25 years after the end of WWII must’ve seemed like enough elapsed time to do an epic biography of one of that war’s most infamous generals, George Patton, “Ol’ Blood and Guts,” as he was none-too-affectionately nicknamed. After all, WWII films with a nostalgic, action-bent had ruled the roost at the 60’s box office, from the gritty Th Longest Day to the equally gritty but more escapist The Dirty Dozen. Even non-war films found a comfortable setting with the conflict – mega-hits like The Sound of Music come most immediately to mind.
But these were not ordinary times. In 1970, the country was embroiled in another war, one far more divisive and uncertain in its mission. And for a huge swath of the populace, baseness-as-usual patriotics simply were not going to cut it. 20th Century Fox had released the black comedy M*A*S*H in January, to the BO tune of 81 million, making the cinematic sentiment clear: audiences desired – no, they required – a more truthful, if not antiwar, perspective when chronicling man’s favorite sport.
Patton screenwriter (and New Hollywood pioneer) Francs Ford Coppola was very much aware of the water temperature, and was careful to depict his subject in such a way as to satisfy both the hawks and the doves, and everyone in between (as he indicated on this DVD intro). And what is most remarkable is how well he succeeded in his mission. Actually, he accomplished what any good biographer should do; he told, to quote one of my favorite TV characters, “Just the facts, ma’am.” If anything, perhaps he kept it too even-handed, to the point of occasional flatness. But no matter; this is not an Oliver Stone film. It’s a classic biopic told in traditional style, letting George C. Scott’s phenomenal portrait of the title character do the talking.
Nothing flat, though, about that opening, a directorial choice that ironically got Coppola fired from the film: Patton comes out, in full military regalia, to address his troops (unseen; he’s essentially addressing the camera), in front of a huge American flag. His speech, an amalgam of actual speeches he gave throughout his career, has no room for cowardice in This Man’s Army. He’s a brilliant strategist, studied in centuries of martial history, and he clearly has a passion for the act of war. He lives, eats and breathes it, and considers it “mankind’s greatest endeavor.” The blood, the death, the loss… all par for the course. The price to be paid for such a vast accomplishment. How does he know? Why he’s been there already, in his own mind, fighting alongside Romans and Normans and Goths. He’s not a part of history: he is history.
But Patton’s passion tends to get the best of him, particularly when he opens his mouth. We open the film in North Africa, when the general evicts German troops, under the command of field marshal Erwin Rommel, from Tunisia and Algiers. But his common sense is often overruled by his competitive nature – that mostly takes the form of British rival general Bernard Montgomery – and Patton becomes known for heavy casualties as a result. But he wins battles, and so he’s transferred to Sicily, Italy, where the same rivalry takes place. Against orders, he takes Salerno, and then Messina; when he is called out for his insubordination, he replies, “You want us to give it back?” But the s**t really hits the fan over a relatively minor incident: his slapping of an enlisted soldier, suffering from shell shock, and chastising him for his cowardice. This reaches the ears of supreme ETO commander Eisenhower, who relives the rash general of all military command. Intermission.
Throughout it all, another general, Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), acts as a tempering force, often forcing Patton to stand down under unfavorable odds, or to wait until supply units can arrive to offer greater support. As Act II begins, Patton seems a changed man, resolving to keep his mouth shut whenever possible. He keeps silent when denied a chance to participate in D-Day, resigned to act as a decoy so that the Germans reduce their defense of the Normandy coast. But he can’t quite help himself when delivering a speech to the French, and intentionally neglects the Russians when referring to the inevitable major victors of the war. Not understanding the political ramifications of such an exclusion, he remains unapologetic, again costing him, but the film spurs to an upbeat third act when Patton, mostly on his own, doggedly drives his tired and underfed troops towards Berlin. (We don’t get the inevitable Russian-acceding halt at the Elbe.) But even after the German surrender the man can’t shut up, offending a Russian general and comparing the Nazi party to America political parties. He is relieved once again, overseeing German reconstruction, and finally lamenting that “all glory… is fleeting.”
And so it is. But Patton also had the misfortune of living in the wrong time period. The film poetically presents his astute knowledge of history and strong desire to exist in the past, while at the same time revealing the irony that such inclinations make him a great trouble in the nascent, media-driven climate of the mid-twentieth century. Take, for example, his offhanded comment about how the Nazi party is simply another party, not unlike the Dems or Republicans. Offhanded? Not when every newspaper and radio station reports it, giving ol’ Ike no other option but yet another wrist-smacking. The modern-day irony is how we seem to reward such “straight talk” nowadays, given the current President who rejects such “political correctness and stirs droves of Americans in doing so.
But if Patton was a precursor to modern times, he was also an anachronism in 1970. Protesters and left-wingers could hardly have found anything salvageable about the man, despite his influence in Allied victory. Yet, they did, and it’s thanks to the brilliance of Coppola’s script, which not only depicts the general warts and all but also, somehow, gets you to identify with the man. He earnestly believes that war is “mankind’s greatest endeavor’: he admires the Punic Wars as he would a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt. And when he sees wounded or dead soldiers, he grieves. But he only grieves because they can’t continue to participate in more battles, in more wars. His life is war, and if he had any other cinematic analogue, it would be Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now, another Coppola film, who sees death as a necessary part of war. And given his zeal for war, he actually sees death as life. What a paradox!
Could Patton, then, be a Coppala film? I think so. Director Franklin Shaffner’s direction is ok, but it really only serves the script, the real star. The battle scenes go on too long; the real drama always involves Scott and his internal/external conflict. Both the performance, and the writing, elicit a surprising empathy in the viewer. Anyone with a passion for anything can understand, including myself, and that’s coming from a person about as antiwar as you can get.
Not a stodgy, bloated epic, but a fine product from the Coppola-driven New Hollywood. Scott refused the Oscar, but it was well-deserved.