Patton (1970)

Patton (1970)

Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (George C. Scott), Best Director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North), Best Art Direction (Urie McCleary, Gil Parrondo, Antonio Mateos, Pierre-Louis Thévenet), Best Sound (Douglas O. Williams, Don J. Bassman), Best Editing (Hugh S. Fowler)

Other Nominees: Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, MASH

You might not have evern seen Patton, but you've seen this image a thousand times. George C. Scott as Gen. Patton.

Maybe you’ve never seen Patton, but you’ve seen this image a thousand times. George C. Scott as Gen. Patton.

Patton is the first bona fide masterpiece to find itself on this blog. After the bombast that was Braveheart and the quiet uneasiness that was Gentleman’s Agreement, I felt it time to tackle a film that is truly among the best in its class, and Patton is that. A long, difficult, and meticulously staged WWII epic, Patton represents career highs for director Franklin J. Schaffner and actor George C. Scott, as well as the first major success for one of its screenwriters, Francis Ford Coppola (whose mark on the film is immediately noticeable to those familiar with his work). Much about this film has already been said, and said better than I could hope to say, so I’ll keep my remarks on this film distant and appreciative: Patton is utterly unique.

Though a hit at its time, (7 Oscars, $61M box office), Patton would likely bore most modern audiences. Though it does have a fair amount of action (this is WWII, mind you), the film moves slowly, and is, at heart, a long and careful character study. The film is so long, and so episodic, that it is hard to focus on the war’s progress throughout, mostly because your thoughts are so focused on the man sitting at the eye of this storm. For a film that tells such a colorful story, it is strangely stark. It is also strictly unemotional, and I couldn’t quite tell if this was purposeful or not. Why do we care so much about this abrasive, violent man, when we aren’t allowed into his brain? We observe him throughout, but we are never to see through his eyes.

I am then brought to wonder, what new does this film impart? Perhaps because I could never find a way into the film’s central character, as I so wanted to, I drifted towards his softer friend, Bradley, a somewhat thankless role played by the king of thankless roles, Karl Malden. But even so, Bradley comes into the film late and is never active enough to fully steal the camera’s attention. Perhaps because this film is over 40 years old, and because my movie-watching sensitivities have been so treated by highly emotional war films full of sentiment and compassion for all affected, my attention cannot be held by solely Patton’s sense of duty and hard work. Thus, this film was, for me, an exercise in vacillation between wishing it had a deeper emotional fabric while calmly appreciating its cool, ordered storytelling.

Scott is, of course, incredible in the film. He is in nearly every scene (though there are some questionable scenes of his Nazi foes plotting in underground bunkers, which are reminiscent of Bond supervillain lairs) and has a firm sense of character. Frankly, shamefully, I am unfamiliar with his other work so his entire presence in this film was a delight to me. He exudes strength and impermeability as Patton and generosity as an actor. And I have a harder time asking anything more of a leading player.

To today’s audiences, equally as notable as the film is Scott’s reaction to his Academy Award win. As with previous nominations, he refused the nomination and the eventual win for Patton. He did not care for the competition that such awards created between actors, thinking that art could not be compared. For what it’s worth, I completely agree with him. How can one performance, or film, be judged higher than another, when their end goals are completely different? I am working on this blog to explore the history of film, but I do not wish to claim that any film is “better” than another, or that any is “best”. We all have different opinions about what defines merit, and that is wonderful. I hope through this blog to further celebrate some of what one organization has anointed to be our most compelling films, and I certainly feel that Patton is one of them. It’s on Netflix. Go watch it, and treat yourself to an entirely different mode of storytelling.

"All glory is fleeting." Especially when you turn down your Oscar. George C. Scott as Gen. Patton.

“All glory is fleeting.” Especially when you turn down your Oscar.
George C. Scott as Gen. Patton.

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2 thoughts on “Patton (1970)

  1. I wonder why there haven’t been other epic biopics of WWII generals. Eisenhower, as the supreme Allied commander (who therefore had to deal with Patton), seems like a natural target, but perhaps his second act as president complicates things, and I guess he wasn’t quite as much of a character. MacArthur would probably make for a good one, and of course people (i.e. WWII nerds) love Montgomery (British) and Rommel (German) as well. Heck, I’d love to see one on Georgy Zhukov, the Russian general who probably did the most of anyone to actually win the war.

    Of course, it’s probably been too long at this point–“60 years ago” is quite different from “25 years ago”.

    (Really someone should make a movie about this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrian_Carton_de_Wiart — just read the first paragraph!)

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    • Yes, it is curious. I’m sure there are more WWII general films out there, as WWII is probably the most popular 5ish years in all history when it comes to narrative film. But certainly none as big as Patton. I believe that the appeal is a mix of his bombastic personality + time in the war when it began to swing in the Allied direction. I agree with all your suggestions, esp Zhukov. However, that di Wiart guy would be an amazing topic. Give it to Soderbergh.

      Of course, the best filmed representation of WWII warfare is clearly Band of Brothers. Or South Pacific. 🙂

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