Wednesday, January 11, 2012

PATTON (1970)

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The 1970 best picture winner PATTON often has the feel of an old style, 1940's World War two propaganda film, with its mostly bloodless action scenes and righteous war attitude, not to mention its use of old style news reels to move the plot along.  At the same time, it features the kind of lead character that could never be realistically portrayed in one of those films: the cantankerous, foul mouthed, slightly crazed military genius, George S Patton.
The film was the result of a nineteen year attempt by brigadier general Frank Mc Carthy to have a movie made about his former boss during World War two.  When he had trouble getting the blessing of Patton's family, he purchased the rights to two books (the biography PATTON: ORDEAL AND TRIUMPH by Ladilas Fargo and A SOLDIER'S STORY by Omar Bradley) about the man, and then went to work with 20th. Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck  hired the then little known screen writer and director Francis Ford Coppola to write a script.  Although he had no military experience himself, Coppola  did a lot of research before writing, but, when actors like Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Rod Steiger all  were considering the title role, none of them liked his script and a more conventional one was written.  However, when  George C Scott was finally chosen for the role of Patton, Coppola's script was brought back and rewritten by writer Edmund H. North, who would share screenwriting credit and an Oscar with Coppola, even through the two would not actually meet until the night of the awards ceremony!  Directors like Fred Zinnemann and John Huston were considered to direct the film, and William Wyler actually agreed to before leaving after numerous fights with Scott.  Finally, Franklin J. Schaffner was picked, a logical choice given that in 1968 he had successfully made the hit film THE PLANET OF THE APES, which showed that he had a skill for big scenes with lots of extras. From that film, Shaffner brought along composer Jerry Goldsmith, who's odd, muted trumpet score for Patton is certainly memorable, if far from what one would expect for a war film.
Not surprisingly, PATTON proved to be a massive undertaking, with locations in six different countries and the employment of dozens of tanks and warplanes.  Meanwhile, Scott immersed himself into the role, reading biographies, watching newsreel footage and making sure that the makeup department got just the  right look.  All the work would pay off, as both Schaffner and Scott would win Oscars for their work, and the film would become a big hit, returning about sixty million dollars in box office on a budget of over twelve million.
The film's story opens in Tunisia in 1943.  After a humiliating loss to the Germans under the leadership of Erwin Rommel,  US general George Patton has been sent to aid general Omar N. Bradley(Karl Malden).  Patton instills discipline in his men and leads them to victory.  He is then sent to aid in the allied invasion of Sicily.  While there, his aggressive ways anger the British leaders even as he proves  his worth in battles.  After slapping a shell shocked soldier that he considers a coward, he is relieved of duty.  But during the D Day invasion of Normandy he is brought back, first as a decoy, and then he is allowed to lead an army through France that eventually reaches Germany itself.  As the war ends, his dislike for the Russians and continued outspoken manner get him in trouble again, and he retires, although he does help oversee the rebuilding of Germany.

George C. Scott

The film's opening is its most famous scene: we see an enormous American flag on a stage.  In full military regalia, Patton appears and, even before he speaks, we see from his manner, his medals and, yes the ivory handled pistol he wears in a holster, that this is an important man in a moment that will make history. He then gives a rousing, profane, funny, and slightly crazed speech that Scott delivers with such gravel mouthed gusto that he probably would have won the best actor award for this scene alone. The speech itself is not taken verbatim from one speech he gave, but instead combines several lines he said, almost like a "greatest hits" collection.  Interestingly,  no context is given as to where he is or what battle his men will be in, but then none is needed; the scene is about defining his character, and it does that perfectly.  It also sets out the film's main theme: sometimes you have to have a crazy man on your side to win a war.
Throughout the film,  Patton's balance of brilliant tactician and battle hungry zealot is joyfully expressed by Scott's performance; we see that he clearly knows how to win battles and push his men to their full extent, but then we also see him single handedly try to shoot down two German fighter planes with nothing but a pistol, as bullets fly around him. And we find that he not only believes in reincarnation, but that he also believes that he himself has fought in every major battle in the history of the world.  Truly, he sees himself as an eternal warrior! Scott's broad performance as  Patton is offset by the more subtle job that Karl Malden does as general Bradley, who not only counterbalances Scott but serves as his voice of reason for him, a voice that Patton doesn't always listen to.

George C. Scott and Karl Malden 

Director Scraffner keeps the movie moving quickly, even at almost three hours; and if the film sometimes falls into a predictable pattern, with another battle, and then another moment when Patton says or does the wrong thing, its never really boring.  The most impressive combat moment comes early on, when Rommel's tank forces clash with the Americans, as huge explosions throw up clouds of dust in the air.  And it has a great conclusion, as Patton gleefully admits that he won by reading Rommel's own book about tank warfare beforehand.  ("Rommel,  you magnificent bastard, I read your book!")
Periodically in the film, we see the German officers making battle plans; these scenes mainly exist just to show how much respect the Germans had for  Patton, and don't feel necessary.  I think it's unfortunate that none of the Germans really come across as characters (Karl  Micheal Vogler makes little impression as Rommel), since that leaves the film without any strong villains. And I also wish that there was more feeling for how Patton's men felt about him; we hear him saying that he will push them hard and leading them into battle, but we never get to know any of his men or how they feel about him.  Really, this film is a one man show, with Scott in nearly every scene, but fortunately his performance and the character he plays are compelling enough that that's not really a problem.
Another interesting thing about the film was the way that it was perceived by  American audiences; in a country at war in Viet Nam and strongly divided by it, both sides could see something to like in PATTON.  Pro war advocates (like president Nixon, who called it his favorite movie) saw a film about a hero who did what he had to do, and who was ahead of his times by hating the Russians when they were still allies. Anti war activists saw a film about a crazy, war hungry general who's gung ho attitude  confirmed everything negative they thought about the military mindset, even if Karl Maldin's character is there to remind us that not all generals are like Patton. I think it is to the film's credit that both sides could see what they wanted in it; the film presents the man as he was without judgement.  When he proudly says in the opening speech, "All real Americans love the sting of battle", the rightness of the statement is left up to the audience.  Even when he gets in trouble for slapping a soldier (Tim Consedine) who is unwounded but in the hospital for "nerves", the soldier is sensitively  portrayed, and Patton's reaction to him  is open to interpretation.  By avoiding politics and just following the man, Shaffner made a film that holds up well decades later.


While 1970 had several other terrific films like Bob Raphelson's FIVE EASY PIECES, Arthur Penn's LITTLE BIG MAN and Robert Altman's MASH, PATTON is a hard film to disagree with on the strength of Scott's performance alone.