Like the uniforms and artillery we see its characters employ, to the type of warfare we watch them wage. Much of PATTON belongs in The Smithsonian for one to look at for a minute or two with reverence, and then move on. That’s not to say that the film is in any way irrelevant – just that in many of the best ways, it’s evidence of a bygone age…and how that era regarded the age before it.
PATTON is the bio-pic of General George S. Patton (George C. Scott). Patton was one of the finest American generals of the 20th Century. He led American forces during WWII first in African and Italian campaigns, before heading up a relentless European attack that would be instrumental in the defeat of the nazis in continental Europe. Along the way he would lose his commission for slapping an enlisted man who was claiming battle fatigue (what we now call ‘post traumatic stress disorder’), and couldn’t keep his foot out of his mouth when a microphone was on him.
The film is an epic. It drops us into battle after battle, portrays a master strategist and a leader who understands modern warfare. It sprawls 171 minutes (including an intermission) and won Best Picture in 1970.
It’s been said that seldom have actor and part intertwined as well as when Scott took on the role of Patton. It’s difficult for me to say whether this is true, given the fact that I’m not well-versed enough in either the legacy of Patton or Scott to tell. I will say this: PATTON’s construction lives and dies with the part. There are scant scenes where the general is not the centre of the action, so whoever dared to take on the part had to know that he’d have a lot of heavy lifting to do.
To this end, Scott is legendary. Like many of the greatest roles in film history, he commands every second he’s on scene and leaves the audience in awe.
The funny thing is that much of the way Patton is written – and likewise the way Scott plays him – borders on caricature. Were someone like Nick Nolte to play the part this way in a 2012 release, a modern audience might dismiss the acting as hammy. But something in Scott’s persona holds it all together even all these years later. We forget for nearly three whole hours that we are watching an actor, and fully believe that we are in the presence of an American icon.
Much of it is embodied in that indelible opening speech. We are in the presence of a player and a part that will be brash, confident, intimidating, and direct. He will tell you that he knows what is going through your head, and that you aren’t the first person to think these thoughts. You listen to him and stare at a gigantic flag…as though a force as mighty as America itself was telling you what you are signing up for.
Despite the film’s efforts to show Patton as a flawed warrior, it seldom fails to lionize him. Even in his down moments – his moments where he realizes he isn’t political enough to get what he wants most, or his moments where he realizes what his abrasiveness has cost him – he always comes across as a great king who was wounded in battle. This course of storytelling leaves me curious towards just what it was the movie wanted to do.
The film arrived in the final few years of the Vietnam War, at a time where America didn’t fully believe in what their country was fighting for. Was PATTON supposed to rally them? Remind them of what one of their greatest military leaders was able to accomplish where many felt he’d fail? If so, then why portray the general so flawed? Was the film perhaps trying to echo America’s dissent of the military powers and their decision-making? From what I understand, that theory doesn’t work either since publicly Patton was never as thick-headed as he is portrayed in this film.
Perhaps the best description of PATTON, is that it was the bridge between the old tales of wartime heroism, and the new era of disillusionment that was to come. It unrolls scene after scene of majestic bombardment, wanting to dwarf the audience like so many epics that came before it. Yet it has no interest in holding up one of America’s greatest military leaders to be a modern-day Spartacus…showing him in some ways as his own worst enemy. It’s as if the film wants to say that we can’t see warriors in the same light that we used to – but doesn’t have the guts to fully come out and say that.
Where PATTON is at its ballsiest, is when it underlines the changing attitude towards battle fatigue (ptsd). Patton himself was a WWI vet, and would have been well-versed in the effects of shell shock (the original name of ptsd). Yet the moment he sets first in the hospital of his North African base, he instructs the company doctor not to treat any soldier claiming battle fatigue. He – and many of his ilk at the time – believed it to be the coward’s way out of engagement.
The film clearly doesn’t believe so, and makes a point not to gloss over Patton’s beating and threat of death to a soldier who claims battle fatigue later on. Were the film looking to deify the general, it would have skimmed past it and moved on to his tactical prowess. But this film not only wants to show him as cracked, but wants to underline the real horrors soldiers have to carry with them. Not everyone believed in it at the time, but it would become undeniable as soldiers returned home from Vietnam in the years to come.
PATTON is an artifact of another time. It marks an era where a leader of Patton’s stature would be on the battlefield getting mud on his boots, and not safely back at a command centre calling orders across a wire. It was the beginning of filmmakers wanting to tell truths about war that audiences might not want to hear, and gave us the nudge down the rabbit hole that we would never climb out of.
It would be told very differently if a modern director were to tell the tale, but the way it encapsulates that turning point in our collective awareness is a big piece of what makes it such a fascinating watch.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for July (so far)…
Sean Kelly watched THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS
Dan Heaton watched SOLARIS (1972)
Jake Cole watched SOME CAME RUNNING
Courtney Small watched BREATHLESS
Steve Honeywell watched ROPE
Max watched THE GOLD RUSH
Andreas watched THE THIN BLUE LINE
Bob “I Am a Late-Falling Snowflake” Turnbull watched THE FAMILY JEWELS and OUR HOSPITALITY
Dave Voigt watched MEAN STREETS