*** Burke Favorite ***
Dir: Franklin J. Schaffner:
Stars: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, James Edwards and Bill Hickman
Maybe it’s because I’ve got bigger-than-life historical figures on the brain, but for me personally, this was just the right time to review Patton. Sure, it’s Memorial Day weekend, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more appropriate entry for your Top Ten Movies list to watch this holiday. But, I’m also in the midst of reading a biography of T.E. Lawrence, maybe better known as Lawrence of Arabia (that entry’s coming soon too – fair warning). I think it’s the meshing of the Lawrence book in my head along with this latest viewing of Patton that has me realizing that old phrase, “The Man, the Myth, the Legend” truly does apply to some – and General George S. Patton, Jr. certainly fits the bill.
A quick side note before I dive into this award winning drama – I’m only going to comment on elements related to this cinematic version of the character. What I mean is, I actually know very little about Patton the American Hero, the career Army man, the horesman from California whose grandfather was also a Hero – in the Civil War. I’ve read none of his biographies nor the compilation of letters that sat on my Father’s bookshelf in his study when I grew up (“study” is just a fancy way of saying den, or office – I didn’t grow up in the East Wing of Downton Abbey). But, I do find from my reading of recent movie reviews and listening to film themed podcasts that many of my contemporaries have a bad habit, if they don’t mind me saying so. Some tend to apply their 2019/2020 brain and modern norms, moral values to historical figures like Patton – despite the fact they’ve done little more than watch the movie and perhaps read a Wikipedia article related to the figure in question. I find many of the related articles trite in nature, usually calling out bits of controversy for which the historical figure may be known, which pales in comparison (at least usually) to the individual’s overall effect and contribution.
For example, I can predict that there are film reviewers out there that might call Patton a “Man’s movie” or “a film with a woman’s problem” – which is a phrase I actually heard related to some of Sidney Lumet’s projects from the 1970s recently on a podcast – as in the film features no substantial female supporting roles. Point of fact, I’m not sure there are more than a handful of speaking parts for women in Patton. But, my question to these critics is, how do you go back in history and apply your lens of today to late 1960s early 1970s filmmaking – not to mention the story itself? What would have satisfied you? I’m not going to do that here – I guarantee you that the “Man, Myth, Legend” is far too wide a figure to cover in a brief blog entry like this… and even if it were possible, I’d be the wrong blogger to compose it.
But that opinion that it’s best to focus on the film itself as it stands on its own two legs – an artistic effort of its own – leads me to my first point. That is that Patton, like all the great biographical dramas, leave you wanting more. The film makes you want to go grab one of his bios at the library, read the definitive WWII history on your notepad or listen to some podcasts related to this impressive life’s work. One portion of the brilliance of this George C. Scott performance is the fun the actor gets to have with this immense personality. Scott as Patton is only too excited to admit his belief in reincarnation, his insistence that he was present at some of the historical battlegrounds he and his men are passing on the way to battle the Nazis once again, despite the fact these battles occurred hundreds and even thousands of years prior. I don’t know about you, but… I wanna know more about that man!
The film, for all intents and purposes, is a tribute to Patton’s greatest days, in which he tossed the Nazis out of North Africa, pushed them off of the historically significant isle of Sicily – and in so doing, beat his rival General Montgomery of the British forces to Messina – and ultimately swept Hitler’s armies off the map of Western Europe on the way to meeting his new rival, the Russians, for a little party to celebrate the end of war in Europe. That’s about as best a synopsis as I can offer. But, the intricacy of the movie is that Scott appears in nearly every single scene. Think about that, how from the first scene in all its drama to the reflections voiced in the last, it’s an intimate view at Patton for nearly three hours. We see him when he’s yelling at Rommel (or at least his forces) in the African desert, “You magnificent bastard… I read your book!” We witness his triumph of entering the Italian town and kissing the ring of the archbishop. We love it as he climbs an oil drum to direct traffic of tanks, trucks and other vehicles to keep his troops on the move as they pursue the Nazis back to the fatherland.
But, we also get to see Patton in the hospital tent when he strikes the cowardly soldier, knocking the helmet right off the “yellow belly.” We see him sitting in a chair, upside down in the mirror above him, as he’s told he’s going to sit out the D-Day invasion and be used instead as a diversion to the Nazi intelligence effort. We also watch his face change from enthusiastic to crestfallen when his personal aide is the one to inform him that he won’t be leading the command he’d set his heart on. It’s this yin/yang montage of highs and lows that we are provided access to that was masterfully crafted by none other than Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay – and subsequently performed to a T by Scott, who won the Oscar for best actor that year.
Still, like other phenomenal pictures, they change with viewing. I saw the film as a wee lad at the insistence of my Dad – this is one of his favorites and he was delighted to introduce us to it, as I remember. In retrospect, this favorite status for my Dad stands to reason as he was a Vietnam veteran and champion of history himself – who surely would have enjoyed having a cigar and grand conversation with Patton. I saw Patton again over the years and once again probably five years ago. But when I watched it last night, the storyline of the General striking the soldier with the “nerves” in the hospital stood out most prominently to me. I’d forgotten how this episode nearly derailed one of the most historic and triumphant efforts from an American commander in combat. A newsreel advises towards the end of the film that Patton moved the Third Army further and faster and his enemy suffered more casualties than any other combat situation by a General in U.S. history. The fact that all of this was nearly not executed by an event that had by today’s terminology, “bad optics” is an outrageous possibility.
This dynamic nature of giant films like Patton – from its run time to its subject matter to the epic nature of the battle scenes – in that they change with you as you age brings me back to the depth of the film. It’s shot in such a way that makes you wonder so many things in retrospect, like were the U.S. commanders using this slapping of the coward as a way to divert German intelligence? And Patton’s insistence on beating Montgomery to Messina – was he really trying to save lives by pushing so hard, or merely beat his rival for the history books? Did he really try and convince the brass to leave him in Europe to encourage the Soviets to retreat backwards instead of keeping Berlin and Prague?
A lot to wonder indeed, which makes Patton so fun. Especially for this weekend, during which we take time to remember those fallen in the past for the benefit of this nation, watching George C. Scott speak to the troops in the opening scene of this film – which was nearly removed thanks to movie studio executives’ wisdom at the time – makes my heart soar. If you haven’t seen it, I hope you take the time to watch it and enjoy on a particularly appropriate weekend – and if you have… believe me, it’s worth the re-watch.
And for fun… it seems I’m not the only one that loves this movie as a simple search on YouTube reveals – https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=patton+movie+opening+speech