The stage is bare. In front of a slate-gray curtain hangs an American flag of immense proportions – perhaps twenty feet high by forty feet wide. The room hums with the subdued voices of a large but unseen audience. Suddenly, over the steady drone, a shrill command is barked: “Tennn-hut!!” The crisp, precise “click” of several hundred pairs of boot heels coming together in unison is followed by complete silence. A lone figure, clad in the full, bemedaled regalia of a U.S. Army cavalryman, strides onto the stage. On his head, perched with perfect military precision, is a gleaming combat helmet with four stars. In his left hand is a riding crop; around his waist, a holster which contains a silver Colt .45 revolver. The gun’s pearl handles are monogrammed with the wearer’s initials: “GSP.”
The grim-faced general, tall and ramrod straight, comes to the position of attention and salutes. A lone bugle plays “To the Colors.” Then, in his gravelly voice, the general launches into one of his famous expletive-laced speeches that begins with the words: “I want you to remember this: no b@$+@%d ever won a war by dying for his country; he won it by making some other poor dumb b@$+@%d die for his country!”
So begins one of the best and most honored (8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, 1970) war films of all time: Patton. I first saw this magnificent movie in the summer of 1970, and have since then viewed it countless numbers of times, both on videocassette and on DVD. It remains to this day one of my one of my all-time favorite films of any genre! It faithfully tells the story of General George S. Patton, one of the most colorful and controversial military leaders in American history. Patton is imbued with superb acting, an excellent screenplay, reasonably good historical accuracy, and some of the most authentic and stirring battle scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Based upon General of the Army Omar N. Bradley’s memoirs A Soldier’s Story, and the book Patton: Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago, this film chronicles Patton’s military career from early 1943, when he assumed command of the U.S. Army II Corps, to his relief from command of the Third Army in late 1945. Many of the most important events in Patton’s checkered career are covered in some detail. The story begins in the North African desert on early 1943. Patton resurrects II Corps after its disastrous defeat by the Germans at Kasserine Pass, and subsequently leads the corps to victory over units of Rommel’s Afrika Corps at El Qatar.
Later that year, he commands the U.S. Seventh Army during the Sicily campaign, where his obsession to “beat Monty [Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery] to Messina” leads him to commit the latest in a long list of egregious blunders that marked his career. While visiting wounded soldiers in a hospital tent, he slaps an army private suffering from battle fatigue. Relieved from command, he spends the next several months attempting to extricate himself from “…this royal doghouse.”
After the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, Patton is at long last given command of the Third Army, which he leads across France and into Germany in one of the most successful campaigns in U.S. military history. However, Patton’s penchant for “putting his foot in his mouth” proves his ultimate undoing. As World War II ends, and the victorious allies begin to reward their successful generals with promotions and honors, Patton is relieved – yet again – from a military command for his ill advised remarks, and for his failure to adhere to U.S. government de-Nazification policies.
The acting in Patton is superb throughout. George C. Scott certainly deserved the Best Actor Academy Award he won (but refused) for his portrayal of Patton. He dominates nearly every scene with his brilliant (such an inadequate word!) portrayal of “Old Blood and Guts.” Scott’s “Patton” is a man of masks. For example, in the opening scenes, we see Patton the stone-faced, profane, passionate warrior, a man bent on intimidating nearly everyone around him to his implacable will for victory. During his exile from command, Patton dons the mask of contrite penitent; and during his drive through France, Patton becomes a buddy to the common soldiers who made up Third Army.
Karl Malden portrays General Omar Bradley, and gives probably his best performance of any film in which I’ve seen him. He imbues Bradley’s character with the great intellectual ability, down-to-earth “common soldier” demeanor, and no-nonsense approach in dealing with Patton (both as subordinate and superior) for which Bradley is noted by historians. Other performances of note include: Michael Bates as the vain, priggish Montgomery; Paul Stevens as Patton’s sycophantic aide Charles Codman; and Edward Binns as the gruff, testy General Walter Bedell Smith.
An interesting historical note about the movie Patton: Carlo D’Este, George S.Patton’s biographer, points out in his book Patton: A Genius for War, that after his death, “[Patton’s] family successfully fought the making of a film about Patton for nearly twenty years, but, when they finally consented, they were immensely pleased with Frank McCarthy’s production of Patton, starring George C. Scott.” * McCarthy, the movie’s executive producer, was a colonel on Patton’s staff during the Third Army’s drive to the German border.
Patton is a movie which will hold the viewer spellbound start to finish, mainly due to the dramatic intensity of Scott’s and Malden’s performances, and the realistic battle scenes. This outstanding film is one to be savored by anyone who loves a sumptuously produced and well acted war movie.
* NOTE: Quotation taken from Patton: A Genius for War, by Carlo D’Este. (Copyright © 1995, HarperPerennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, New York.)
Other Movie Reviews by Mike Powers:O Brother, Where Art Thou? ; Apollo 13 ; The 5 Best Movies I’ve Ever Detested ; M*A*S*H ; Gandhi ; Young Frankenstein ; The Apostle ; Amadeus ; Top 10 Movies of All Time – a “Movie Hall of Fame” ; Fiddler on the Roof ; Glory ; Top 10 Epic Movies of All Time