Sunday, May 29, 2011

Patton (1970)

Patton’s Secret is the Past
by Nicholas Stix
September 20, 2003
Toogood Reports/The Critical Critic

“Das Geheimnis Pattons ist die Vergangenheit,” says a captain in the German high command. “Patton’s secret is the past.” The secret of the man and the movie.

The moment Patton opens, you know this will be like no other war movie. General George S. Patton Jr. (1885-1945) stands before the biggest American flag I have ever seen, wearing a highly buffed, black helmet and a uniform suggesting the 18th or 19th century, weighed down with medals domestic and foreign, bearing not one but two ivory-handled revolvers, and holding a riding crop. As a bugler plays reveille, the camera focuses on each feature in turn. And then Scott lets loose with the now famous monologue, which was actually the last thing the filmmakers came up with.

“Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country...!”

Atten ... tion!

Consider the time. It was 1970; America was mired in a highly unpopular war in Vietnam, the draft had just been ended, and America was preparing to pull out its fighting men from the first military defeat in its history. And here was this spirit from the past, saying, “Americans love to fight,” and “will not tolerate a loser”!

Early in Patton, we hear the sound of distant trumpets, as in 1943, the general surveys the ancient battlefield where Carthage (modern name, Tunis, in Tunisia) was burnt to the ground by the Romans in 146 B.C.

Patton is standing near the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, where over 1,000 American G.I.s had just been butchered in their first encounter with the German Wehrmacht, in the form of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. “I was there,” he tells his assistant. In 146 B.C.

Is he mad or is he teasing? The answer is, a little of both.

He quotes part of a lush, romantic poem of the eternal warrior—he is the poet. An American poet-general? Clearly, we are dealing with a man singular in the annals of 20th century American warfare. “I hate the 20th century,” the old “cavalry horse officer” remarks.

Through a Glass, Darkly

By George S. Patton, Jr.

Through the travail of the ages,
Midst the pomp and toil of war,
Have I fought and strove and perished,
Countless times upon this star.

In the form of many people,
In all panoplies of time,
Have I seen the luring vision,
Of the Victory Maid, sublime.

I have battled for fresh mammoth,
I have warred for pastures new,
I have listed [listened?] to the whispers,
When the race trek instinct grew.

I have known the call to battle,
In each changeless changing shape,
From the high souled voice of conscience,
To the beastly lust for rape.

I have sinned and I have suffered,
Played the hero and the knave,
Fought for belly, shame, or country,
And for each have found a grave.

I cannot name my battles,
For the visions are not clear,
Yet, I see the twisted faces,
And I feel the rending spear.

Perhaps I stabbed our Savior,
In His sacred helpless side,
Yet, I’ve called His name in blessing,
When after times I died.

In the dimness of the shadows,
Where we hairy heathens warred,
I can taste in thought the lifeblood,
We used teeth before the sword.

While in later clearer vision,
I can sense the coppery sweat,
Feel the pikes grow wet and slippery,
When our Phalanx, Cyrus met.

Hear the rattle of the harness,
Where the Persian darts bounced clear,
See their chariots wheel in panic,
From the Hoplite’s leveled spear.

See the goal grow monthly longer,
Reaching for the walls of Tyre,
Hear the crash of tons of granite,
Smell the quenchless eastern fire.

Still more clearly as a Roman,
Can I see the Legion close,
As our third rank moved in forward,
And the short sword found our foes.

Once again I feel the anguish,
Of that blistering treeless plain,
When the Parthian showered death bolts,
And our discipline was in vain.

I remember all the suffering,
Of those arrows in my neck,
Yet, I stabbed a grinning savage,
As I died upon my back.

Once again I smell the heat sparks,
When my Flemish plate gave way,
And the lance ripped through my entrails,
As on Crecy’s field I lay.

In the windless, blinding stillness,
Of the glittering tropic sea,
I can see the bubbles rising,
Where we set the captives free.

Midst the spume of half a tempest,
I have heard the bulwarks go,
When the crashing, point blank round shot,
Sent destruction to our foe.

I have fought with gun and cutlass,
On the red and slippery deck,
With all Hell aflame within me,
And a rope around my neck.

And still later as a General,
Have I galloped with Murat,
When we laughed at death and numbers,
Trusting in the Emperor’s Star.

Till at last our star faded,
And we shouted to our doom,
Where the sunken road of Ohein,
Closed us in its quivering gloom.

So but now with tanks a’clatter,
Have I waddled on the foe,
Belching death at twenty paces,
By the star shell’s ghastly glow.

So as through a glass, and darkly,
The age long strife I see,
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names, but always me.

And I see not in my blindness,
What the objects were I wrought,
But as God rules o’er our bickering,
It was through His will I fought.

So forever in the future,
Shall I battle as of yore,
Dying to be born a fighter,
But to die again, once more.

(Note the similarities in Mick Jagger’s lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil.” In the movie, Scott quotes only the poem’s highlights.)

Patton refers to himself as “a prima donna,” but as director Franklin Schaffner, scenarists Francis Ford Coppola (yes, before he became Hollywood’s greatest active director, he was its greatest active screenwriter!) and Edmund H. North, and star George C. Scott portray him, megalomaniac is more like it. Before going in to battle, as he stands before his mirror, his Negro soldier-valet carefully placing his begoggled helmet on his head, he more closely resembles a Roman general (or Il Duce) than a modern officer. And in a notorious, true incident, upon encountering a shell-shocked soldier, he slaps the man silly, threatens to shoot him, and is almost cashiered by Ike. But he was our greatest 20th century field commander.

(The valet is played by a trim, youthful-looking, fifty-year-old Jimmy Edwards. Unfortunately, Edwards (Home of the Brave, Bright Victory, The Member of the Wedding, The Manchurian Candidate), whose career was limited by racism, died of a massive heart attack before the film’s release. Edwards went through hell, paving the way so that the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington could become screen icons, while he was forgotten.)

The making of Patton clearly influenced Coppola, when the latter made Apocalypse Now. At one point on a battlefield, Patton smells the smoke of spent gunpowder and says, “I love it, God help me, I do love it. I love it more than my life.” This scene clearly anticipates the scene in Apocalypse Now, where Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore famously says, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like ... victory.”

In Patton’s brutality, his talk of never giving up an inch of land (Hitler said the very same thing.), in his contempt for civilian authority, in his joy at killing, he comes across as a fascist or Nazi, which is how he was depicted at the time by journalists and newspaper caricaturists. Amazingly, the movie is able to glorify this man, while maintaining a posture of cold sentimentality towards him. Schaffner loves Patton, but without illusions. Patton wasn’t “larger than life” – no man is – he was life, or at least the martial, intellectual, and aesthetic lives, in all their fullness.

General George S. Patton Jr. had a sense of destiny; his purpose in life was to do great things on the field of battle. And as he observes, only once in a thousand years do the heavens so align that a soldier has such an opportunity to change history.

Fortunately, in the movie as in life, Patton had humble, ordinary Joe—at least as Bradley tells it—Gen. Omar Bradley (the last five-star, General of the Army, in the history of the U.S. Army) as a counterweight. Bradley is played by Karl Malden with a restraint and self-effacing humor that perfectly contrast Patton/Scott’s bravado.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score has just the right blend of the elegiac (distant trumpets) and the pompous yet playful (fanfare of horns and flutes), corresponding to the tempers of Patton’s personality.

While almost three hours long, Patton does not flag, and could easily have been longer. Some of its early battle scenes, while competently choreographed, seem to have been filmed with an insufficient complement of armor and extras. And in one early scene, the line of Scott’s makeup, giving him Patton’s receding hairline, shows.

The DVD has a lovely documentary on the making of Patton, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score. However, I do not believe the claim of the movie’s late director, Franklin Schaffner, that he did not make Patton in response to the anti-war movement. Producer Frank McCarthy was a retired general, and many generals felt that the media lost Vietnam for us. And the media is depicted in despicable terms—if Patton wanted to be sure something leaked out, all he had to do was say it was “off the record”—and one reporter is shown personally insulting him.

Patton: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph—a tumultuous parade.... A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

Just as Patton could not savor his success, so too George C. Scott, the rare actor who could carry a film on his shoulders, was unable to build on his success as Patton. After a series of brilliant performances culminated in his well-deserved Oscar for Patton, Scott, a violent drunk, went downhill until his death in 1999. He still got steady work, but the work was largely undistinguished. But for one moment, he tasted of that perfection that comes when the stars align, and a great role is delivered into the hands of just the right actor at just the right moment in his career. It was George C. Scott’s destiny to play Patton.

Patton Complete Soundtrack Suite: Composed and Conducted by Jerry Goldsmith


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Anonymous said...

Also of note, the director did not bother to find authentic tanks. Both the German and American tanks were modern, not WWII models. Different from the movie Kelly's Heroes, which had both Sherman, Tiger, and Panther tanks.

Dutch Boy said...

Omar Bradley (who disliked Patton)was a source for the movie and it shows.

Rollory said...

" the first military defeat in its history"

People who live in the South know better.

Algomas said...

The quotation that begins with the phrase, "For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars" and ending in the phrase, "all glory is fleeting" is not from the actual General Patton but was lifted almost verbatim by the co-screenwriter on the film, Francis Ford Coppola (later of "The Godfather" and other directorial fame) from the book, "The Roman Triumph" by Robert Payne published in 1962. Coppola admitted that he was stuck for an ending and liked this paragraph in a book he read so he just used it. Robert Payne never got any credit for this contribution. Coppola wrote a brilliant first draft for the screenplay but it was thought to be too weird (reincarnation; vulgarities; the opening shot of the huge U.S. flag). So the producers paid him off and sent him on his way with just a first draft. Later, Edmund North was hired as a co-screenwriter to fill in the gaps of the first script. George C. Scott said in an interview years later that all of the Coppola script was used for the film despite the original misgivings of the producers.