The Best Picture Project – Patton (1970)

 Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden

Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North

Patton, the film, like the man, is a curious oddity. Whereas war movies that came before it were usually rather jingoistic and made dying for one’s country a heroic act – think John Wayne in Green BeretsPatton makes clear that dying for one’s country is idiotic. Losers die for their country, we are told; winners make the other guy die for his country. It might be a conceit that’s pretty standard nowadays but at the time it must have been a watershed idea.

A more significant break for the film, which makes it even more of an oddity, is the way it sheds the idea that victory can only achieved through blind allegiance to the overarching plans of one’s superiors. The traditional equation, if there were one, would look like this: conformity + obedience to those above your pay grade = victory. Patton, though, follows no such conceit and even though he winds up following orders he does so grudgingly, after trying his hardest to change those orders to reflect his notions of war and only in the most cursory way. Unique amongst his contemporaries he constantly flirts with professional disgrace and emasculation yet somehow, he managed to attain the rank of 4 Star General. Go figure.

In its way, Patton is a very counterculture film, heavily inspired by the philosophical notion that it’s the establishment that’s mucking things up – the incompetents ruling the roost with an eye towards political considerations and not towards a clean and decisive victory – and not some failing of the grunt-soldier. But while Patton is inspired towards an anti-establishment philosophy, it readily adheres to the tropes and trappings of prior war movies, namely the ‘fighting the good fight’ rhetoric. It’s almost as if the movie emphasizes Patton the rebel in the context of the usual war movie arcs for the sole purpose of selling the film to both the youth of America and the establishment without offending either. How else could one explain that the film was apparently subtitled A Salute to a Rebel? Clearly this notion is not far off the mark, as co-writer Coppola later expounded upon.  Listen to Coppola expound upon this idea here, from the DVD introduction.

Whatever Patton’s philosophy or what it was trying to do with that philosophy, there is a lot to love about the movie, but just as much to dislike. First among the dislikes is that while the film is called Patton it is hardly overly-biographical. The film covers roughly the two years of 1943 to 1945 – from Patton’s time in North Africa to his banishment in England to his triumphs in France – hardly a true biography and a better title might have been Patton At War. Now, I know it is possible to learn about the whole of something from the study of a sliver, but a good part of me was left wanting to see more than just the fully formed man, which is what we got onscreen. Instead of just learning that he had kooky notions about reincarnation and history and poetry, I wanted to know how he came to hold those kooky notions. I also wanted to know more about the fact that he was married, with kids and competed in the Olympics, things I didn’t learn from the movie but got from Wikipedia.

Worse than the abbreviated look at his life were the war aspects of the film. Maybe I’m jaded by the battles in Saving Private Ryan but when the battle scenes occurred in Patton there just wasn’t any dramatic heft. It was often hard to tell what was happening, and not in a good way. Because both armies tended to be so far apart when they shot at each other, and dressed in practically the same uniforms, I often had no idea if the good guys were winning or losing. All it looked like to me was randomly assigned extras getting blown up, which was about the same thing that happened in Transformers II: there was no real visceral thrill and I almost wish those scenes would have been cut completely because they were wholly unnecessary.

Last, as successful as the movie might have been, it seemed to need a different director. Don’t get me wrong, Franklin J. Schaffner has made good movies – Planet of the Apes and Papillon come immediately to mind – but there seems to be something in the way he stages the film that doesn’t quite fit. It was static and lacked scope and I kept watching the film and thinking the producers really should have held out for David Lean. I can only wonder at the thematic trilogy this film would have formed with Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Still, talking about the technical flaws and other drawbacks are largely irrelevant because at the end of the day to talk about Patton the movie is to talk about George C. Scott the actor. After all, movie and actor are one and the same. Karl Malden and a bevy of suck-ups and other sycophants might be the co-stars but really, this is Scott’s show and he knows it. In the film he is the vainest sonofabitch on earth, strutting around in Jodhpurs – Jodhpurs for god’s sake (left) – with pearl-handled revolvers on his hips and chewing every bit of scenery he can. Scott dominates the film, as he should, dragging it through any troughs it might fall into. He is riveting, but at the same time there isn’t much subtlety to Scott’s performance. Really, he isn’t doing anything here he hadn’t already done before – consider the similarities between Patton and Buck Turgidson – and I can’t help but think his Oscar was won very much the same way Broderick Crawford’s was for All The King’s Men: it was simply the right man, with the right acting style, for the right role. Still, whether it lacks subtlety or depth is unimportant because Scott is the film. From the iconic opening scene to the end shots of Patton walking his cowardly dog, Willie, Scott towers over the film and if that makes his performance Oscar-worthy, so be it.

Because I’m complaining mightily about the film the natural conclusion to draw is that it was undeserving of its Oscars, but that is only half true. There is no doubt Scott won the Oscar deservedly – you can see the above paragraph for proof, but if not that then remember that his only real competition was Jack Nicholson, who gave a comatose-yet-bafflingly-praised performance in Five Easy Pieces – but the true Best Picture of 1970 was the real anti-establishment film, MASH. Sure, most people might only know MASH as a TV series but before that it was a superb film that made Robert Altman, and a host of others, into some of the most important filmmakers to commit moving pictures to celluloid. But because MASH was concerned only with the antiestablishment message and Patton wasn’t, it’s easy to see why one lost and the other was victorious.

Trivia

Some men just can’t take a compliment, that’s what you can say about George C. Scott. Whatever the merits of Patton the film it will always be overshadowed by Scott’s refusal accept the Oscar – one of only three men to have done so, Dudley Nichols for writing The Informer before him and Marlon Brando after him for The Godfather. The Academy ignored him but Scott never took the award, and it’s said to currently be housed at the Virginia Military Institute, Patton’s alma mater, but I cannot confirm, nor deny this.

Jerry Goldsmith (left) wrote the incredibly memorable score for this film – you can follow this link for the opening music – and a whole host of other films, including Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Just as in those movies he was nominated here for an Oscar for Best Score but curiously his only Oscar win wasn’t actually for scoring any film, it was for writing the Best Song, Ave Satani from The Omen.

Opening score to Patton:

Ave Satani, Oscar winner for Best Song, from The Omen (1976):

For the list of winners, films watched and those to go, click here.

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