The film begins quietly. You’ve seen it or at least seen a parody of it. A general in full dress uniform walks onto a stage before an unseen group of soldiers. He stands before an enormous American flag. He is adorned with countless medals and commendations. He grips a riding whip, a symbol of the unrelenting way in which he pushes his troops. Without mincing words he gives a speech that would have any soldier ready to take up arms and follow him into battle. They need the inspiration as they are about to go to war and fight the Nazis.
“Now there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, ‘What did you do in the great World War ll?’ You won’t have to say, ‘Well…I shoveled shit in Louisiana.’”
This is General George S. Patton.
At this point Patton was already a distinguished general. His new assignment is to take command of the American II Corps in North Africa. Their previous commander was relieved after a humiliating defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass. Patton is such a huge, larger-than-life personality. As his motorcade leads him to his new base he stands up in his jeep as the siren wails. Make no mistake. Patton has arrived.
But Patton has arrived at a situation where the American tank corps had been severely outmatched in its first battle with the Germans. It doesn’t take Patton long to assess why. They lack discipline. But he is just the man to whip them into shape.
“They’ll lose their fear of the Germans. I hope to God they never lose their fear of me.” – Patton
In the first act we are introduced to Patton, the man, the general the war he is fighting. It’s one part All Quiet on the Western Front, one part Lawrence of Arabia, one part Mutiny on the Bounty.
He’s a man out of time. He carries this poetic notion that perhaps he’s a warrior who’s been reincarnated over again, dating at least as far back as the Carthaginians.
“God, how I hate the 20th century.” – Patton
“Patton is a romantic warrior lost in contemporary times.” – German Capt. Oskar Steiger
Unlike All Quiet on the Western Front, or even Wings for that matter, the battle sequences are not up close and personal. There are no POV shots or a shaky-cam moving through the trenches with bullets whizzing by our heads. Like Patton, the general giving orders, we are just out of the battle, sometimes from quite a distance. It gives us a scope of the war and its scale.
“Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” – Patton
On the other side of the war is Patton’s counterpart, General Erwin Rommel, aka “The Desert Fox.” Patton sees him as an adversary, but one he deeply respects and admires.
“Rommel! You magnificent bastard I read your book!” – Patton
But Rommel isn’t Patton’s primary rival. That distinction is saved for an ally, Field Marshal Bernard “Monty” Montgomery.
As a side note, my grandfather served in the British Army under Montgomery during WWII and was part of Montgomery’s famous Battle of El Alamein. My grandfather had a lot of respect for Monty. So did Patton. They were so much alike. Monty, like Patton, was almost as concerned with his publicity as he was with winning the war. In Sicily the two stop at nothing trying to outdo the other.
“I know you’re gambling with those soldiers’ lives just so you can beat Montgomery to Messina.” – General Omar Bradley
But don’t mistake Patton’s fervor as callousness toward his men. There’s a gripping scene when he visits the wounded in a clinic and kneels down by a wounded man’s bed. The soldier’s head is wrapped in bandages, covering his eyes which he may have lost in battle. Patton whispers tenderly in his ear and pins a Purple Heart medal to his pillow.
Following this display of compassion and respect he encounters a soldier crying, shell shocked (we call it PTSD these days). Patton has no time for men he considers to be cowards taking up beds in the hospital where the wounded men are being treated.
“I won’t have sons of bitches afraid to fight stink up this place of honor. You’re going back to the front, my friend. You may get shot, you may get killed, but you’re going up to the fighting.” – Patton
Patton takes off his glove and smacks the soldier a little on his helmet. The soldier doesn’t take kindly to Patton’s “kick in the pants” and complains. The media runs with the story getting the general in a bit of hot water with General Eisenhower.
But even after being forced to make a public (and gut wrenching) apology he’s passed over as General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) is given command of the US troops in Europe.
That insignificant moment in the hospital would prove to have monumental historic consequences.
“One little dogface. One measly little slap. That’s what done it.” – Sgt. George Meeks
“George, I wished I’d kissed the son of a bitch.” – Patton
After the intermission the story evolves into the aftermath. Patton is an easy target for the media and the military leaders jockeying for political gain. Reporters try to bait him with leading questions. Every word he says, or fails to say, is scrutinized. He becomes increasingly frustrated as he is pushed to the back, used as a decoy and left out of the storming of Normandy Beach.
“Do you realize, George this may be the last great opportunity of my lifetime? Imagine! A war involving the entire world and I’m left out of it! God will not permit this. I must be allowed to fulfill my destiny!” – Patton
And fulfil his destiny he did.
Promising to keep his mouth shut and be on his best behavior, Patton is allowed to return to the fight.
It’s his chance to “get out of the doghouse with Ike” by doing something spectacular and save his legacy before the war is over. Patton is placed in command of the Third Army and performs brilliantly by rapidly advancing through France.
In a quiet and revealing moment he overlooks the aftermath of a battle, bodies of the fallen soldiers from both sides scatter the French countryside. Destroyed tanks smolder from the shelling. Dark smoke wafts across the now quiet battlefield.
“I love it. God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life.” – Patton
Francis Ford Coppola wrote the sharp script and General Patton reminds me of a fictional military man Coppola would bring to the screen later in the decade.
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” – Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Apocalypse Now)
But Patton just was never able to really keep his promise to keep his mouth shut. He was too easily baited by the media. In the end, his candor and bluntness lose him his command once again but is kept on to see to the rebuilding of Germany.
In a true-to-life moment Patton is almost killed by a runaway oxcart. Bradley shouts and Patton jumps out of the way as the cart flies by, smashing violently into a parked car.
“After all I’ve been through. Imagine getting killed by an oxcart. No, Brad, there’s only one proper way for a professional soldier to die. That’s from the last bullet of the last battle of the last war.” – Patton
Patton is last seen walking his dog, a bull terrier named Willie. In a voice over he reflects how a returning triumphant hero of ancient Rome was honored with a victory parade.
“Sometimes, his children, robed in white stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning…that all glory is fleeting.” – Patton
I highly recommend watching the restored Blu-Ray as opposed to streaming the movie on Netflix. The restoration is gorgeous. Fred Koenekamp’s Oscar-nominated cinematography is fantastic, very reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia’s vistas. The addition of some helicopter shots really adds to the experience.
Francis Ford Coppola was hired to write the script for Patton somewhere around 1965. But he was fired because they hated the opening scene. Yes, Francis Ford Coppola was actually fired from Patton for the now iconic opening scene in front of the American flag.
“Indeed I was fired from Patton for the opening scene in the picture. All you young people bear note. The things that you are fired for are often the things in later life that you are celebrated and given lifetime achievements for.” – Francis Ford Coppola
When the film eventually went ahead for some reason they left that scene in just as Coppola had written it. By the time the film was made he was busy at work directing The Godfather, another film from which he was about to be fired. But then along came the Oscars. Coppola is convinced to this day that if he had not won the screenwriting Oscar for Patton he would have been fired from The Godfather.
Coppola wasn’t the only one honored by the Academy for this film. Patton led the way at the 43rd Academy Awards with 10 nominations, tied with the original 70s disaster flick Airport. But the general was the undisputed victor winning 7 Oscars. It dominated the night. The only other film with more than one win was Ryan’s Daughter with two.
Besides best picture, Patton also won for director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Coppola’s script, sound, editing, art direction and of course, best actor for George C. Scott.
When Goldie Hawn opened the envelope and announced his name Scott became the first actor to ever reject an Oscar. Apparently he felt the Academy Awards was all about the economics of movies and not the art.
Nonetheless his performance, and this film, is full of artistic greatness and the high-water mark of George C. Scott’s illustrious career. When the film’s producer, Frank McCarthy, accepted the Oscar on Scott’s behalf he said it well.
“In voting this award I think that the academy has distinguished itself. I think it has done itself a great deal of good in showing what a good organization it is by recognizing and honoring so generously a fine performance by a great actor.”