March 2024

Patton (1970)

DIRECTOR: Franklin J. Schaffner


George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Ed Binns, Michael Bates, Karl Michael Vogler, Siegfried Rauch, Richard Münch, Paul Stevens, Tim Considine, Clint Ritchie


Equally effective as a war film or a character study, Patton still holds up today chiefly due to the towering lead performance by George C. Scott.  Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster were all offered the title role, but after watching the film it is impossible to imagine anyone else but Scott. Patton can be enjoyed simply as one of the great film performances of all time. Scott does not simply play Patton; he has become so synonymous with the character that the real George Patton of WWII archive footage seems like an imposter. Credit is also due the capable direction by Franklin J. Schaffner, producer Frank McCarthy (a retired brigadier general who had worked for twenty years to make a movie about Patton), the intelligent, even-handed screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, and the cinematography by Fred Kroenkamp, who enhances the film with his sweeping shots of Tunisia, France, and Germany. John Huston, Henry Hathaway, and Fred Zinnemann had declined to direct. William Wyler agreed but later left over script disagreements with Scott. Whatever difficulties they may have had during filming, the efforts of the cast and crew paid off, as Patton went on to win eight Oscars, including Best Actor for Scott (which he famously refused, calling the Oscars a ‘self-serving meat parade’), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Production Design.

The film starts with the famous Patton speech, made up mostly of actual Patton quotes, albeit spliced together out of numerous speeches (oddly, this legendary opening was originally intended for the end of the movie). After that, we go to Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, 1943, where American corpses and ruined tanks lay in the hot desert sun. General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) decides the American Army needs the best tank commander it has against the vaunted German Afrika Korps. Hence Patton’s entrance onto the stage. Early scenes establish his strict disciplinary sense as well as a certain gruff rapport with the troops, and his belief in reincarnation, revealed when he and Bradley visit the ancient ruins of Carthage and Patton ‘remembers’ his experiences during its fall. Despite the frustrations his eccentricities, sizable ego, and volatile temper cause Bradley and the unseen Eisenhower, Patton whips 2nd Corps into shape and smashes an attack by the 10th Panzer Division (which supplies the movie’s largest battle scene). After victory in Tunisia, Patton moves on to Sicily and Italy, where he takes great satisfaction in capturing key cities ahead of the equally egotistical—and slower-moving—British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates). Patton lands himself in hot water when he infamously slaps a shell-shocked G.I. (Tim Considine), for which he is perhaps best-known. Ordered to apologize, Patton soon afterwards puts his foot in his mouth when he inadvertently insults the Russian allies during a speech in England and is forced to sit out the D-Day invasion as a decoy. But his fates improve when he is placed in charge of 3rd Army in France, and defeats the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge.  But the same bullish tenacity that makes Patton an asset in wartime can make him a giant pain in the ass in peacetime, and his usefulness may have the same lifespan as the war.

As good as Patton is viewed simply as a war movie, its real brilliance lies in its character study. George Patton was undoubtedly one of the most colorful characters of the war. He believed he had been reincarnated in many famous wars, he carried a Bible with him in battle, firmly believed in God and destiny, wrote poetry, was a learned scholar of military history, spoke fluent French, and was regularly surrounded by reporters as an endless source of memorable—often profane—quotes. He felt he was born in the wrong century, and longed for the days when a General was a more glorious figure, where there were no politics (which was usually where he got himself into trouble) and things were more straightforward. He detested Hitler and the Nazi regime but abhorred the Soviet “allies” just as deeply—maybe more so—and had high regard for the German Field Marshal Rommel, whom he longed to face one-on-one, like some medieval jousting contest. His blend of near-madness and gung-ho fearlessness is shown most clearly when he charges out into the street in Tunisia and fires with his revolver at two strafing German planes flying past overhead. He is at once a thoughtful philosopher, a hardcore militarist, a harsh disciplinarian, a brilliant tactician, a fearless tank commander, and a shameless prima donna. With thousands of men under his command, he engages in petty rivalries with Montgomery, pretending not to receive orders from superiors to hold his position and placing his men in further danger to win races to important cities. When beaten by Montgomery, or when Bradley refuses to go along with one of his schemes, he pouts like a petulant child. He does not believe in shell shock or battle fatigue, branding it as cowardice. But while it would be easy to label Patton as a warmongering egomaniac, the movie doesn’t make it that simple. Upon his visit to a hospital we see that he cares deeply for his men who have been injured in battle, removing a medal off his own uniform and placing it on the bed of a badly wounded GI, and it is perhaps because he is so obviously moved by his experience there that he reacts so harshly to the shell-shocked soldier he next encounters, and in one burst of uncontrolled temper, provides the moment that, fairly or unfairly, would come to define him to millions. The movie makes no mention of Patton’s vehement anti-Semitism, but other than that, there is no glossing over. As written and portrayed by the filmmakers, and as indelibly played by Scott, Patton is one of the most complex and three-dimensional characters in movie history, a man we alternately don’t know whether to loathe or admire, and can seldom put a finger on.

It is telling of the film’s refusal to either one-sidedly glorify or condemn Patton but provide ammunition for either interpretation that at various times it was considered giving the full title as either Patton: A Salute to a Rebel or Patton: Lust for Glory. One coming into Patton with a pro-war or anti-war standpoint could read either stance into the film: is it a glorification of hard-line militarism, or is it a slyly subversive satire thereof? Case in point is the very opening scene, in which Scott steps up to the stage, dwarfed by a huge American flag, giving his fiercest square-jawed squint, sporting breeches, a pearl-handled revolver, a riding crop, and enough medals on his chest that it seems he might fall over forwards. Scott looks all at once fierce, imposing, magnificent, and borderline ridiculous all at the same time, like an only slightly restrained version of his insanely gung-ho General Buck Turgidson from the satire Dr. Strangelove. And Scott hasn’t even started talking yet. When he opens his mouth, what comes out are some of the most deliciously memorable and oft-quoted lines in movie history; ‘we’re going to rip out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks’, ‘we’re not holding onto anything except the enemy’, ‘we’re going to hold him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass!’, ‘we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose!’. We’re not sure whether to cheer or laugh, but one thing is undeniable: Scott is magnetic. From the time he appears until the end credits start to roll, we see General George Patton, not George C. Scott. He isn’t just the center of the film, he is the glue that holds it together through sheer force of presence, and grabs and holds the camera’s and the audience’s rapt attention like few other performances in movie history.  Patton is not like a full-blown “biopic”; we follow only a couple years of the title character’s life, and focus is squarely on his role in WWII (he had a wife, but you won’t know it here), yet we feel as though we get to know him thoroughly (or at least as well as anyone can know a man like Patton), something some conventional biopics are unable to achieve. Scott unerringly hits every facet of Patton’s personality, and as over-the-top and larger-than-life as Patton might seem at first glance, the role has a deceptively varied emotional range. Scott is as convincing in his quieter, more introspective moments when the General shows a flicker of a softer, more thoughtful side as he is in the more famous scenes where he’s ranting and raving. Before the Battle of the Bulge he abruptly bellows ‘if we are not victorious, let no man return alive!”. His aid (Paul Stevens) cautions him that ‘sometimes the men can’t tell when you’re acting’, to which Patton replies ‘it’s no important for them to know, only for me to know’. But does he? Scott’s theatricality and electricity is spellbinding, and he gets some of the greatest lines in movie history. One of his nuggets of wisdom to his men; ‘no man ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country’. After defeating the 10th Panzer Division, ‘Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!’. And in one of his most unforgettable moments, surveying a battlefield and confessing, more to himself than anyone, ‘God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life’. Love him or hate him—and we waver from one to the other over the course of the movie—but we can’t take our eyes off the man.

When George C. Scott is center stage—which fortunately is the vast majority of the time—Patton is the stuff of cinematic legend.  But while Scott’s performance is as good today as it was in 1970, other parts of the film aren’t as flawless.  The real Omar Bradley’s influence as a technical adviser is almost embarrassingly obvious, as the movie has virtually every character go out of their way in unsubtle fashion to sing Bradley’s praises at every turn (even the Germans get in on the act), portraying him as the reasonable, unpretentious straight man and Patton’s foil.  Meanwhile, Montgomery’s scenes are written to show him as a cartoonishly preening twit.  There’s certainly a large divide between the movie’s multi-faceted, three-dimensional portrait of Patton and its presentations of Bradley as a too-good-to-be-true paradigm of virtue and its caricaturing of Montgomery.  Also unneeded are the occasional cutaways to German High Command headquarters, where Captain Steiger (Siegfried Rauch), assigned to research Patton, reports to Colonel General Jodl (Richard Münch), with Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler) occasionally dropping by as a kind of special guest star.  These German scenes, while fairly few and far between, are superfluous and feel tacked-on; Captain Steiger’s name might as well be Captain Exposition, as he is as blatant a plot device as they come and exists for no reason at all except to rattle off background and anecdotes about Patton for the audience’s benefit (it’s at least a nice touch that Rommel, Jodl, and Steiger are played by authentic German actors who speak their scenes in subtitled German).  To say that Siegfried Rauch, a familiar face in ’70s and ’80s WWII films, has a thankless role here is an understatement.  A lot of the supporting actors playing GIs and Patton’s fawning aids are wooden and unpolished.  Nearly half of the film’s budget was spent on soldiers and equipment borrowed from the Spanish Army, and its limitations sometimes become apparent, as when ‘German’ tanks are really painted-over Shermans and the same two German planes fly around the whole movie.  There are a few unintentionally amusing moments during the first battle scene, with extras dying in typically melodramatic 1960s-70s war movie fashion, spinning around like tops as they fall, arms reaching skyward.  Fortunately, Scott’s performance towers so far above everything else here that such flaws feel like minor nitpicking, and most of them fall by the wayside in comparison.

Patton is not quite a one-man show, although Scott dominates the film so thoroughly that it sometimes seems like it is. Karl Malden as Bradley is fine if not particularly memorable, but may be diminished somewhat both by being stuck playing a one-dimensionally virtuous character, and by having to play off of one of the greatest film performances of all time.  While Malden gets second billing over the title right alongside Scott, and is the only person not named George C. Scott to get significant screentime, he never gets out from under Scott’s shadow, probably through no fault of his own.  Michael Bates looks the part as Montgomery; it’s unfortunate his role as written borders on caricature.  Ironically, despite Montgomery and Patton ostensibly being on the same side (though they often don’t act like it), the script treats “Monty” with derision while treating the enemy commander Rommel more respectfully or at least more neutrally; Karl Michael Vogler only appears in three brief scenes, but all three go out of their way to paint Rommel as no-nonsense and intelligent (though despite how much some, even including this movie to an extent, have tried to pump up a Patton versus Rommel narrative to make things seem more dramatic, Patton’s interest in Rommel was mostly one-sided and the two never directly squared off in battle). Rounding out the supporting cast are Ed Binns as Major General Bedell Smith, Paul Stevens as Patton’s obsequious aid Codman, Tim Considine as the shell-shocked soldier who’s on the receiving end of the notorious slapping incident, and Clint Ritchie in a bit part as a battle-weary tank commander. Bradley is the only supporting character with significant screentime, and even he does little more than play off of Patton; the rest exist in the film to discuss and react to him, and that’s all they’re needed for. There is not one moment of question that this is Scott’s show; everyone and everything else just revolves around him, with the war as the backdrop for the study of one complex man.

While Scott’s performance is as good today as it was in 1970, Patton has dated elements. Scott is of course tremendous, and Malden is fine, but many of the supporting actors playing GIs are wooden and unpolished; fortunately no one other than Scott and Malden has that much to say. But Scott’s virtuoso performance is such a huge strength that all of Patton’s flaws—sometimes obvious budget limitations, the weakness of some of the supporting acting, the extraneous German scenes, its whitewashing of Bradley and borderline cartoonish depiction of Montgomery—seem insignificant in comparison. Throughout, the film deftly balances the epic and the intimate, and ends on a perfectly balanced note, as Patton walks alone across a field in Bavaria, seemingly aware that he has outlived his usefulness. The war is over, the Germans have been defeated, his superiors have decided he’s more trouble than he’s worth, and he is lost, like an actor without a stage to perform on. Though it follows only two years of his life, Patton tells more about the man than many full-length biographies.

* * * *