work with the camera must also be recognized. The film is epic because of its scale. Years before the age of CGI and a great war film like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, this film from 1970 showed vast settings populated with tons of extras and infinite tanks and vehicles, as well bomber planes. It’s astounding. How was this all accomplished? Other films like …Ryan or The Thin Red Line would show more intimate fights among the opposing forces. Shootouts and one on one grappling. Patton shows the enormous battles. Tanks are overturned, bombs are dropped right in the middle of a sea of extras. The film was also awarded for its art direction and its hard to question why. It’s unbelievably impressive.
As the film directly says, Patton lives for the love of war. Therefore, the ending is a little sad. The war ended. The Nazis fell to the triumph of Patton, the United States and their allies. Schaffner simply offers a wide shot of Scott walking alone into a field of no significance. Other biographical films would resort to a death bed moment. That’s too easy an escape sometimes. In a way, the film could be a tear jerker. Mind you, I didn’t cry at the end of Patton. However, any film must have a certain sense of sorrow when a character no longer serves any meaningful purpose in life. The heart might continue to tick, but the soul no longer has anything left to accomplish. Coppola and North knew that, as well as Schaffner, and George C Scott knew so as well. Once the war had ended, a proud (very, very proud) man was put out to pasture. That has to be more meaningful than any physical passing.