Despite being bold, provocative, and smart, Patton should not have curried favor during its original release, since the movie arrived at the height of America’s misguided war in Vietnam. Surely, there couldn’t have been a worse time to release a feature-length tribute to one of World War II’s most famous American generals. Yet Patton is much more complicated than any hagiography, and the movie’s greatest strengths are undeniable. The script is insightful and witty, the direction and production values are impressive, and leading man George C. Scott’s performance ranks among the highest achievements in screen acting. The movie is imperfect, of course, suffering such flaws as an excessively long running time, but the audacity with which the filmmakers engage themes of hubris, militarism, and patriotism are still startling 40 years after the movie was made.
Notwithstanding a riveting prologue (more on that in a minute), the movie begins in North Africa, when General George S. Patton Jr. (Scott) is first recruited to battle Germany’s “Desert Fox,” tank-division commander Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Volger). As the movie progresses, Patton is moved from Africa to the European theater, his battlefield victories overshadowed by his outrageous behavior. Gaudy and vainglorious, Patton openly cites his belief in reincarnation, describing himself as the latest form of a soldier who has existed during the great wars of previous centuries; although Patton bolsters his claims with brilliant strategizing, his otherworldly pomposity spooks subordinates and unsettles superiors.
Worse, Patton behaves abominably when confronted with GIs he regards as cowards or shirkers. In one of the picture’s unforgettable moments, Patton loses his cool upon meeting an enlisted man hospitalized for shell-shock, a condition whose existence Patton denies—Patton violently slaps the GI and seems ready to shoot the young man until Patton is subdued by aides. Thanks to such transgressions, Patton never consistently occupies the forefront of the Allied command, so the movie tracks his humiliating slide from active duty to elder-statesmen status.
Although Patton has a large cast of characters and a sprawling number of locations, it’s not precisely a war epic—rather, it’s an intimate character study that plays across a massive stage during wartime. So, while costar Karl Malden is a steady presence as Patton’s staunchest Army ally, General Omar Bradley, other actors in the movie serve as mirrors reflecting facets of Scott’s performance. Scott justifies this approach with a thunderous star turn. His Patton is funny, inspiring, intimidating, maddening, pathetic, strange, and a dozen other things, whether he’s melodically quoting ancient poetry or impotently shooting a pistol at a fighter plane during a strafing run.
Director Franklin J. Schaffner does a remarkable job of keeping the story forceful and clear, often through the use of elegantly gliding camerawork; screenwriters Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North provide brilliant dialogue and evocative vignettes; and composer Jerry Goldsmith’s clever score uses echoed horn figures to accentuate the idea of Patton as a figure from myth let loose on the modern world.
Yet the film’s most indelible moment is also its simplest, the mesmerizing two-minute monologue that starts the movie with shocking directness. Stepping in front of a gigantic American flag, an ornately uniformed Patton barks out a hard-driving, vulgar speech about American can-do spirit, featuring a line that epitomizes the character’s philosophy: “No bastard every won a war by dying for his country—he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” FYI, Scott returned to his Oscar-winning role years later for an underwhelming TV miniseries, The Last Days of Patton (1986), though few consider that project a true sequel to the 1970 movie.
Patton: RIGHT ON