In one of the most iconic images in film history, an imperious general festooned with stars, ivory-handled revolvers, and colorful medals, strides onto a stage in front of an immense American flag (a small figure dwarfed by the patriotic propulsive force of the 70mm red, white, and blue) and addresses the troops before they head off to war, exhorting them to blood lust by remarking, “Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” By the end of his speech, which is by turns anti-establishment and fascist, George C. Scott playing General George S. Patton Jr., in a performance of fiery passion, majesty, and Shakespearean intensity, ends up dwarfing the flag as he withdraws from the stage, pulling the audience with him. We know what to do.
Patton follows the colorful general through World War II from being brought in as a “tank man” by General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) after the humiliating American disaster at Kasserine Pass to becoming the American command’s unchained pit bull as the brazen general barrels his way through El Gitar and Sicily. Then, after Patton’s infamous slapping incident, he becomes a decoy man to fool the German high command as the Allies prepare to invade Europe. It all culminates with Patton’s command of the Third Army and his army’s brilliant race through Germany to end the European war.
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton is a film that has it both ways in gloriously noncommittal ambiguity. Released in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War, Patton appeals on one hand to conservatives with its glorification of the reactionary general (“All this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, about staying out of the war, is a lot of horse dung… Americans have never lost and will not lose a war because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”) while liberals can fold their arms around Patton as a rebel bucking the system (“I’m going to keep my mouth shut — I’m going to play the game.”) personified in Patton by the unseen Eisenhower, a Zeus pulling the strings of his performing field commanders.
But Schaffner, like one of Patton’s campaigns, keeps the film pushing forward, and the viewer has no pause to take a position right or left. There is also the brilliant maneuver of keeping the film almost hermetically sealed around Patton. From the faceless but intense battle scenes to the few scenes where Patton is not on screen, the subject of the film is Patton; the war itself comes in second place. No wonder the Germans lost. Patton is busy getting down and dirty with his boys on the field of battle (he even directs traffic) while the stuffy, well dressed German commanders are stuck at headquarters shuffling files, staring at charts, and getting Patton updates.
Scott takes up the challenge and delivers one of the great film performances. His Patton is riveting and all too real, allowing the audience to enter Patton’s head to the point where the audience begins to think like him. Rather than an over-the-top reactionary like his Buck Turgidson of Dr. Strangelove, Scott reflects Patton’s intellectual grandeur while at the same time subtly indicating Patton’s arrogance and madness. This a character who believes conclusively in reincarnation, predestined greatness, and cocksure immovability. The only time Turgidson emerges from Patton’s schizo id is when he rants on a telephone to a fellow general about starting a shooting war with the Russkies.
Scott is extraordinary — intense, brazen, passionate. He holds the film by the nose and kicks it in the ass.