Another week, another near-three-hour war film. After All Quiet on the Western Front, we have switched from WWI to WWII with Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1970 portrait of American general, George S. Patton. The stalemate of WWI trench warfare has been freed up by the development of military technology, primarily highly capable air cover and tanks. This produces a paradox for artists since on the one hand the new military technology utterly crushes the human scale, so human suffering is as high or worse than it ever was. Yet the ability of the planes and tanks to smash through the stasis of trenches also allows authors and directors to focus on stories of daring war valour at the expense of the suffering of the ordinary soldiers. The popular art of WWI was its poetry. The popular art of WWII was daring hero films, a tendency only reinforced by the presence of a clear evil on the part of the Nazis. Perhaps it was the painters who took forward the human horror of WWII most effectively.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Patton reflects these trends as much as any traditional WWII film of valour and daring against a clearly evil enemy. What lifts it above the average is a clever script co-written by Francis Ford Coppola and the direction of Franklin J. Schaffner, who generates excitement and tension through many beautifully shot scenes. The scene where Patton and his commanders first spot German tanks approaching their position, for example, gives a real thrill.
It’s hard to know sometimes how much the film is taking the piss out of the egotistical gung ho Patton. This may be the result of having separate authors contributing to the script. What are we to make of the famous opening speech, for example, based on actual lines from the historical Patton but stitched together to produce a unique piece of art. Some of the lines fall out harder than the bombs we see in the battle scenes.
“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war... because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”
Surely there is some irony in the selection of these lines – but then the Vietnam War wasn’t lost in 1970 and apparently Richard Nixon used to watch Patton while driving the remainder of the Vietnam war. These are the ways that films can spill out of their boundaries into real life.
Another reason for suspecting irony is that George C. Scott played an out-and-out satirical part of a bullish American general is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 cold war film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It’s hard not to see the spirit of General 'Buck' Turgidson seeping into Scott’s portrayal of Patton even though Scott explicitly avoided a direct comparison.
Review continues below...
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The messy complexity of the film’s production is summed up by this quote from Scott, reproduced in Lawrence H. Suid's book "Guts and Glory": "I simply refused to play George Patton as the standard cliche you could get from newspaper clips of the time. I didn't want to play him as a hero just to please the Pentagon, and I didn't want to play him as an obvious, gung ho bully either. I wanted to play every conceivable facet of the man."
The idea of superstar generals ruling the battlefield with their genius comes across strongly in Patton, with the Nazis shown as being scared of him and a similar mixture of fear and respect being shown to Rommel by the Allies. But if there’s one message that any reader of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” takes away, it is that this idea of military men controlling a battle like a game of chess is an illusion and that the reality is that they are subject to chance just as much as the soldiers caught in the chaos of battle.
Personal Score: 8/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.