The Oscars Project: Week 13 — Patton

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, with the help of the good folks at Casablanca Video and the Calgary Public Library, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

Patton (Best Picture, Best Director and four others)

Patton is one of those rare films where subject and form come together perfectly. If the film that bears his name is at all accurate, Second World War legend General George S. Patton epitomized the cinematic image of the U.S. military. As portrayed to perfection by George C. Scott, Patton lives and breathes military strategy, both historic and contemporary. His every waking moment is spent thinking of how to win battles, how armies should be organized, even how uniforms should be designed. He legitimately believed himself to be reincarnated from a long line of warriors; he would comment that he’d been on Roman battlefields thousands of years earlier. The real-life Patton was known as “America’s fightingest general,” and any man who embodies the military ideal enough for the press to invent a word as fun to use as “fightingest” is surely the perfect subject for an epic military biopic.

Like its subject, Patton sees only the most glorious, and the most basic, elements of war. Context hardly matters — there are no references to Nazi atrocities and hardly a mention of Pearl Harbor. All that matters, both to Patton and Patton, is that there are enemies to fight and a battlefield to fight them on. Everything else is irrelevant. That single-mindedness is powerful enough that it threatens to sink the general’s career — there are a few references to Patton’s inability or unwillingness to play any political games — but it only buoys the film.

Despite Patton’s embodiment of gung-hoism, Patton’s promotional campaign tried to pitch the movie to young peaceniks at the same time it was pitching to war buffs. It’s an understandable aim, as the general did have his share of unconventional traits (a belief in reincarnation and a fondness for poetry and fashion design not the least among them), but it’s more a marketing pitch than anything. Patton, despite his quirks, was pure military through and through, and Patton is the same.

The last military epic in this project, Lawrence of Arabia, worked because it subverted the usual rules of the military epic. Peter O’Toole’s General Lawrence was a military man far removed from the norm, seeking glory and hiding from it in equal measure, excelling in combat strategy but seemingly abhorring the violence it required and attempting to lose his Britishness in favour of the somehow more authentic life of desert nomads. He was effeminate, intellectual and deeply charismatic. Putting such an unlikely character at the centre of a three-hour epic and filling the frame with scenery that’s closer to Gus Van Sant’s Gerry than the overblown excess of modern war films was easily enough to elevate the film above the usual biopic.

Patton takes almost the opposite approach. There are thoughtful moments and explicit references to the general’s intellectual bent, but on the whole, the film is overloaded with pure, unfiltered machismo. There’s a scene early on where Patton, newly assuming command at an Allied base, is berating the British officers who are supposed to be supplying him with air support; his troops are facing constant bombardment in their own base. Immediately after the Brits assure him he won’t see another plane, sure enough, a pair of Luftwaffe pilots lay into his camp. Patton’s response — naturally enough — is to jump into the streets and shoot at the planes with his ivory-handled pistols, just as the pilots retreat.
When asked how he managed to stage such a perfectly self-aggrandizing first impression in front of his new troops, he responds, “I don’t know, but if I could find the Nazis flying those things, I’d give them each a medal.” It’s as if the world is conspiring to turn Patton into The Great American Soldier, and he’s only too happy to take it up on the offer. Scene after scene focuses on the general’s impossible manliness. He rides to the front lines standing his jeep, shouting at his men about how he’s going to kick some Nazi ass. He berates a battalion for taking too long finding its way across a river that he’s already easily forded. And, in one of the movie’s most famous scenes, he slaps a soldier for cowardice, a move that very nearly derails his entire military career.

The movie’s treatment of the slap puts the lie to any peacenik sales pitch on the part of Patton’s marketing team. The lightness of the slap and the monologue surrounding it — Patton’s refusal to let a “coward” sit among the heroic wounded in a military hospital — comes across as entirely justified, particularly in the face of the farcical apologies he’s ordered to endure by a never-pictured General Eisenhower. The script (written by Francis Ford Coppola, earning him his first Oscar) even finds time to allow a Nazi to point out the absurd situation Patton found himself in, and how ridiculous it is that the Americans would sack their best strategist for something as simple as a slap.

Just because Patton comes down firmly on the general’s side (appropriately, given that it’s a biopic) doesn’t mean it’s overly simplistic, though. There’s something admirable in the way it strips World War Two of anything resembling politics or bathos. I can’t imagine a war film today that could depict the Nazis without a single reference to the Holocaust or even one heavy-handed attempt at demonization. Of the handful of references to Nazis in Patton that go beyond basic descriptions of military strategy, most are references to Rommel, the most brilliant tactician on the German side, and even then, it’s more as respected adversary than agent of evil. One of the most common criticisms of modern (and historic) warfare is that the generals see the soldiers as pawns, not humans, and that human life becomes a distant second to strategic superiority. Patton may put himself into the thick of the battle and get his hands dirty in tasks as menial as directing tank traffic in a muddy field, but there’s little doubt that he’s more interested in the big game than in the lives of his men. It’s him against Rommel, against Hitler, against some abstraction of “the enemy” that spans the millennia that he believes his spirit has lived through.

Maybe that’s why Patton tends to be a favourite among war buffs. It takes a certain mindset to ignore the political and social context of a battle and view it in purely strategic terms. That’s what people do when they re-enact those skirmishes on tabletops or in full-dress recreations — they’re abstracting an atrocity and reimagining it as something more pure, a battle of wits between two worthy competitors. Patton seems to be doing the same thing throughout his career. The man knew how to deliver a rousing speech (see the much-imitated and parodied opening, with Scott monologuing in front of the biggest American flag you’ll ever see), but he wasn’t doing it because he legitimately cared about the men he was speaking to. He knows that an inspired soldier fights harder than a skeptical soldier, and that’s as far as it goes. It’s all just so much strategy.

Coming up:
1971: The French Connection
1972: The Godfather
1973: The Sting

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