Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner
Premise: The story of United States military general George Patton (George C. Scott) who commanded American troops in the European theater during World War II.
What Works: The war film is one of the most popular genres in Hollywood and World War II has been the conflict most frequently dramatized on the silver screen. That’s not a surprise since the length and scope of World War II and its many colorful characters have been a fertile source of stories both fictional and based on fact. But despite the many World War II pictures that Hollywood has produced, Patton remains one of the most unique titles in that field. The film was made in the early years of the New Hollywood era and Patton is a combination of the classic movies made during the studio period and the more experimental and edgy films of the New Hollywood filmmakers. That’s likely due to the influence of two key individuals behind the camera. The first was Francis Ford Coppola, who co-wrote the screenplay. Coppola would become the poster boy for the New Hollywood era as the director of The Godfather and the founder of American Zoetrope and he contributed an unusual narrative structure and a personal scope to the project. Patton was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Despite being a member of the older generation, Schaffner was a creative filmmaker who made movies that were intelligent and subversive and bucked the boiler plate style of studio-era Hollywood productions, most notably the original Planet of the Apes. The influence of these two creative forces behind the camera merged to create what remains one of the most interesting war films of all time. Unlike a lot of biographical pictures, Patton is limited in its scope. The movie dramatizes the general’s military career throughout World War II from overseeing and rebuilding the US II Corps through commanding the Third and Seventh Army and ending with his military governorship of Bavaria just after the end of the conflict. That contained scope gives the narrative a definite shape, more so than a birth-to-death biographical story. At the center of Patton is George C. Scott in the title role. This is one of the great performances in the history of Hollywood movies, as iconic as Marlon Brando in The Godfather or Al Pacino in Scarface. Scott’s performance is often thought of in terms of the bombast of his opening speech in which he vigorously addresses his troops. But what is so outstanding about the Patton character is his complexity. As portrayed in this film, Patton was a bundle of contradictions; he was a religious man who also loved war, he emphasized teamwork among his troops but never missed a chance for self-aggrandizement, and he had a conservative sensibility yet he was also casually profane in his speech. One of the most outstanding aspects of the film’s character study is the way it captures a transition in the nature and function of the military through this man’s career. Patton comes across as unfit for the century he was born in; he was a warrior poet who would have been more comfortable leading an army during the Middle Ages. As good a general as he is, Patton is overwhelmed by the American press and the political expectations of his job. That is the respect in which Patton is not just a movie about World War II but about the tense relationship between the military and civilian society. The film was released amid the angst over the war in Vietnam and so its politics and observations are informed by that era. But what made Patton relevant for the 1970 audience also makes it relevant for today’s viewers. General Patton was demanded to be a gentleman warrior, killing the enemy on the battlefield but then expected to speak politely about it in public. That tension is very powerful and it’s what has made the movie character and the historical figure of George Patton so interesting.
What Doesn’t: One of the ways Patton remains unique is its lack of military action. In most war movies, and especially titles made since the advent of video games, the focus is on the combat. More recent war movies, such as Black Hawk Down and Lone Survivor, show a lot of influence from games like Call of Duty. Patton has its battles but they are few and far between. Quite a bit of the violence is presented in montage sequences. This is to the movie’s credit, as it keeps focus on Patton’s strategy and his command over his men, but contemporary audiences may be befuddled by a war movie with so little violence.
DVD extras: Documentary, featurettes, image gallery, and a trailer.
Bottom Line: Patton is one of Hollywood’s greatest war pictures. It is neither a celebration nor a condemnation of the general but rather a complex character study of a man who was forged by war but broken by the politics of peace. This was a movie about World War II made during the Vietnam era and it remains relevant amid the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Episode: #543 (May 24, 2015)