Directed By: Frankin J. Schaffner
Written By: Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North (based on the biography Patton: Ordeal and Triumph)
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden
“There’s one big difference between you and me George” he says. “I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it. You do it because you love it.”
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Awards sweeper is a war film in that its sprawling narrative revolves around World War II, but what this film really is, is a love story.
It’s about a love of war, a love that offers Major General George S. Patton (George C. Scott) both his greatest outlet, and his greatest heart break. We never learn anything of General Patton’s personal life, we can presume he doesn’t have one. Instead he’s married to war; it’s the ceiling of his existence. He’s horrified at the notion of Hitler’s own people assassinating him, for they would bring the fighting to a premature end. His soul has been circulating history’s greatest battlefields for centuries. He was there alongside Napoleon in the 18th Century, with the Romans centuries before that. Late in the film Patton looks out to a blood caked battle field, littered with bodies that in battle had to resort to a grizzled hand to hand combat, and he confirms Bradley’s assessment.
“I love it” he says. “God help me I do love it so.”
The battle scenes, of which there are many, are explosive and violent. The body count is immeasurable, but the violence is impersonal. The morality of the war is never cloudy. There are no shades of grey, subverting contemporary war film protocol. It feels like a gutsy approach from Schaffner, but why would there be any ambiguity? Why would the fighting be personal? After all, Patton doesn’t see it this way. War is good. It’s nature, and it’s not the people who fire the bullets that mesmerise Patton. It’s the strategy, the glory. War is an art form.
In many ways this is a beautiful film. It’s beautiful in its rendering of such an impassioned relationship, in its capturing of the heart break that accompanies such a dependency. In every sense war truly is Patton’s significant other. He’s insignificant without it, he ceases. It’s a wonderfully intimate character portrait of a decidedly non-intimate man.
A natural comparison for Patton is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Both are intricate character studies, both under the guise of an epic war drama honing in on men who grow to need the battlefields. However, where David Lean romanticised his protagonist at his best and indicted him at his worst, Schaffner is much more nuanced in his assessments of Patton. There is an underlying air of sympathy for the hardnosed General, but what works so beautifully about the film is that it doesn’t bargain for sympathy by glorifying Patton, rather it highlights the most human qualities of a man who otherwise could very easily have descended into an R. Lee Ermey-esque caricature.
Patton is often childish. He’s petty. He wants the glory of success. He’s dejected when he’s overlooked. He’s insubordinate and stubborn. But he’s also steely. He loves winning, and he’s passionate. For a figure so enigmatic, he is given great empathetic life by how fundamental his motives are, motives Schaffner explores with a throbbing humanism.
Armed with his gravelly voice and the poetically rough-as-guts dialogue of Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, George C. Scott gives one of those performances in his Oscar winning role. Through the brilliant writing (also Oscar winning) Patton is comedic, commanding and crazed. He spouts jagged philosophies and morbid inspirations; “when you put your hand into a bunch of goo, that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do.” He’s allowed to be both unhinged and zealous in equal measure.
Scott’s brilliant as the abrasive, violent minded leader who grounds his hugely macho and coarse veneer in an impeccably understated fragility. Scott permits us to see that this is a man who despite his pension for battle, is as weak and vulnerable in his struggle for purpose as the “yellow” soldiers he berates for their cowardice. It’s a two sided role, at once brutally rough and piercingly vulnerable.
There’s a scene where Patton leans over an irreparably wounded soldier in an Army hospital bed. He pins a medal to his pillow and whispers to him, before in the same take he locks eyes on another soldier, unwounded, but who is amidst a mental breakdown. Patton slates the man, for him he has no right to be among the men who are physically injured. He slaps him down and lays out an ultimatum, be shot on the frontline, or be shot by Patton himself. In seconds Scott renders the General’s duplicity, shifting from warming in his appreciation to callous in his detachment.
Eventually, as we all know, the war did come to an end. Patton’s greatest lament was inevitable.
So often we see the man dwarfed by the landscapes, swallowed whole by vast battlefields and belittled by beautiful mountain ranges which threaten to render him invisible. He looks to be retreating into obscurity, engulfed by the world that Patton had, in such a narrow way, devoted himself to.
He clutches for ways to prolong the fighting. When the guns had hardly ceased in Germany he declares he’s ready to launch an attack against the Russians. He grips, with slippery hands, to the war that had made him whole. It’s quite sad.
A dwindling man in the fading light of his love. Patton is a masterpiece.