Review: Patton [1970] - dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

As General George S. Patton, George C. Scott is an actor playing another consumate actor. The television age birthed a new kind of media-savvy soldier, one who becomes, by appearing as a character on the six o'clock news, emblematic of freedom (Colin Powell or Norman Schwarzkopf are more recent examples). In WWII, few commanders were willing to put on a show like Patton; he was, in this regard, either ahead of his time or a throwback to the flamboyant rabble-rousers of bygone eras.

Patton the movie establishes Patton the serviceman's Hollywood tendencies in a show-stopping prologue. Dwarfed by a stars-and-stripes backdrop, Patton stands on a stage and motivates an audience of troops with a charged and entertaining sermon.

"...Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time...The very idea of losing is hateful to an American." Words that proved prophetic once the conflict in Vietam was over.
This scene is no screenwriter's invention: Patton was a brazenly jingoistic philosopher with a true gift for confidence boosting rhetoric, sadly when it came to motivational speaking - his political views often embarrassed the nation. His speeches were meant to inspire, but in a one-on-one situation with his inferiors, Patton seemed instead to invoke terror. His volatility was mostly an act, of course - he was more afraid of his authority disappearing than any lower-ranked officer ever was of him.

It would be glib to persist with this line of thinking though, Patton truly was not in it for the fame. Possessed of many characteristics we correlate with the capaciously heroic, all he ever really wanted was to fight much like the great leaders of old, Patton, who trusted implicitly in reincarnation, may have been a genuine fated gladiator. Patton, the movie then, yearns to believe this approach to and tends to romanticize its subject somewhat, if only by virtue of toning down the profane language the real man was predisposed to utilise in conversation and excising Patton's well-documented affair with his own niece.

Neither Scott, nor the filmmakers, shy away from the big mouth of the lead protaganist, though, and Patton is shown as less a tragic savior than a pitiable has-been by war's (and film's) end. In actuality Patton passed away from injuries sustained in a car accident in 1945, a conclusion that would have ascribed this biopic some cold irony; the fact that Scott's Patton is permitted to bow out with some dignity is director Schaffner's wisest authentic abstraction. He doesn't want any of the sympathy we perceive for Patton to be misappropriated to the general's physical suffering.

Patton is a truly imposing film despite its abundant historical compromises, the movie served to become a yardstick for all biographical dramas to come. Ergo, we tend to neglect its visionary structure or take its epic cinematography for granted, (the late Scott's performance, too, became a sort of bench mark for American blowhards on screen for attestation of this see Al Pacino's near perfect Scott parody in Martin Brest's Scent of a Woman.) Above all else, it's expertly crafted, and it speaks volumes about the latter day military. Patton swept the 1970 Academy Awards for a reason, and as Oliver Stone points out in the revealing documentary that supplements this package; President Nixon was so enamored of the film and its potency to inspire is credited to have urged him to expand the Vietnam war into neighboring Cambodia. So it may prosaically be the first movie in history to have led inferentially to mass genocide.


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