Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Review: ‘Patton’ (1970)

Posted by Max Lalanne on July 3, 2012

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“Now I want you to remember, that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

It’s always good when you know that you are in for a treat right from the opening sequence of a movie. Such was the case with “Patton”‘s first sequence, which was jarringly new back in 1970 when the film was released and caused screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola to get fired from the production, in part. As a gigantic American flag hangs over a stage, filling up the screen and instilling – or forcing, rather – a decidedly patriotic feel in us, we see Gen. George S. Patton (George C. Scott), in full military regalia, approach and give out perhaps the best speech ever commited to celluloid. And there, by the force of George C. Scott’s powerfully engrossing performance alone, you don’t care whether you hated Patton or loved him, you just wanted to hear what else he had to say – even if you didn’t agree with him.

The first time I saw George C. Scott on the big screen, he was hamming it up to hilarious results in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove as Gen. Buck Turgidson. What’s almost ironic is that Scott wanted to play Buck “straight” – without the over-the-top, pointedly ridiculous delivery that Kubrick requested Scott make. And merely four years later, Scott was back in the game portraying Patton, a real-life character that Scott could play “straight” – but one that’s almost as crazy in a sense as Buck. In “Patton,” Scott gives a brand new definition to the electrifying performance that you can’t take your eyes off. He’s funny, sharp-witted, stubborn, powerful, impetuous and most of all gives many well-crafted aspects to the controversial character that Patton himself was in real life, without making us feel overly sympathetic for him or playing him as a hard-nosed single-minded lunatic. Scott brilliantly infuses Patton all of these traits, and in turn makes “Patton” one of the best war films ever made with one of the most strikingly memorable heroes ever.

You could indeed write tomes about who Patton really is, for he is one of the most strikingly irregular, sometimes despicable, divisively controversial men history (both real, and cinematic) has every witnessed. (In short, he is a real man, a real human being, and again, whether you appreciate Patton or not, there’s no denying that.) But perhaps a Nazi officer tasked with researching Patton for Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), desribing him as a “romantic warrior lost in contempary times,” hits the nail right on the head. It’s not only evident in the way his professed and evident love of military history knows no bounds and even veers into the impossibly absurd. (Among others, he very firmly insists to his aides that he was there, with Napoleon, during the French Emperor’s disastrous retreat from Russia, in 1812.) It’s not only the way Patton stands upon Tunisian ruins and passionately describes how a Carthaginian force was overrun by Romans in a bygone era in a way that very obviously shows his wish that he were there that, ahem, he was there, but also in the old-fashioned way he regards war, admires it. Patton proclaims that he loves war more than his life, but the thing is that war is his whole life.

He wishes World War II would never end and when he’s locked out of action – result of him furiously and impetuously slapping of an enlisted G.I, a so-called “yellow bastard,” suffering war trauma in Italy – he truly is a man without purpose, for he lives and breathes on his beloved battlefield and isn’t comfortable doing anything else. Yet he has a fierce and proud love for his men, nothing makes him happier than commanding them against the enemy. And a penchant for ridiculously stubborn grudges, like when he butts heads against the British commander, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery (Michael Bates). Patton doesn’t care about and isn’t good with politics, he is disastrously bad – unlike his friend, the level-headed Gen. Omar N. Bradley (a restrained yet scene-stealing Karl Marden) – at keeping his profanity-filled mouth shut when it comes to tiptoeing on fragile diplomacy issues, the lack of such seriously undermine his post-war career. Patton might be a formidable soldier who knows what he’s doing when planning tanks and infantry against enemy positions in Tunisia, but in Washington, he’s far from the favorite.

“Patton” is a biopic centered on Patton, yes, but apart from being a compelling character study it also is one hell of a war epic. Starting in the dusty, German-filled sands of North Africa in 1943, where Patton arrives and immediately instills his trademark brusque, no-foolin’-around attitude into the dispirited American forces, the action follows all of Patton’s real-life involvements (and some notable and embarassing non-involvements, such as the D-Day landings) in World War II all the way into the end of the Normandy campaign and Germany’s surrender. And even there, Patton wished that the American forces would “finish” the war completely – meaning go into battle against the Russians with whom they victoriously captured Berlin together – because he knew that the two countries wouldn’t stay Allies for long. That, and Patton knew that because of his controversial behavior, he wouldn’t be invited to fight in the Pacific and wanted to go out with a bang. The real Patton, unless you listen to the numerous conspiracy theories, died in 1945 from a car crash in the United States. In “Patton,” the story doesn’t go there, but the silent implication of Patton’s post-war future is even more powerful. Like the remarkably acute Nazi officer noted, “The absence of war will destroy him.”

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