I first encountered Patton in Mr. Acton’s American history class in high school. Though my depiction of a civil war battle was red and blue cowboys glued to a piece of cardboard, I learned more about history in Acton’s class than any other. We also watched 1776 and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Best class ever.
The film follows General George S. Patton Jr. through the highs and lows of his military career during WWII. He’s an ambitious rebel general wanting to shape up his troops and take on Romell and all of Germany all by himself. But his loud mouth and quick temper get the best of him and nearly cost him the chance to lead his troops into the most pivotal moments of the great World War.
In the film, General George Patton is depicted as one of the strangest and greatest military men in American history. He’s a military fanatic, believing in harsh discipline and has read many historical accounts of battles, all the way back to the Roman Empire. Patton also believes in reincarnation, stating the he was a soldier for Napoleon and finds an ancient battle ground where he recounts a detailed description of what happened. He writes beautiful poetry and curses like a sailor. The opening speech in front of the flag, full of ruthless bloodlust, was taken by many things Patton said throughout his career, but much of it had to be watered down, “like crap through a goose.”
Patton would not have been so remembered without the talent of George C. Scott, who we’ve met earlier in The Hustler, Anatomy of a Murder and Dr. Strangelove. He won the Oscar for lead acting, but did not accept it, referring to the Academy as a “meat parade.” That’s alright, we can still honor him and refer to his performance as one of the best in film history, whether he liked the Academy or not.
Patton is one of those rare war films. It’s not focused on a mission or the everyday soldier or even the fate of the war. Nope, it’s all about Patton. If he’s not on screen, people are talking about him. The Germans think he’s running the whole show and seem to glorify him more than the Americans. All other characters are there just to help raise him up, and it works. This isn’t a bad thing at all, we want to know all we can about Patton. I mean, who wouldn’t? But there’s no way we can get completely under that thick helmet, much of him is still an enigma. It’s probably best kept that way.
I was surprised to see that Patton didn’t win the cinematography award, it seems Ryan’s Daughter must be something beautiful for the eyes. Up close explosions and tanks about to run the camera over are brilliant. During night battles, the explosions become smoky illuminations, casting a majestic glow over tanks, men and trees. The film’s focus is on the military, yet the background is full of wonderful landscapes. Tanks roll through African plains, smoke rises against hazy blue skies and mountains. I found it beautiful and strange how a film with so much military strategy and explosions never sacrificed an opportunity for nature. It feels like an old soul, just like Patton.
***Of course this is my pick of 1970, the other four just can’t compete.***