Fading from black reveals a colossal American flag and with the sound of mass chatter among an unseen crowd.
“Ten…HUT!” Instant silence.
A distinguished officer of the U.S. Army steps into view. He salutes. A lone bugle plays To the Color in full as General George S. Patton stands still as a statue, the camera detailing his decorated uniform, the dedication & patriotism in his unblinking eyes, and the authority he projects just by standing there.
He begins with his most famous historical quote. “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.”
Then he proceeds with the famous speech, toned down in vulgarity for a family-friendly film, but characteristically blunt nonetheless. The five minute straight-talk sets the tone for the film and tells you nearly everything you need to know: who Patton is, his philosophies of battle, his fears, and his place. Its runtime is just long enough to be entertaining and compelling in its bravado but not long enough to be a drag.*
It is the greatest opening five minutes any film has ever given.
So who is Patton? You might call him a man living in the wrong era, but he wouldn’t agree. He would tell you he is perfectly placed, that his presence, his station of life and rank at this time is divine providence. World War II is not only where where he wants to be but he feels he must be. Like the previous global conflict a generation ago, universally named “The Great War,” this new war is the event of the century, the monumental moment in time not to be missed. All the world’s a stage, like the one he’s standing on. And Patton intends to steal the glory, not for himself, but for the flag behind him.
Indeed, Patton believes in his heart that he is doing a duty to his country, that his country is fighting with God against the forces of evil. He believes that he is a humble servant doing his part to ensure that good triumphs. But this is his show, his movie, and his moment – an opportunity to forge history itself that Patton has prepared his entire life for. Nothing else in his life (like family) compares enough to even be mentioned. That’s what this means to him, yet that’s precisely what it is: a show – a display of towering heroic manliness ready to save the world by kicking the bad guys right in the ass.
The men he will command in battle are his means. They are a single team with a single purpose – to defeat the enemy. When the speech reaches that subject, it takes a bloodthirsty turn. The soldiers must embrace the carnage, as they must embrace the nature of war. And Patton will be proud to lead them into battle anytime, anywhere.
Anyone else doing this would almost undoubtedly be the kind of reckless, feckless, narcissistic, jingoistic, warmongering, and even sociopathic person to be wary of (indeed the amalgamation of everything the then-American Left had against Patton during the war). There’s just one key difference.
Patton can actually do it. He’s as good a military leader as he makes himself out to be.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton is nearly three hours long, and barely a moment of it is used unwisely. We’re not just moving through history; we’re constructing a study of a man of many layers and the myth that made him worth making a movie about to begin with. Even when given a large time frame, it’s clear how present the subtleties and delicacies of the auteur (whose immediate prior film was the groundbreaking Planet of the Apes) are in this film as well, and how the film is not only moving as a linear story but as a construct, with each little block designed to tell you something interesting about the whole. There’s nothing in this film that he doesn’t want in it, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem.
When Patton (George C. Scott) arrives, he casts ripples that move mountains. His first victory is an unseen landing in Morocco in early 1943, and then he immediately moves to 2nd Corps, which has just lost horribly at Kasserine Pass to Erwin Rommel – Hitler’s prized general – and his Afrika Corps. Rommel is an irresistible challenge to Patton, who is unimpressed by 2nd Corps’ discipline, surmising such as the reason for their defeat. With the help of his friend & colleague Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) he turns them around hard. But he doesn’t just hide behind rank and importance. While discussing the need for greater anti-air support with allies, two German strafe bombers attack the base. Patton plants himself right in the middle of the street, takes out his pistol and fires at them, daring them to take a shot at him.
Yet Patton is not some cold, stone-jawed, officer who doesn’t care for the company. He is impeccably well-mannered with a delightful dinner charm. He keeps the Bible at his bedside and reads it every day. He speaks French and writes poetry. He remembers men’s names and faces. Patton is literally a gentleman and a scholar – a scholar of history, who oozes knowledge of the details of battles that occurred millennia before, and he bears a deep spiritual connection with the men who fought in them. At one point he says at the site of a Carthaginian battlefield two thousand years ago, “I was here.” And he means it. Before the first big battle of the film – Patton’s first interaction with Rommel at El Guettar, you see him waking up after having spent the night reading Rommel’s book.
The battle itself is a massive piece of spectacle, where the Nazis are routed, outflanked, and outmaneuvered into full retreat. Patton’s expression is completely stoic throughout, scanning the field through his binoculars and giving orders from a safe distance, until the very end where he dawns a gargantuan grin. “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK!!!” only to have his pride slightly wounded when he learns that Rommel had been recalled to Berlin in part for health reasons.
Yet the film has only scratched the surface on Patton and his mantras of war, and thus far conflict has been virtually nonexistent. The script itself has taken great care not to fall too deeply in love with the good General, even in the midst of his greatest virtues and victories, but we the audience already have. With the North African campaign coming to a close, all eyes turn to Sicily, the first baby step in the fight to seize Europe from Nazi control.
On paper, this looks great. Two powerful allies who just liberated a continent separately can now pool their resources to dwarf their opposition on a little island like Sicily. Alas, the situation is not so simple. It’s political, as the British, particularly their commander – Field Marshall Bernard “Monty” Montgomery – are cut from a different cloth than Patton and his. Patton has no interest in sharing the glory with anyone besides the Americans, and he doesn’t react well to non-American superiors telling him what to do. The plan he pitches for the invasion that would involve him taking everything important is rejected. Instead the allies go with Monty’s plan, which leaves Patton and his men slogging through dirt and rocks in the middle of nowhere in support.
Here you’d expect a “simple old soldier” (as he refers to himself) like Patton to swallow his pride and do what he’s commanded, but you’d be wrong. Patton cannot be relegated to the background, so he defies. He pushes outward towards Palermo and disregards orders to stop. He takes the city against the orders of his superiors and then puts his men through hell racing Monty to the finish line – Messina (where the strait lies between Sicily & Italy). As the resistance thickens, so too does Patton’s resolve; his methods approach heights of barbarism, and he crosses that line more than a few times along the way.
Yet even when he’s not in the heat of battle, Patton doesn’t know how to navigate the politics of alliances. He never plays well with press interviews and the press throws his every misstep in his face. While Patton is a master orator, the slightest mistake or omission becomes a scandal.
Patton’s mental state deteriorates with his image, as everything unravels around him. He curses at the heavens for this punishment of being left out (something even the Germans don’t believe is really happening because of how much they respect him) and robbed of his ability to do what he does best. It’s a testament to Scott’s acting ability that he can so convincingly portray what really does appear to be a man’s most sincere attempt at humility while simultaneously showing just why humility is such a foreign concept to Patton. Scott is putting on an acting decathlon over the course of the film, playing a character driven by the ambition that drives all great men, yet simultaneously trapped and cornered by politics, celebrity, and the blowback of his own methods that made him so effective.
That’s why it deliberately feels like things are coming full circle when Patton gets his command back just after D-Day, this time under Bradley, and gets a shot at the campaign in France. Once given free reign, off he goes, sweeping wide and far across the countryside, inflicting mass casualties upon the Germans, and never stopping for a moment. Patton takes Paris in August and then keeps going. He gets his groove back, and he loves every moment of it. He feels reborn and never more alive…until the political reality of limited resources rears its ugly head again and halts his advance. Then he makes a fuss.
Yet even when bogged down and stripped of resources, Patton still remains ahead of the game, examining the battlefront, enemy movement, and all within the scope of history. When the Germans make one final impossible counterattack that only he sees coming, Patton is the only one who has prepared to stop it.
His plan to save the 101st Airborne at Bastogne (and thus the entire Allied initiative) is baffling to his colleagues, and while moving on it, the weather seems as determined to slow him down as he is to win. “We’re going to attack all night! We’re going to attack tomorrow morning! If we’re not victorious, let no one come back alive!”
It’s that attitude that largely won the war. As the film itself tells, the Third Army moved farther & faster and engaged more enemy units in less time than any other outfit in history. Only Patton could have made that happen. The glory of the General’s victories brings the hubris of the man. Patton gets complacent again with his position. He nearly ruins a toast with the Russians upon meeting them. He is slow to move on his orders to dismantle the Nazi Party, hoping to use them as tools against the Russians in a war he believes inevitable yet is also much too eager to start. He makes more careless remarks in front of the media, and when he finally crosses the line again, out he goes.
Patton suffers from only two real problems. The first is that you need some benefit of World War II history and a light background on Patton before you see it; you can’t really enter this film cold and expect to understand everything, because the script is counting on you knowing the basic myth. While that may have been an unavoidable fault, it’s still a fault. The other is that it’s not quite as smooth on the transitions of time as it should be. Scene-by-scene, it’s perfect, but it’s sometimes hard to gauge what the exact point in the war is that they’re supposed to be in when you have a scene that isn’t showcasing a battle or discussion around it.
Yet the genius and triumph of the film is proven by its layering of character and in the mesmerizing theatricality of George C. Scott. Patton is never fully the hero, even when he’s being the hero, but he’s definitely never the villain. He is the cause and solution to his problems – problems that were exclusive to him because of his personality – the same personality that enabled his greatness in the war when it was never more needed.
The difference is, Patton opts for the happy(ish) ending, and much to its benefit.**
Patton was never unaware of his actions, even when they’d spell trouble. He just wished they wouldn’t, and he tried impossibly to bend the system of war his way so that he could fight it his way. In the rare times he could do it, he accomplished what no one else could, and his country’s stronger position in the world today is owed to that. At other times, he found himself lost, alone, and with his worst fears realized. And as much as it seemed like Patton had no care for the lives of his men, nothing could have been further from the truth. Patton knew full well what he was demanding of his men, and it was little different from what was demanded of him in World War I. He wanted his men to be the best, and under him they were, even if they hated him for it. He respected every man who bled and died for him. He also despised weakness, for it had no place, not just in his army, but in his war and in his idea of man.
Patton is the greatest character study ever created in a drama film. Neither a celebration nor a condemnation of his character, it cannot ever be viewed as a straight or simple narrative, for it is perhaps the truest reflection of Patton that we have. Patton was not simple. He was human; an immensely complicated person in a complicated war with impossibly complicated politics that made it the place where he could do the most good but where the rope that would ascend his glory would also become the noose that would hang him.
It is my honor to review this film – my third favorite film of all time – in homage to the 70th Anniversary of D-Day. I couldn’t have picked a better one.
*The real speech (or the amassed collection of notes of his rhetoric from various witnesses of his real speech that provide the closest approximate account of what he actually said) was not only filthier, but longer, more anecdotal, and personal. I gave a fully-memorized fiery delivery of the real one to my Public Address 201 class back in college and my classmates (and professor) were flabbergasted with the content of it. They asked why I didn't just roll the clip. I replied, “This is more fun.” I got an A.
**The real story ended not much later but all the more abruptly in Europe seven months after Allied Victory when Patton was paralyzed and crippled in a car collision. In his own words, it was a “hell of a way for a soldier to die.”