“Patton” might not be the greatest war movie ever made, but it’s without question cinema’s finest character study. It’s a portrait of a man painted so vividly that I bet — at least since 1970 — that there are far more historians whose research emphasis is on Gen. George S. Patton than any other war hero/major military figure. Hollywood has given us any number of unique and enigmatic characters, but none so compelling and quickly gathering of our sympathies as Patton.
Patton was an American general in World War II, but more specifically he was fighter, a soldier a man who believed in war as part of human nature. He was also a poet and a war history romantic. He was prideful, he was vulgar, he was both loved and despised. The list goes on, because that’s how incredibly complex Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North’s character is as well as the layers of depth George C. Scott gives him.
Scott refused his much-deserved and won Oscar, but he insisted he didn’t belong in an elite category. What he didn’t really consider was that sometimes an actor, usually a character actor, comes across a role so perfectly suited to their talents, a part that wouldn’t be the same done by any other actor, that greatness happens. Scott found that role. Few actors ever do. He plays Patton with such command yet the more Patton realizes his fallibility, Scott withdraws ever so slightly, bringing the character a tad closer to earth each time, but never losing that essence of pride and self confidence.
“Patton” is a long movie and you spend much of it just craving for Patton to do or say something. From his eternally quotable opening monologue before a backdrop of the American flag onward, we can’t see or hear enough of the man. He’s utterly fascinating. He speaks American war ideals like they’re fundamental truths about the universe. Hippies would be ready to die for their country after listening to that, no matter how many swears he uses. And he never appears crazy. In fact, throughout the film as Patton’s commanding officers reprimand him for his behavior including hitting a soldier, we find ourselves wondering “why doesn’t anyone else see this man’s brilliance?” He’s not nice, but he’s right. The idea of Patton as a war man and not a politician plays out then throughout the rest of the film.
Honestly, whenever Patton’s not on screen and specifically saying something, the film is uninteresting. There’s one terrific action moment where Scott, angry at the incompetent British in Morocco, goes outside with his pistol and tries to shoot two German planes down. After that, the war scenes are nothing but random explosions and images without any narrative relevance to the story. In a nearly three hour film, it’s fair to consider all the scenes where the best part of the film plays little or no role a bit tedious and pointless.
It’s impossible to describe in a review the many depths and levels of Patton’s character. There are many elements in the story that evolve from and revolve around the man he was that little can be summarized. The most basic piece of this character to understand is that despite how convincing and successful he was as a military figure, his wily and off-kilter ways were always at odds with that success. Essentially, it reveals the many dimension of Patton and the many dimensions of war that require more than just a “blood ‘n guts” attitude.
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North (screenplay), Ladislas Farago (book), Omar N. Bradley (book)
Starring: George C. Scott