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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Patton

* * * *
Best Picture, 1970

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden

My knowledge of the factual George Patton is pretty scant, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a film based on his WWII exploits. I had steeled myself for a jingoistic ode to American greatness and during the film’s prologue – which consists of Patton’s famous speech in front of the giant American flag – I was sure that that was what I was going to get, but I was in for a surprise. Patton has all the makings of a big, noisy epic and though it lives up to that in certain respects, it also manages to be an intimate and thoughtful character study of a man determined to make himself a legend.

One of the few things I went into this film knowing about Patton was that he had a great sense of theatricality and an appreciation for the symmetry of history. He is presented in the film as a man who looks backwards in order to go forward, who wants his invasion of Italy to recall the invasion of the Greeks centuries before, who laments the ungentlemanly way that wars are now fought. He writes poetry, he stops along the way to appreciate the ruins of ancient civilizations, and he loves the ceremonial aspect of warfare, particularly the parades which denote triumph. He is a patriot, yes, but not blindly. He is essentially an American second and a soldier first and he loves nothing more than good soldiering regardless of what side it comes from.

The structure of Patton, which runs nearly 3 hours and covers an amazing number of events, consists of a big rise, a big fall, a resurrection and then a quiet denouement. In the first act, Patton is triumphant, pummeling the Nazis in North Africa and then leading his forces through Sicily to beat his rival, British General Montgomery, to Messina. Shortly thereafter, however, he discovers that his skill as a soldier is no match for his lack of finesse as a politician and he finds himself being censured time and again for various mistakes and facing the very real threat of being sent home before the end of the war. Patton swallows his pride, he controls his temper, he follows the orders he’s given and longs for the glory which seems just within his reach if only he can be allowed to make a grab for it. He finally gets his chance and smashes through the Nazis and into Germany but, triumph in war in the 20th century is not like the triumph that Roman conquerors knew and it is with a degree of sadness that Patton accomplishes his goal and fades quietly into history.

As played by George C. Scott (who won and famously refused the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts), Patton is a man of many flaws who is, nevertheless, rather admirable. He is skilled at what he does, though occasionally blinded by his desire to be a star and take his place amongst the great warriors of history. So enamored is he with the idea of history that he sometimes seems to forget that real men are dying in order for him to make a splash as a leader, and even when this fact is pointed out to him, he still insists on pressing on, certain that his way is the right way. At the same time, however, he openly acknowledges that he’s a prima donna and that when it comes to the political side of things, he’s his own worst enemy. He knows how flawed he is but believes that he’s destined for greatness and his struggle to contain himself so that he can achieve those great things is what makes him such a compelling character.

The story covers a great deal of ground but is well paced and never drags. I don’t know that it necessarily needs the handful of scenes which take place behind enemy lines and show the Nazi officers discussing and admiring Patton, but the inclusion of these scenes certainly doesn’t feel like an indulgence on the part of director Franklin J. Schaffner. Throughout the film Schaffner demonstrates a commendable command of the subject and never lets the larger-than-life protagonist run the film off the rails.

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