A General For One Season...
Old Blood and Guts may not have been as brutal or gruff as Patton paints him. Having heard the actual General George Patton, his voice is far more soft than the voice George C. Scott gives him. As it stands, I figure many people don't care whether the Scott version of General Patton is accurate to the real General Patton. The film Patton is gruff, belligerent, pompous, a prima donna, and of course, one hell of a general. He is also articulate, intellectual, knowledgeable about history and military tactics, and determined to win.
The Patton of Patton is a complex figure, one who finds himself near the greatness he believes himself to have achieved by divine right, if not for the Slap Heard Round the World, but more on that later. It's a fascinating film to watch since it both glories and ridicules its subject: making his thirst for war both his major virtue and greatest failure, touting his brazen determination and genius while also pointing out his arrogance and perhaps lunacy. Patton, for whatever one draws from it (a rare film that appeals to both right and left wings, though for different reasons), is a fascinating watch throughout.
Focusing only on his time in World War II, George S. Patton (George C. Scott) is a complex and fascinating character. He is a man of devout religious faith who swears constantly, a military tactician par excellence who at one point claims to literally remember the Roman battle of Carthage, claiming that in another life he was actually there. Normally, that would make him insane, but Patton is fully aware of where he is and what he does. His desire to rush headfirst into battle (sometimes literally as well, when he shoots at planes firing at him with his pistols) leaves his German adversaries puzzled.
Even more puzzled are they (and everyone else) when we get to the midpoint of Patton, the infamous incident where when visiting a military hospital, he becomes enraged at seeing one soldier whose only injuries appear to be psychological. The soldier in question isn't physically wounded like the other men, but is suffering from shell shock. Patton was not a believer in shell shock, and believing the man a coward, whacks him on the head with his glove. Everyone at the hospital, even the other soldiers, are shocked at Patton's actions. Word spreads, and Patton is dressed down by Eisenhower (never seen). His colleague and friend Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) watches all this, and begs Patton to control himself. Patton, however, being Patton, can't help himself, and turns a minor assignment into a major international fracas when he suggests to the British audience that Anglo-America would rule the world, leaving the Soviets out.
As his military career stalls, he gets one last chance of glory: leading an invasion of Germany itself (having lost command of the invasion of Europe after the slapping fiasco). He manages to show his prowess, but again his movement is halted by internal strife. He manages at war's end to insult the Russians again, but this time the Russian commander who is dining with him and their men returns the insults, which seems to delight Old Blood and Guts (as one of Patton's soldiers wryly comments, 'our blood, his guts'). At the end, as we see the General walking with his dog into the distance, the old general remarks (or perhaps remembers) how in Roman times a victorious general would receive a triumphant march into Rome, with a man whispering in his ear, "All Glory is Fleeting".
What is fascinating about Patton is that we get nothing of Patton's private life (no mention is made of his family or any friends apart from Bradley, who at times finds him virtually intolerable). In truth, everything we need to know about the General comes early on, in the famous speech he gives to his troops describing the glories of war and how Americans would always win (which must have been a most peculiar thing to hear in 1970, as the Vietnam Intervention was about to end in, shall we say, disgrace). For Patton (at least the film version), everything revolved around war, which is a glorious enterprise. I think Patton, however, did not make the general to be a complete cartoon of someone with blood-lust.
When Patton recites a prayer for positive weather before leading the troops into Germany, it is a beautiful prayer, spoken by a man of true faith (his belief in reincarnation notwithstanding). It was a very moving moment, and I think acts as a counterpoint to the more famous opening scene where Patton, in his military regalia and ivory-handle pistol, addresses his troops to mock those who lost and laughed.
Those observing the General are as insightful about Patton's faults and brilliance. One comments that "Patton is a 16th Century man", a romantic warrior lost in contemporary times. Patton in a way confirms this, when he comment's that a particular tactic is something from the 20th Century, which he openly hates. The Germans know he is brilliant, but are also incredulous that the Americans would really sacrifice their best commander because he slapped a soldier.
As a side note, that's the difference between Nazi Germany and America: we don't think anyone, particularly/especially generals, should go around slapping soldiers.
Patton is a fascinating figure in Patton, one who knows the enemy (he comments he read Rommel's book) and whose personal courage is without question. He also manages to push his army to amazing feats of victory. He also is one who might be a bit bonkers.
George C. Scott, who famously refused the Best Actor Oscar for Patton, is the show. His genius, his arrogance, his quiet devotion, his titanic fury, Scott captured the image of Patton. How close or far it is to the real Patton (who again, had a softer speaking voice and wasn't anything like the gravelly one Scott used) is a question of conjecture. I don't think that Patton is really meant to be completely accurate in its portrayal of Patton the man, but more about Patton the myth, the image of someone who sees war as something beautiful, noble, manly.
Scott is one of the two main things that makes Patton such a brilliant film. The second is Jerry Goldsmith's iconic score (which lost to Love Story, which no doubt would have angered the good General). Nothing against Love Story, which does have a memorable score, but Goldsmith's rousing music captures the determination of the warrior Patton was as well as the, peculiarities, of the man himself.
Patton is an epic film, with battle scenes that are thrilling without being overwhelming. It has one of the most legendary musical scores, one that is instantly recognizable even to those who've never seen the film. Towering above it all is George C. Scott, who could be as temperamental and combative as the man he is best known for playing. At one point, Patton tells Bradley (about the closest thing he has for a friend) that Patton knows he's a prima donna. It's an insight and a rare admission that perhaps George S. Patton knew he had a place in history (or another place, if he genuinely believed he fought at Carthage), and was determined to play the part given.
Patton is a breathtaking achievement. In terms of history and biography, it may not be without flaws. Then again, I think General Patton would be the first to agree that when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
1971 Best Picture: The French Connection