Cinematic Century

1970 – Patton

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Last week I talked about how I struggled a little to find my favorite film of 1969 because there was kind of slim pickings. Which was weird, because the few years before that had been absolutely jam-packed with films I loved, causing problems for the opposite reason. And, looking ahead, the seventies are going to give me a whole bunch of incredibly difficult decisions, just pumping out classic after classic that I’m going to have to fight over. But, oddly enough, 1969 and 1970 were just kind of fallow periods for me. There’s some good stuff coming out those years, but not a whole lot of movies that click with me in the way that’s required for this project. Just like last week, I found a few movies that I like, but don’t really love, mixed in with a few classics that just do absolutely nothing for me. I mean, I really enjoy Robert Altman, and I’ll be talking about him a few times over the coming weeks, but MASH has never worked for me. It’s rambling, it’s aged terribly, and it just comes off as self-satisfied in a way that has always kept me at arm’s reach. Oddly, Altman put out two movies in 1970, and I much prefer his second movie, the insanely bizarre Brewster McCloud. That movie came pretty close to winning the spotlight this week, because it’s just obtuse enough that I kind of love it. It makes very little sense, it also is swimming in elements that have aged incredibly poorly, but the weird twisted fable that it gives is one that I click with. However, in a similar vein, El Topo has never worked for me. It’s even stranger and more surreal than Brewster McCloud, giving us one of the perennial Midnight Movies, but it’s that special kind of strange and psychedelic that I just can’t connect with. I guess I need to smoke a whole lot more weed to get El Topo. So, looking around the big films of 1970, I was a little unsure of what I was going to highlight. And, what won out kind of surprised me. I’d never watched this film before working my way through a series of films from this year to find a winner, and I really wasn’t expecting much from it. I had kind of built up an expectation for what this movie would be, but I was completely wrong. Patton is a fascinating film, and I ended up loving it.

George S Patton was a very complicated and fascinating man. So, it makes sense that Hollywood would love to make a big film about his life and exploits. Because if there’s two things that Hollywood loves making movies about it’s World War II and American Heroes. So, killing two birds with one stone, people began trying to get Patton biopics off the ground basically from the point that he died. But, they could never get the assistance of Patton’s widow and family. Eventually though, that tactic was given up, and Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North ended up writing their own screenplay, heavily lifting from a biography of Patton and an autobiography of one of his contemporaries, to do their best to bring life to such a larger than life figure. They took moments and speeches from his life, injecting history to a story that at times feels larger than life. But, if anything, they had to tone some of it down, especially some of the direct quotes from Patton, who who’s foul mouth really could have gotten the film easily saddled with an R rating. Which wasn’t the goal of this film. It was a massive, sprawling epic that was intended to win the hearts and minds of the American public. And they succeeded. Unlike so many other movies I talk about during this project, Patton was a huge hit both critically and commercially. The public loved the film, and it ended up winning all of the major Academy Awards, including Best Picture and a well-deserved, yet publicly refused, Best Actor award for George C Scott. The film has gone on to be considered a classic of American cinema, leaving an indelible mark on American culture, that for me took the form of spending most of the run-time finally understanding where a whole slew of Simpson’s jokes came from.

 

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The film opens up with the incredibly iconic speech that Patton gave the Third Army, telling them about the importance of American culture, and their destiny to win the Second World War, giving us a good impression of Patton as a man and a leader. The film then hops backwards a little bit to the beginning of Patton’s journey throughout the Second World War, beginning with him arriving in Northern Africa to whip a battered Army corps stationed there into shape. He immediately takes over, instilling a sense of duty and comportment to the soldiers, earning their loyalty while making them a fine-oiled murder machine. Which is going to be important, because these men are going up against the German Panzer Army, led by the deadly Erwin Rommell. It’s a tough battle, but Patton ends up earning himself and his men a lot of respect, helping push the Axis powers out of Northern Africa and even staring down a direct assault by some German planes. He didn’t get quite the glory he wanted, personally killing Romell, but his work in Africa was declared a huge success, and Patton was moved on to bigger and better things.

Working with a pair of colleagues, Bernard Montgomery and Omar Bradley, begin plotting the invasion of Sicily. Unfortunately, in typical Patton fashion, his plan is far more ostentatious and daring, which flies in the face of Montgomery’s plan, which was far more cautious. And, the powers that be decide to take Montgomery’s plan. Patton becomes convinced that his plan works better, and that Montgomery only devised this plan so that he and his men would be the first to reach the finish line, becoming the hero. So, Patton decides to ignore direct orders, and sends his men on a different plan, rapidly making their way through Italy and beating out Montgomery, taking the glory and recognition for himself at the risk of his own men. But, Patton couldn’t care less. He got one over on Montgomery, and has given himself a reputation for being an unstoppable general, one who can’t seem to be beaten. He’s gaining power, while his colleagues begin to worry that he’s thinking more about his own glory than the safety of his men, while becoming something of a celebrity. It seemed like nothing could stop Patton, until he did something very stupid. While visiting some injured soldiers from his push through Italy he comes across a shell-shocked soldier. Patton hates the idea of coddling “cowards,” and ends up screaming at the man and hitting him, all in front of other soldiers. The tale of his cruelty spreads quickly around, and it reaches the point that General Eisenhower decides to relieve Patton of duty, taking him off of the planned D-Day invasion, and forcing him into a humiliating position of standing by as a distraction, losing all of his respect.

But, it’s impossible to keep Patton down. He had to publicly apologize for his abuse of the soldier, and finds himself without an army to command. He sits by and watches as the Invasion of Europe continues, marching ever toward Berlin, and he begins to worry that he’ll be left out of the final push. So, Patton personally begs Bradley, his former subordinate, for a command before the end of the war. Bradley takes pity on Patton, and gives him control of the Third Army. And, sensing his last chance, Patton pulls it off. He whips the Third Army into shape, and they quickly begin crossing France, pulling off more victories than anyone could have imagined. He still takes massive risks, but they all pull off, and Patton and his men end up being instrumental in the saving of France. He and his men continue to push ever-closer to Berlin, reaching the logical conclusion of the Western Front. But, once again, Patton’s bluster and ignorance of public perception is what leads to his downfall, yet again. Because with victory in his grasp, Patton starts putting his foot in his mouth, especially in regards to his Soviet allies. He doesn’t trust the Soviet Union at all, and starts making it clear in public that he wants to have nothing to do with them, causing some serious tensions between the American and Soviet military. And, once again, he has his command taken away form him. The military keeps him on for the rebuilding process of Germany, but he didn’t get to be involved in the final push, and he wasn’t given control of another army, questioning his legacy, and the worth of the glory he so strongly strove for.

 

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I’m not really a huge fan of war movies. I’ve spoken about a few over the course of this project, but they’ve typically been stories that take place during a war, not really something like this film. This is a movie about war, and the perceived glory of it. And, usually, that turns me off. I don’t really go in for the hoo-rah military movies that feel more like propaganda than anything else, trying to convince the masses that continued warfare is a noble and patriotic thing. Which was probably the biggest reason that it took so long for me to watch Patton. Everything about the film seemed to promise exactly the type of film I wasn’t interested in, but, pleasantly, that wasn’t what it ended up being. Yeah, there’s a fair amount of hero worship and glorification of war in this movie, but it also is absolutely full of self-deprecation and bracing honesty. The movie shows Patton as he was, larger than life, warts and all. He isn’t fully portrayed as a sympathetic figure, at least not totally. He was a deeply broken man, and the movie wasn’t afraid to shine a light on that aspect, not just becoming a standing ovation for a complicated figure. And, it’s all bolstered by an absolutely phenomenal performance from George C Scott. I’ve always been a fan of Scott, and he brought Patton to life in such a beautiful way, full of the bluster, anger, pride, honor, and most importantly obsession, that comprised the man.

Because after watching this film, the biggest takeaway about George S Patton I received was that he was a man whose entire life was devoted to the concept of glory. He has spent his entire life learning about warfare, both in a practical sens and in a historical one. He had become convinced that the one true way to leave your mark on the pages of history is to become a successful warrior. He has poured over the history of war in Europe, and has decided that it’s his destiny to add his name to the list of great military leaders, and is going to do whatever he can to make that dream become a reality. He pushed his men, and himself, beyond a safe and sane level, all in the impossible task of gaining as much glory as possible. He did risky things constantly. Sometimes it paid off and sometimes it didn’t. But it didn’t matter to him. The pros outweighed the cons, and his entire life was devoted to getting as much glory as possible. All for it to mean very little. He spent his life doing nothing but focusing on war, at the expense of his personality and ability to play the game, which is what inevitably led to his downfall. He was too eager, too callous, and too obsessed, and people just couldn’t abide him or his ways. Everything in his life revolved around his glory, and as the film ends we’re reminded just how fleeting glory is. It was a powerful drug, and one that he spent the entire film chasing. And yet, by the end of the film, we see that it wasn’t enough. It didn’t make him happy, and it’s unsure if he’ll be remembered the way he desperately wanted to. His life’s pursuit was potentially in vain. But it was too late to change.

Patton was written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H North, directed by Franklin J Schaffner, and released by 20th Century Fox, 1970.

 

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