Patton Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Patton Review
    “Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don't know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.”

    Patton, the movie, is very much the American equivalent to Lawrence Of Arabia, the movie. Both are huge-scale, idiosyncratic biopics that take a somewhat askew, stylistically wry look at their complex titular characters. Whereas David Lean's sun-drenched observations of Lawrence veered heavily into a romantic angle that, arguably, never actually existed in such a manner with the real visionary hero, Schaffner's ball-busting ego-trip, taken from the Oscar-winning screenplay from a young Francis Ford Coppola, fused romance only from the twisted self-adulation that General George S. Patton had for himself, a melding of rose-tinted bloodlust that might as well have been scraped off the burning husk of a gutted tank. Patton was a romantic all right, but a romantic whose heart fluttered to the harmony of incessant shelling, machine-gunfire and the reassuring rumble of tank tracks across enemy soil. He had no unified nation ethos to bolster his men's morale and no ideal other than smashing his enemies into oblivion. With this single-minded devotion to victory at all costs, the role of Patton can be seen as either hero or villain, though more tellingly, a fusion of the two. Rambo once drawled that “To survive war, you've got to become war,” but if you take this ethic back to its implied, and logical starting point, then you're approaching what it means to be the glory-seeking General Patton - because without war, he wouldn't exist.

    Franklyn J Schaffner had broken the mould of the sci-fi genre when he tackled Pierre Boulle's seminal novel Monkey Planet and unleashed The Planet Of The Apes upon an unsuspecting fantasy-starved public. He had taken a populist notion and given it a whirlwind spin that took its premise into wild new territory. Arguably, he set out to do the same with Patton a couple of years later. Not exactly your typical war film, there is plenty of action but these scenes are not the focal point, Patton is a complex, multi-layered exploration of the instincts, guts and verbal brawn that drove one man on a virtually single-minded German-bashing crusade from one continent to another, committing bouts of tactical genius and reckless bravado with equal bloody abandon. Both revered and despised - even by his own immediate officers and men - Patton forges ahead to victory like a juggernaut. Schaffner's film pulls no punches and seemingly de-mythologizes his exploits whilst still extending him a mythic status by virtue of left-field direction, cocksure performances and a wonderfully literate and intelligent script.

    George C. Scott, as Patton, is a revelation. Always known for his gruff, authoritarian demeanour and clever, whiplash sarcasm, he seems to have been carved out of granite and he assumes the role of the domineering Patton with electrifying gusto. His legendary screen sternness fits the character like a glove. With his stone-like expressions of total conviction, and eyes that glitter whenever he surveys a field of twisted steel and broken bodies, he brings Patton to life in such a way that, true to reality or not, his depiction will surely stand the test of time as the definitive one. Fiercely courageous in battle - although we shouldn't forget that he isn't exactly right in the firing-line, but just a little way behind it - and driven by a belligerent determination to be the first, to be the best, to win at all costs and to gain glory, glory, glory, Patton could not be played piece-meal in any conventional Hollywood manner that would normally opt to find some hidden angst or humanity to help alleviate the intimidating nature of such a larger-than-life taskmaster. Only an Old School battle-wagon like Scott could perform the Herculean feat of enduring such an intense personality over a lengthy and arduous shoot as Patton turned out to be. Besotted with warfare, its history, its art and its sheer competitiveness, Patton was like a race-horse - albeit one that was built like a Shire. His “go-get-em” attitude knew no earthly bounds and if he'd read that Napoleon, Alexander, Caesar or Wellington had done something, then he knew full well that he, too, could do it - and damn to hell anyone who thought otherwise. In many ways, he was the Custer of his era, although he never made any of the same mistakes. Custer was daring but foolish. Patton was no fool and his daring was second to none. Scott digs deep and locates all of this in a bull-headed performance of gritty, by the throat verbal barrages, striding integrity and unwavering self-belief. In some ways, his performance recalls the brassy patriotism of his “Buck” Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove, but there is a wilder side to his Patton that he, quite brilliantly, has you believe is only just being held in check. His Patton is a frustrated warrior. He understands red tape and the bureaucracy of top brass power-planning - and he hates it with a vengeance. He knows where the enemy is and he wants to be left unmolested by backroom strategists while he stops at nothing to get into battle. His tactics, for the most part, were inspired, but they rarely allowed for the element of chance in his overriding ambition to be the victor and Scott gains ground as an actor when confronted by superiors who are blind to his simple and direct thinking. His rivalry with British ace Field Marshall Montgomery (a starched and exasperated Michael Bates, dropping his r's like there's no tomorrow) is a highpoint that finds you rooting for the wrong man. I'm British but even I feel a chuckle coming on when Monty's battalion marches through throngs of recently liberated Frenchmen only to discover that the Yanks have been on parade in the town square all morning waiting for them. Schaffner and Scott both instil a sense of unstoppable momentum that feels like the most dangerous rollercoaster in the park. The majority of Second World War films give the enemy a fighting chance, but Patton's relentless driving back of the German hordes leaves us in no doubt who holds the balance of power in this neck of the woods.

    “Don't argue with me. I can smell a battlefield. Turn right!”

    But beneath this armour-plated hide, Scott also reveals a touching dimension to the General that, whilst still hard-nosed and highly self-opinionated, allows for more layers of complication to creep in. The pivotal scene when Patton, disgusted that one of his own men should be suffering from stress and shell-shock, slaps and belittles him for being a coward is a real shocker. Historians still debate this turning point in the General's career with his detractors denouncing him for such hard-line bullying and his lobbyists sticking by him for the greater good of his ceaseless campaign and, by proxy, the respect he shows to the genuinely injured heroes that lie in pain all around. This sympathetic bent takes a devious path when we later see Patton kiss the (possibly) lone American survivor of a ferocious armoured fight for his bravery throughout a long night of bloodshed - is he thanking the man, and his battalion, for their horrific sacrifice, or simply acknowledging the bravery that he demands of all his soldiers and is, at last, pleased to see in reality? It is a tough call.
    And then the moment when, incensed that an injured horse is blocking his convoy's path across a bridge, elects to shoot it and it's healthy companion and then heave their carcasses over the side, further unearths the heartless nature of a man who sees himself and his crusade as something approaching a biblical quest. That we remain sympathetic as well as awed by this self-proclaimed demigod is thanks to Scott's full-throated, two-fisted characterisation. It is theatrical. It is impossibly championed, but it is also superbly nuanced and powerfully injected with boot-polish, spit, kerosene and undiminished testosterone. Robert Duvall's napalm-loving Air Cavalry Col. Kilgore is a direct offshoot of this vitriolic sabre-rattler.

    Karl Malden, as Patton's friend and colleague, Gen. Omar N. Bradley, does a fine job, too. Malden has never been a favourite actor of mine - always too shouty and surprised-looking for me to take him seriously - but his conscience-addled soldier is a simple joy to behold here. The bliss of his reunion with Patton near the start and his constant pride at the remarkable achievements his fellow general makes is brilliantly tempered by the obvious exasperation and worry he has for the big guy when he invariably gets out of hand and rocks too many boats. The relationship between the two is convincingly etched too, with the pair of them battling Patton's own impetuosity and over-exuberance with possibly more vigour than that with which they battle the actual enemy. Theirs is a rocky bond that can withstand any amount of flak but, crucially, needs a reality check or two in order to survive the impossible odds that Patton forces it to face. A moment or two when Malden's hard-pressed Brad is compelled to tell his friend some bitter truths speak hugely of the investment that these two actors place in their stoic screen counterparts. But the rest of the cast do not fare nearly so well, and this is where the film is let down. A host of bit-parters from TV and lesser productions clog up the ensemble nature of many scenes and, almost to a man, surrender to the towering strength and talent of Scott. Far too many of these lower-echelon performers are too warmly spoken, too damn easygoing and slight to convince. Paul Stevens as Lt. Col. Charles Codman, one of Patton's most swooning patsies, is embarrassingly similar in tone and mannerism to Robert Llewellyn's comedic Kryton from TV's Red Dwarf - which is fine for a sci-fi sitcom, but really rather poor in an epic movie of this size and stature.
    With another classic war-score to compose after the likes of The Sand Pebbles, The Blue Max and Tora! Tora! Tora, Jerry Goldsmith, fresh from his eerie experimentation for The Planet Of The Apes (also for Schaffner), did something a touch atypical for the subject matter. His music for Patton is quite unlike anything that had been heard before in a large-scale WWII picture. Strident, formal and boldly militaristic on the surface, yet quirky and ironic enough to appeal to the somewhat overblown, self-propagandising character's inner workings, he fashioned a score that revelled in one man's Star Spangled zeal, blinkering the true horrors of war with indomitable pride, swaggering arrogance and all-out aggression. A crazed echoing horn-bleat that is electronically repeated becomes the clarion-call for Patton and, as weird and eerie as it is, it is a perfectly appropriate signature cue for a man whose hunger for glory and victory steps over setbacks, misunderstandings, failures and back-stabbing with as much sure-footedness as he does over fame, triumph and self-idolatry.

    “Where yer going, General?”

    “To Berlin! I'm going to personally shoot that paper-hanging sonofabitch!”

    Fred Koenekamp's superlative cinematography set new standards for scale and composition and really evoked the size and spectacle of the old classics such as Spartacus and Ben Hur. His painstaking travelogues of endless route marches and tank convoys, imposing landscapes overrun with teeming soldiers and ripped-up vehicles are like eye-candy for war-junkies. There is also some surprising carnage on show, too. Battlefields littered with gory bodies, some missing limbs or smothered with blast-blackened wounds, others with knives sticking out of them from when the fighting became hand-to-hand. There's even the classic shot of a German soldier getting crushed by one of his own tanks and enough rent metal to please those with penchant for colourful fireballs. The distressing sight of the displaced victims of war stripping the dead and pilfering whatever they can find from the wreckage of conflict is an indelible image, as well. But there is still much to set the pulse pounding. The now-classic scene of Patton's Tunisian HQ getting strafed by Luftwaffe - at precisely the same moment as the RAF Group Captain proudly informs him that the Germans haven't got a plane in the air - sees the cavalier renegade leap from the window, draw his pearl handled Bulldog semi-automatic and blast away at the Krauts roaring just a few feet overhead. Another spectacular bombardment reduces jeeps and trucks to cinders and blows poor Bill Hickman, as Patton's dutiful driver and messenger, to the great lap-dog kennel in the sky. A chance meeting between a US tank crew and their Nazi counterparts during the night leads to a wild and dangerous skirmish too, the aftermath of which results in Patton breathing the immortal line, “God, I love this,” as he surveys the ghastly littering of the corpse-filled stalemate. Born and bred for war, this guy.

    A catalyst and an anachronism in the genre, Patton is pure cinema written across an impossibly huge screen. Destiny and glory interwoven, the story of this maverick one-man maelstrom is poetic, patriotic and punishing. Despite a certain theatricality in its war-room scheming and on-the-road rhetoric, the film tells a decidedly colossal tale that cannot be over-written or sent-up in simple speech-bubble interludes. Scott opens a window onto the quite terrifying soul of a necessarily heroic megalomaniac and, rightly or wrongly, we cannot help but be borne along by his jingoism. It is a tour de force performance from a man who always gave his all, even though his very style was often akin to a bull in a china shop. Here, though, this style is exactly what is required.

    The film would go on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Scott, Best Director for Schaffner, Best Screenplay for Coppola and co-writer (and official script-smoother) Edmund H. North and, ultimately, Best Picture. As a kid brought up on war stories - fact and fiction - and movies - both tepid and devastating - Patton was, initially, an endurance test that inevitably bored me almost to tears. With its bum-aching running time, overly verbose style and the trappings of character-study over bodycount, it offered little to a boy weaned on Where Eagles Dare, The Guns Of Navarone and The Longest Day. But, obviously, time tells a different tale and the film now has a special place in my eternal pantheon of cinematic experience. Often cited as being “the thinking man's war film”, Patton, like the man himself, is a glorious trend-bucker and a brazen trailblazer, the like of which it seems can only come along at the cost of millions of lives.

    War ... what is it good for?

    Well, off the top of my head - I'd have to say movies.

    The Rundown

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