Release Date: April 2nd, 1970 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner Actors: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Michael Strong, Stephen Young
he opening scene, showing General George S. Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) on stage against the vivid backdrop of the American flag, is perhaps the most iconic portion of this epic biography of one of the most influential and fascinating men ever to serve in the military. He voices a rallying speech to his unseen troops, humorously peppered with vulgarities but never sugar-coated, setting up the looming atrocities of World War II and the confident, assured attitude of a potent U.S. leader. This is followed by credits surveyed by Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring theme music, with the hint of a playful march and unnerving trumpets, foreshadowing a great man’s legendarily heroic rise, public fall, and undeniable formidability in the eyes of the enemy.
At the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in 1943, American casualties are stripped of their clothing and weaponry before damages can even be assessed. It’s a humiliating defeat; one that requires a strong ringleader to correct the low morale of frightened troops. In response, the unparalleled Patton is transported from Morocco to North Africa to whip them into shape. With discipline, fanaticism, and a healthy dose of fear, Patton retrains his battalion into a winning company. Battle fatigue and self-inflicted wounds resulting from cowardice offend him enormously; however, it’s evident that the air supremacy as supplied and guaranteed by the British isn’t reliable, and inferior ordnance also played a part in the Kasserine annihilation.
Amidst writing poetry and spouting sincere beliefs in reincarnation, Patton researches and plans an initiative against the much-admired German Field Marshal Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler). The Nazis similarly examine their new rival, proposing that Patton is a romantic warrior lost in contemporary times and that his maneuvers can be predicted based on ancient wars. His next target is surely Sicily, because the Athenians believed it was the heart of Italy. Many of the scenes depicting German military analyzing Allied forces and their commanders are particularly amusing, showing that both sides engage in careful strategizing. The typical, chilling WWII movie monsters are merely players in a stimulating game (similarly, the usual, graphically intense storming of Normandy Beach is relegated to a few seconds of archival news footage). Human lives are but pawns on a chessboard landscape, with headliners Patton and British hero Montgomery (Michael Bates) competing for fame and wins, even when fellow generals believe the matchup and movements are purely gambles with infantry death at stake. It’s evident that, like the common jurisdictional problems of various law enforcement divisions in film, the military jousting of affiliated servicemen contradicts ultimate supremacy.
Patton is an anti-hero with controversial motives and questionable tactics, despised by many of the ordinary combat grunts and publically embarrassed over a forced apology for being too harsh on a soldier whose nerves couldn’t take the shelling (in a key scene in which Scott’s manifestation of the persona is absolutely electrifying). The misinterpretation of Patton’s criticisms from American newspapers pokes fun at the perceived silliness of condemning the best opponent for slapping a poltroon; this concept is astonishingly used against the Germans, who rightly can’t conceive of the unintentional deception. But Patton is also quite admirable, standing up for patriotism, bravery, loyalty, and winning at all costs, insistent on participating in the war in an impactful way, despite his big mouth getting him sidelined during the initial conflicts.
Rarely does an actor embody a role so superbly as to singlehandedly command a film to the extent that Scott succeeds in “Patton.” His portrayal has become synonymous with the real general, undeterred by the fact that much of the performance disagrees with the man’s actual conduct. Although Omar Bradley, a general who served with Patton, worked as a consultant, it’s still widely believed that many details are inaccurate. Nonetheless, Scott’s eventual Best Actor Oscar win was much deserved and notoriously remembered for his refusal to accept it – on the grounds that he was not in an acting competition.
Not to go unmentioned, the scenes of tank warfare are particularly thrilling and effective, utilizing an abundance of vehicles, artillery, explosions, and widespread locations for grandly choreographed assaults. The film combines an unforgettable character with intelligent demonstrations of military strategizing, excellent scripting by Francis Ford Coppola (from the Patton biography by Ladislas Farago), and keen direction by Franklin J. Schaffner, resulting in one of the greatest war movies ever made. Ending in a sublime bit of Don Quixote imagery, this 1970 Best Picture Academy Award winner helped the polemic warrior become an immortalized American folk hero.
– Mike Massie