Retro Film Review: Patton (1970)


It is said that war brings the best and the worst out of men. This has been appreciated by the storytellers from the very beginnings of history and some of the most important works of literature are stories about wars and people who took part in them. In such extraordinary circumstances all the emotions that make great drama - love, fear, hate, remorse - are brought to the extreme. The film industry didn't fail to notice this and some of the greatest films ever made are films that deal, in one way or the other, with armed conflicts and the way they affect individuals and societies. The war films are also good way to show how the general perception of war tend to change through various periods, ranging from being condemned as senseless slaughter to being advocated as the extreme form of recreation. There are few films that take more than one perception of war and it usually requires special set of circumstances. In case of Patton, 1970 war film directed by Franklin J. Schaeffner, those special set of circumstances were provided by one very special individual.

General George S. Patton Jr. (1885 - 1945) is not the most important, but he is definitely among the more colourful figures of American military history. As such, he was destined to have film made about him. Since most people today's world get their knowledge of military history through American films, Patton is probably the best known general today. Born in the age when young boys dreamed of becoming great military heroes rather than big athletes or pop stars, Patton had his childhood wish granted at the expense of millions who perished in two world wars. Many episodes from his long and distinguished military career could have belonged to the film, but the script, written by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the books by Ladislas Farago and General Omar N. Bradley, concentrates on the last three years of Patton's life, when he left most enduring impression on future historians.

The film starts in November 1942, shortly before American forces are about to receive their baptism of fire in the war against Hitler and Mussolini. Few months later their inexperience in Kasserine Pass results in major defeat at the hands of German Africa Corps, led by charismatic Field Marshall Rommell (played by Karl Michael Vogler). Due to his pre-war experience with tank warfare, General Patton (played by George C. Scott) is sent to take command of demoralised troops and he quickly establishes tight discipline. His methods begin to work and Germans and their Italian allies are gradually chased out of North Africa. During the Sicily campaign Patton would learn that Germans and Italians aren't the only enemies he has to worry about - great rivalry emerges between him and British commander Bernard Law Montgomery (played by Michael Bates). Another thing is Patton's bad temper and fast mouth which would lead to the series of embarrassing incidents and almost destroy his career. He is given second chance in France 1944 and rewards his superiors' trust with series of brilliant victories. Once the war ends, it soon turns out that the skills and character traits that had served Patton very well on the battlefield are liabilities in the peace-time world built on diplomacy, tolerance and compromise.

Patton features one of the most effective openings in the history of cinema – the protagonist in most splendid uniform, decorated with medals and with huge American flag as background delivers one of the most powerful and jingoistic speeches imaginable. The image itself became the most popular icon of American militarism, while the speech with its brutal bluntness reduces whole nature of war towards few simple, universal truths. The biggest flaw of Patton is in subsequent scenes lacking the power of that opening. It is also the strangest moment in the film - hearing words about America never losing a war was almost surreal experience during the last years of Vietnam fiasco. It is hard to imagine how someone generally perceived as militaristic icon could be portrayed as a hero in the age when militarism, patriotism and any -ism associated with establishment began to drift away from popular sentiments.

Coppola's script offers answer to that question by carefully emphasising certain parts of Patton's biography and character - he is portrayed as poet; he believes in reincarnation; he freely speaks his mind and doesn't care about language; he ignores and disobeys his superiors; he defies conventional wisdom and well-established rules and, last but not least, he does what he does because he likes it rather than for such prosaic reasons like money or sense of duty. Needless to say, these are the characters traits which were associated with social values and unconventional lifestyles adopted by rebellious 1960s youth. The ironic twist in Coppola's Patton is that he doesn't rebel in order to create brave new world, but in order to return to idealised past. In case of this film, that idealist past is past of wars that were adventures, armies made of professional individuals and personal bravery and honour being more important than political skills. The flaw in the script is in the things Coppola omitted from Patton's biography, some being too controversial (his role in shooting of prisoners and his anti-Semitism) and some that could have added more complexity to his character. For example, Patton is portrayed as almost anachronistic romantic, the last old-fashioned warrior; in reality Patton was one of the most progressive officers in US military, especially in the area of armoured warfare - the concept that few militaries took seriously until World War Two. Coppola is more consistent while portraying another contradiction in Patton's character - towards common soldiers he showed almost simple- minded brutality more suitable for drill sergeants, while remaining at the same time well-educated, refined and soft-spoken intellectual.

To say that George C. Scott played Patton brilliantly would be an understatement. This role (which he repeated in 1986 TV film The Last Days of Patton) is famous not only for his truly memorable performance, but also for Scott's decision not to take "Oscar". In any case, that "Oscar" was well-deserved and the film, with or without extra gold statue, displays one of the finest acting jobs ever done. Scott's role is complemented by the equally powerful performance of Karl Malden who plays Patton's close friend (and film's chief technical advisor) General Omar N. Bradley. His presence prevents Patton from turning into uncritical praise of its protagonist. Bradley, who was very different kind of general, more aware of the true nature of modern wars, gives moral balance to the story - through Bradley, quiet, unassuming fellow who admires his friend but doesn't shy away from his shortcomings, the audience is anchored to the reality Patton failed to see.

Despite having a film almost exclusively concentrated on a single individual, director Franklin J. Schaeffner gives this film an epic scope. Three years - probably the most intense period in history of mankind - are skilfully compressed into three hours of a movie and even those with little knowledge of the complicated strategic and political background can enjoy the film. Scenes of dialogue and character exposure are woven into the scenes of battles which are spectacular, effective and convincing despite rival armies, both played by 1960s Spanish military, using tanks produced after WW2 (detail that would, ironically, bother only Patton-like military buffs). Jerry Goldsmith provides this film with one of the most effective and most recognisable score in the history of cinema, which, just like the opening image, became forever associated with American militarism.

The final irony of Patton is in this film contradicting its own conclusion. Words like "all glory is fleeting" could not be applied to the makers of this great piece of cinema.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on January 29th 2004)

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