Where do you start with a film like Patton? It’s such an old film now, a lot of people might not realise it won seven Academy Awards back in the day, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. For portraying George S. Patton, actor George C. Scott won Best Actor, but declined to accept the award as he didn’t believe that, as an actor, he was in a competition with other actors, going so far as to call the awards a “meat market”. That’s the movie side of things, I suppose. The flipside is that Patton is a very long, very well-done biopic that doesn’t paint an overly sentimental version of the controversial WW2 general, but you can’t help rather liking him… well, most of the time, anyway.
Incredibly, Patton had a ridiculously rich sort of life long before WW2, but none of that is covered in the film. Born 15 years before the turn of the 20th century, Patton attended the usual military schools but, in addition, one-upped all his contemporaries by designing the M1913 Cavalry Saber (still known as the “Patton Saber”) and then – just for good measure – competed in modern pentathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He entered combat during the Pancho Villa Expedition of 1916, which is notably the first military action using motor vehicles by the US. He then fought in WW1 as part of the brand-new Tank Corps, later commanding the US tank school in France. Several scenes in Patton show him speaking fluent French, which I presume is something he picked up during WW1.
For a biopic, the film itself concentrates on a very small slice of Patton’s life; basically the last year or two of WW2, and ends before Patton’s early death after a motor vehicle accident just before Christmas of 1945. This is very much the story of Patton at the top of his game, replacing Major General Fredendall as Commanding General of II Corps after German Field Marshal Rommel smashed the US at the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Indeed, the film opens in the aftermath of that battle, with some confronting pretty scenes of the locals stripping the bodies of dead US and German soldiers.
All good dramas need something to befall its lead character, however, and once we have Patton at the top of his game, some gaffes in the media and the slapping of battle fatigued soldiers for cowardice (shown once in the film, but it happened at least twice in real life), soon see him without command.
Later he has a smaller command under his old junior officer, Omar N. Bradley, and is very frustrated that the way to win the war is clear to him, but no one allows him to just go for it. This is handled quite well; one one hand, we see a near megalomaniacal side to Patton where he thinks he has all the answers and can do no wrong and is, to boot, the reincarnation of great warriors from antiquity. On the other hand, we see that he’s not all bluster – he’s indeed extremely capable in the field, his men respect him, and the Germans – in particular – think he’s incredible, to the degree that they assume the D-Day landings will revolve around whatever Patton’s up to, as they think he’s the man to be leading the invasion. In reality, Patton was kept far away from what happened in Normandy.
The movie does an excellent job, I believe, of showing a guy who might be a little crazy but is also the product of the late 19th century, fighting a war in the middle of the 20th century. Of course he’s going to clash with what’s expected in an era very different to the one he grew up in. As we know from WW1, where men were shot for cowardice as PTSD was simply unheard of, the kind of environment Patton grew up and thrived in had changed by the mid 1940s. It had changed again, 20 years after that in Vietnam. It’s been changing ever since. And in every era we have personalities like Patton who may well be brilliant, but unfortunately become fish out of water with what’s happening around them.
I don’t believe the film goes overboard to lionise Patton or slate him. I think it shows a very fair view of the man… he has some crazy ideas, but he’s not crazy. He takes some extreme measures at times… but he’s not completely reckless. Even towards the end of the film when the press reports that he had compared membership of the Republican and Democrat parties to being in the Nazi party, we see at the press conference the way that a very ‘straight shooter’ kind of comment is twisted into something that he most certainly wouldn’t have believed, at least in the way it was reported. My overall takeaway is very much of the ‘fish out of water’ than anything else. The kind of guy the US needed to win battles but, at the same time, the kind of guy the US didn’t want to be seen as endorsing in certain aspects.