Patton shows us a man who wasn’t so much fond of war as he was addicted to its strange, savage beauty, as well as its ability to shape the life and legacy of all who participate in it. For George S. Patton, the mangled, soot-stained topography of a battlefield was like a first-growth Bordeaux–a complex, wondrous marvel to be slowly savored. He was built for this Second Great War, both in body and soul. And yet, Patton was also blessed and cursed with an enigmatic personality that provided the potential for both glory and doom: He was our most ferocious combatant and his own worst enemy, bundled into one mysterious package. As much as Patton loved war, it ended up loving him right back.
“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”Robert E. Lee
The film begins in early 1943, just as the Allies have been routed at Kasserine Pass. General Patton (George C. Scott) is dispatched to rally and reorganize the demoralized American II Corps. Fierce, bombastic, and eccentric, Patton quickly instills stern discipline and unit pride. Meanwhile, General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) arrives, ostensibly as Deputy Commander, but really as an Eisenhower spy to make sure Patton doesn’t do anything too Pattonish.
Patton soon proves himself an outstanding general, working alongside Field Marshall Montgomery to maneuver Rommel out of Africa. Despite this success, both men prove to be shameless prima donnas, competing for every ounce of glory, every newspaper headline. Hailed as the greatest American commander since Stonewall Jackson, Patton gets so drunk on his laurels that they start to impair his judgment. He grows increasingly brash in his tactics and insubordinate to General Eisenhower.
The most crucial scene in the entire movie captures Patton at his ugliest. As the general surveys a hospital tent packed with wounded, moaning soldiers, he spots an infantryman with hardly a scratch on him. Patton asks the man why he’s been admitted, and the private admits the constant German shelling has frayed his nerves. Enraged, Patton flies off the deep end: He senses a shirker at best, a coward at worst. Patton slaps the young man with his gloves and chases him out of the tent.
What follows is a disaster for both public relations and troop morale. Patton (who, like General Jackson, was not loved by his men) becomes the butt of newspaper cartoons and an irritant to Army brass, who’ve long seen him as a loose cannon. Eisenhower reassigns Patton to be a decoy for the Nazis, a role that only deepens his humiliation. Plans for a European invasion continue, and it looks like Patton might spend the rest of his career in the doghouse.
Patton is an all-out masterwork. It successfully bridges the classic cast-of thousands template for epic filmmaking with the patient, incisive observations of a modern character study. This is undoubtedly a war film, but the war is really just a canvas upon which to paint Patton’s massive personality. Like a fish that grows with the size of its aquarium, Patton’s brilliance and peculiarities expand to fit the epic struggle around him. “Compared to war,” he barks, “all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” You can tell he lives every minute of his life with that logic in mind.
This might be a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: George C. Scott is George Patton. He stomps through every frame possessed with fire and fury, bellowing his lines with unhinged passion. Scott had a well-earned reputation for being difficult to work with, making this perfect marriage between actor and role. He won a well-deserved Academy Award, but he famously refused it.
For all Scott’s accolades, Malden is equally impressive as Bradley, Patton’s blue-collar counterpart. Bradley, one of the last-surviving American generals, served as an advisor to this film. Patton did not live long enough to shape his legacy, so it falls to people like Omar Bradley and George C. Scott to shape it for him. They (along with director Franklin J. Schaffner and co-writers Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North, all of whom won Oscars) carefully depict Patton as a volatile genius who, despite his infuriating stubbornness, was a chaotic force of nature for the good guys.
Patton is one of those rare, iconic movies. Mention it to anyone who’s seen it and they’ll probably bring up that opening scene: Patton, bedecked in full dress uniform and backed by a massive American flag, addresses his men with a scorching, profane monologue that bores down to the essence of his character, while also offering his assessment of our own. “All real Americans love the sting of battle,” he notes proudly. Later, as Patton dreamily imagines himself reincarnated from one war to the next, he plunks himself into the same category. “God help me, I do love it so.” It was a perfect symbiosis: Patton needed the United States in a World War, and we needed him to help win it.
172 min. PG.