I took a trip once to the only national park dedicated to a former First Lady, namely the Eleanor Roosevelt House, and on the walls are hanging various figures from her lifetime. The guide pointed to one and told a story of an older couple who came through and took note of the person in the picture: General George S. Patton. The wife apparently said it didn’t look like Patton. Her husband replied, “You’re thinking of George C. Scott.”
That should tell you want you need to know about Scott’s bravura performance in Patton.
Patton opens, famously, with Scott’s Patton striding out onto a stage in front of a giant American flag. He stops to address his unseen troops, telling them that regardless of what anyone says, Americans love to fight, are good at it, and never lose a war. No, go out and kill the bastards from the other side!
The intro, culled from a number of the real Patton’s speeches, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the character of George Patton. He swears as much as the movie will allow him to do so, he loves to fight, and he won’t stand for cowardice. He’s also highly pious and even as the movie opens in Northern Africa in 1943, he’s already established a reputation of being somewhat problematic. Standing there as a contrast is his friend General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), nicknamed the “The G.I.’s General,” a man known for being unassuming in a manner that few generals possess. Patton certainly doesn’t.
It should be worth noting the real Bradley served as a consultant on the film, and his book was one of the sources for the movie. Bradley may not be the flashiest part, but that is something of the point. Bradley plays by the rules and even though he starts the movie as Patton’s subordinate in North Africa, he ends the movie as Patton’s superior in Europe. The two do manage to stay friends, though, so it isn’t much of an issue for Patton and Bradley.
Scott essentially owns this movie. Screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote the screenplay and opened my DVD copy by explaining how he was fired from the project because the studio didn’t understand the flag speech opener, the most iconic scene of the movie. He likewise believes Patton‘s success kept him from being fired from The Godfather. His script works well, showcasing the conundrum that was George Patton with a famous exchange:
VISITOR: Do you read the Bible?
PATTON: Every goddamn day!
Yes, the movie doesn’t sugarcoat Patton’s eccentricities. He’s a pious man who believes in reincarnation. He’s a talented commander, but also someone who can’t stay out of trouble, mostly because of his mouth and what the press reports of what he’s saying. Oh, and he slapped a soldier suffering from PTSD.
The key to Patton, as realized by a German intelligence officer, is that all he wants to do is fight. He isn’t the slightest bit political. He won’t do well in peacetime. Considering the real Patton died shortly after the War ended in a car crash–undepicted in the movie–we may never know. Instead, he measures his value by how well he can fight and won’t stand for a coward (which he thinks the soldier he slapped is), or let things like uniform standards slip even for cooks and doctors, soldiers who have good reasons not to be in uniform. He’s a romantic, a man with chivalric ideas on how to conduct himself at all times. He’d be perfectly happy battling Rommel in a one-on-one duel to settle things.
If anything, Patton doesn’t seem to see Rommel as his biggest enemy. That honor may fall to British Field Marshall Montgomery, a general every bit as egotistical and borderline ridiculous as Patton himself. If there’s a difference, it may be that Patton has a level of self-awareness that (he claims) Montgomery lacks. The other enemy may be the unseen “Ike,” (you know, Eisenhower), who acts more like a diplomat and a politician and as such restrains Patton when all Patton wants to do is fight in the war.
Considering the nearly three hour movie covers a time period of roughly two years, and the movie ends with Patton fuming over the Soviets in a way that seems to be suggesting the start of the Cold War, and that’s when he isn’t fuming over people holding him back, misquoting or misinterpreting him in the press, and essentially not letting him do his thing.
Which brings me to the most interesting thing about the movie: it may have been Richard Nixon’s favorite. As reported by Woodward and Bernstein, he watched it quite a bit as his time in the White House was coming to an end. A movie about a misunderstood Cold Warrior with a persecution complex, where most of his problems come from the press and the politicians that don’t get his thing? Nah, can’t see what Nixon saw in this movie…
This was far from a bad movie, but the thing that struck me was it maybe wasn’t that special in the grand scheme of things with one blatantly noteworthy exception: George C. Scott’s well-deserved Best Actor Oscar. The work of the other actors, the script, and the direction were fine, but it is Scott’s performance that elevates the movie to what it is, and as Patton walks off, musing that his time may be past, the audience can be left to wonder what to make of the man who was a war hero and maybe someone who couldn’t be anything else.
NEXT UP: There are a couple classic movies I’ve seen that I just plain didn’t get. They were weird or I thought they were overrated, so giving one of them a second chance seems appropriate. Hey, it worked for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner! Be back soon for 1969’s Easy Rider.