Thursday, May 9, 2013

#17 - Patton


                “Patton” was based on the books Patton:  Ordeal and Triumph by Ladislas Farago and A Soldier’s Story by Omar Bradley (who served as a technical adviser).  The screenwriters were Francis Ford Coppola and Edward North (who shared the Academy Award, but had never met before the ceremony).  Coppola wrote the first draft, but was fired partly because the studio did not like the opening speech!  The speech was a composite of remarks Patton made at various times.  The use of words like "bastard", "shit", "sons of bitches", and "Hell" were groundbreaking for a major feature.  Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster turned down the role and the studio nixed John Wayne.  George C. Scott was reluctant to take the role because he disliked Patton.  He was upset about the positioning of the speech at the beginning feeling it was too powerful and the rest of the film would be a letdown.  The movie was shot in Spain to take advantage of all its circa WWII equipment.  The movie was a huge success and the Patton family loved it.  It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Actor,  Original Screenplay, Editing, Sound, and Art Direction.   It was nominated for Cinematography, Visual Effects, and Score.  It is ranked #89 on AFI’s list of greatest movies and Patton is #29 on the list of heroes.


                The movie opens with the iconic speech.  Patton stands before a huge American flag in full regalia and addresses the audience.  He uses language many viewers had never heard in a movie before.  The speech has many memorable lines including “We are not only going to shoot the bastards , we are going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks.”  Another gem was: “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.”  Hell, virtually every line is dynamic.


                The body of the film opens with the aftermath of the Battle of Kasserine Pass.  We see the debris of battle and it could be any battle throughout history.  This includes the looting of the bodies by the natives.  After the disaster, Patton is given command of the undisciplined and dispirited II Corps.  He arrives with sirens blaring and proceeds to crack the whip.  He insists that the soldiers wear leggings and ties and declares that there will be no such thing as “battle fatigue”.  The movie takes little time fleshing out Patton’s fascinating personality which was a mixture of pomposity, profanity, and brilliance.  Omar Bradley is his second in command and his polar opposite. 
Bradley and Patton

                One of the movies themes is Patton’s adversarial relations with both the American high command and British generals, especially Montgomery (Michael Bates).  When he is gruffly complaining to RAF General Coningham about lack of air cover, on queue two German HE-111 bombers attack his headquarters.  Never one to pass up a chance at grandiosity, Patton uses his pearl-handled revolvers to fire at them as they strafe the street he is straddling.  The quest for glory is another recurring theme.

Patton - anti-aircraft gunner
                Patton (who believes he has lived several warrior lives previously) is a man not of his time.  “God, I hate the twentieth century”.  He daydreams of a tank duel between Rommel in his Tiger and Patton in his Sherman to decide the war.  The movie may be ambiguous about Patton’s personality, but it absolutely idolizes his military genius.  It creates a German staff officer named Steiger to give Patton’s background and to give insight into the German high command’s respect for him. 

Battle of El Qatar
                The first combat set piece is the Battle of El Qatar.  Patton lays an ambush for the Afrika Korps.  It is grand scale and very noisy, but not exactly suspenseful.  It also lacks realism and is marred by surprisingly old schoolish deaths for a movie that clearly wants to be of the  Violingo School.  The deaths are the silly twirling, touchdown-signaling variety.  Those pesky He 111’s make another appearance.  Patton watches from the hills and relishes the competition.  He exults “Rommel, you magnificent bastard I read your book!” (Actually The Tank in Battle was never published.)  One of Patton’s aides named Jenkins is killed by a random shell which allows Patton to show his sensitive side.

                The campaigning shifts to Sicily and the Monty dueling begins.  Monty is portrayed as an insufferably pompous general as opposed to our sufferably pompous Patton.  Plus Monty has the slows.  Although he has defeated their common adversary Rommel, he didn’t read the magnificent bastard’s book.  Patton goes full megalomaniac on Sicily as he becomes obsessed with beating the Brits to Messina.  Although bereft of combat in the movie, the race is very entertaining and crucial to the character development arc.  Patton wins the race, of course.  Unfortunately, the destructive nature of his personality comes through when he slaps a shell-shocked soldier in a military hospital.  This leads to his suspension by Ike and an apology speech that is as grudging as the opening speech was sincere.  To make matters worse, the slap to the face is followed by a foot in the mouth moment in England that digs a deeper hole for the frustrated warrior who will have to sit out the big show (D-Day).

the Normandy breakout
                When he is given command of the Third Army in France, Patton is now under the command of the skeptical Bradley.  The “Soldier’s General” is not enamored of Patton’s loose cannon personality or his you have to spend men to save men philosophy, but recognizes that if channeled he could be indispensable to the Allies.   Patton promises to behave himself.  He leads the breakout from the Normandy beachhead in a dazzling show of aggressive maneuvering that mirrors his personality.  As usual, he has more problems with his superiors than his opponents.  Patton is constantly carping about Ike’s favoritism towards the British when it came to supplies and planning.  The movie gives new appreciation of Eisenhower’s role as coalition commander as has to deal with two huge prima donnas in Patton and Monty.  Patton pushes his army on in spite of the lack of supplies and a scene depicts a night battle when American tanks literally run out of fuel and have to fight for their lives.  Patton tenderly kisses the head of a survivor, but of course it was Patton’s thirst for glory that caused his comrades deaths. 
War is Hell

                The movie builds to the Battle of the Bulge.  A battle that movie audiences would have been familiar with from movies like “Battleground” and “Battle of the Bulge”, but probably not familiar with Patton’s role in it.  The film suspensefully depicts Patton’s tour de force of turning his army to strike the German flank and relief Bastogne (naturally there has to be a reference to “Nuts!”).  At one point Patton orders a Chaplain to concoct a weather prayer to halt the snowy conditions.  (Ironically, at this time the producers were praying for snow in Spain during the shooting.)  A montage shows Christians killing each other as Patton reads the prayer.  Irony.
Battle of the Bulge

                After the triumph in the Ardennes, the film jumps to the end of the war in Europe.  Patton almost provokes an international incident with the Soviets and rants about going to war with them.  It seems that with the slim likelihood of his being given command in the Pacific, he is hoping for the war in Europe to continue.  He clearly does not relish peace and there is no equivalent of a stud farm for victorious generals. 


                Unbelievably, Patton is assigned to be military governor of Bavaria instead of being sent to that secret island in the Pacific that was reserved for Marines that could not be put back in society.  If anyone was never cut out for politics it was this shoot-from-the-lip general.  Sure enough, he spouts off to reporters that it was okay to keep some Nazis in positions of power because being a Nazi was akin to being a Democrat or Republican in America.  Last straw time.  One last trip to the principal’s office.


Acting  =  A+
Action  =  B-
Accuracy  =  A
Plot  =  A
Realism  =  A

Overall  =  A

             Although it is very much a guy movie, women should enjoy it because of the great acting and the plot is very entertaining.  The movie is also what you make of it so most females can view it as a cautionary tale about the male military psyche.  Viewing it with a male could lead to an interesting discussion or argument about whether Patton was a positive or negative role model.  The violence is far from graphic.


                The use of two acclaimed books makes “Patton” above average in historical accuracy.  Plus the hands-on participation of Omar Bradley is a huge plus.  In spite of this there are some Hollywood moments to enhance the plot.  The most important point is that the movie gets Patton’s personality down pat.  He was the multi-layered person that Scott portrays.  He could be profane, sensitive, religious, glory-hungry, charismatic, insufferable, etc.
Physically Scott looks like Patton, but Patton had a high voice which obviously would not have worked in the film.  You can’t blame Hollywood for that.

                The screenwriters decided to play around a bit with the Patton – Bradley relationship, but Bradley apparently had no problems with this.  In the movie, Bradley is basically portrayed as shaking his head at Patton’s antics when he is subordinate to Patton and then keeping him on a short leash after their role reversal.  They are depicted as respectful arch-friends.  In actuality, Bradley disliked Patton mostly because of his over the top personality.  Patton’s profanities rattled the moralistic Bradley.

                The movie makes the conscious decision to leave out some significant events in Patton’s career because they would have tampered with the plot themes.  The campaign in Lorraine was a tough slog that would have disrupted the flow and did not have the exhilaration of the Battle of the Bulge segment.  Patton’s disastrous Hammelburg Raid to rescue his son- in-law from a POW camp would have lessened the portrayal of the military genius.  His visits to concentration camps would have suddenly introduced the Holocaust towards the end of the film.

History or Hollywood:

1.  Patton did bring strict discipline to II Corps and did give a lot of fines for uniform violations.

2.  The strafing incident occurred during a meeting with RAF officials, but Coningham was not there.  Patton did not have time to fire his pistols, but he did make the remark about decorating the Luftwaffe pilots.

3.  Patton did believe in reincarnation, but probably did not visit the Zama battlefield with Bradley.

4.  The Steiger character was a Hollywood invention, but a good one.

5.  The Battle of El Qatar was substantially as depicted.  The movie does not show that Patton was almost killed by a shell that hit where he had just been.  The death of Jenkins was close, but there was no funeral like in the movie.

6.  The movie overdoes the race with Monty to Messina.  In fact the movie consistently exaggerates the animosity between the men although Patton had a tendency to demonize Monty in his imagination.  The confrontation with Truscott over the risky landing was true and the landing was almost a disaster (which the movie glosses over).  The arrival of the British army in Messina and its subsequent embarrassment is pure Hollywood.

7.  The killing of the mules blocking the road did happen.

8.  The slapping incident is well done including the dialogue.  The movie actually depicts the second of two slapping incidents.  The apologies did occur.

9.  He did have a bull terrier named Willie.

10.  The Knutsford Incident where he got in trouble for a speech to British ladies was basically true except that he did mention the Russians.  The press left that part out and this got Patton in hot water with Ike.

11.  The movie has Patton visiting Bradley in Normandy and begging for command of the Third Army.  That is pure bull shit as Ike had always planned for Patton to be in command of that army for the Normandy breakout and Patton was not kept in the dark.

12.  Patton had actually begun to plan for the Battle of Bulge shift a couple of weeks before the meeting at Verdun.  Ike was at that meeting, but not in the movie.

13.  The weather prayer was originally to stop rain during the Lorraine campaign.

14.  Patton’s comments about denazification were accurate .


                “Patton” is a significant movie in the canon of war films.  It had a major impact on the development of the VioLingo School (as I call modern as opposed to Old School war movies).  Although it does not push the boundaries of combat violence, it is certainly more realistic in soldier language than Old School movies.  In fact, the opening speech with its profanities was considered to be shocking to an audience weaned on movies like “The Desert Fox”.  1970 was a watershed year with other genre-changing films like "MASH" and "Kelly’s Heroes".  “Patton” was the one that scored 8 Academy Awards and brought tremendous prestige to the genre.  It combined the hero and anti-hero in one person and thus acted as a bridge between Old School heroes and the modern anti-heroes.

                The movie has only one weakness.  Although some laud its combat scenes, they are actually pretty lame and brief.  Since this is a biopic, combat depiction is not crucial.  However, given the big budget nature of the film, the action should have been better.  It is particularly distressing to see the silly deaths that are associated with inferior films.

                The acting makes up for the lack of combat fireworks.  In a sense, Patton supplies the fireworks himself.  Scott’s performance is magnificent.  Only Peter O’Toole’s performance in “Lawrence of Arabia” is comparable.  Scott was one of the most deserving Best Actor winners ever which is ironic because he refused to accept the Oscar.  He totally dominates the movie from opening speech to ending line. (“All glory is fleeting”.)  Karl Malden is very good as Bradley.  Michael Bates does such a wonderful parody of Montgomery that his portrayal has become fixed in the American perception of him.  The rest of the cast is fine.

                The movie is technically sound.  The score by Jerry Goldsmith is very memorable.  Surprisingly there is only 32 minutes of music in the film.  The sound effects are also well done.  The battles may not be that exhilarating, but they sound amazing.  The cinematography is top notch.  The scenery is nice, but it’s the interiors that are remarkable. They are expansive and baroque, like Patton.  The decisions by the director to subtitle the Germans and use newsreels copiously as background to the war’s events were wise.

                The screenplay is almost perfect for a biography and character study.  Coppola/North did their home work and managed to include Patton’s greatest hits with the exception of incidents like the Hammelburg Raid that just did not fit the narrative.  They earned the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.  The movie could have been either idolizing  or scornful given the subject.  The screenplay skirts the extremes so well that some people criticize the film as hero-worshipping and others insist it besmirches a great American.  The themes are well-developed.  One is that Patton was a man out of his time.  Another is that it is possible to love war and treat it is as a profession.  Patton would not have agreed with Sherman’s “war is Hell”.  On a personal note, the movie made me wonder if war movie lovers are Pattonesque in their views.  A minor subtheme is that Patton was religious (he read the Bible “every God damned day”) and yet reveled in the killing of Germans.


                “Patton” was the perfect movie for its time.  1970 was ripe for a movie that changed the game.  “Patton” reinvigorated the war film because it brought in huge audiences and opened people’s minds to a more realistic depiction of warfare and command in warfare.  The movie cannily tapped in to the country’s Vietnam War psyche.  The hawks saw Patton as the kind of general we needed to win a just cause.  Doves could sneer at the type of mentality that had gotten us into the mess.  You saw what you wanted to see.  Even today it is unclear whether Patton should be seen as a role model.


  1. What a very detailed and interesting post.
    I was very surprised when I watched it how much I liked it.
    He's the kind of larger than life character that seem to have become quite rare.
    It felt quite accurate, I'm glad to see it is. They always have to take some liberties to spice things up a bit or we could stick to watch documentaries.

  2. Thanks and yes I understand that "very detailed" means long, I can't help it.

    Did you like him or hate him? Different people have different reactions to the man. That is the reason he makes such a compelling subject for a biopic.

  3. I actually liked him. I think he seesm a bit nuts at times but not in a bad way. Serving under him would have been another story altogether.
    I really meant detailed, not long.

  4. I was just kidding about the detailed. I am a little surprised you liked him. If he had been a sergeant in Vietnam, he would have been Barnes.

    I read the Farago biography when I was in high school and when I saw the movie for the first time I really did not key in on the personality flaws. I still think he was more positive than negative.

  5. Great review. I really like your point that people can take away whatever they want from the movie because of Scott's nuanced performance, which is impressive since he disliked Patton but still showed both his genius and his flaws. I was also prepared to dislike Patton when I first watched the movie but came away less sure. The movie sets the standard for military biopics.

  6. Small point: Snopes has the donkey killings as "undetermined"--but it sure sounds like the studio and witnesses clammed up, rather than admit it. Enjoyed your review.


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