#89 Patton

General Eyebrows/General Combover vs. Nazis #sixwordmovies

#89 Patton (1970)

What sort of a film is Patton? Well, there is a scene in the movie where Patton jumps out of a window during an air raid, and fires his sidearm at the jets. The surrounding town is riddled with bullets. Things explode, people drop down dead, vehicles go on fire, but Patton stands tall. Unharmed. Undeafeted. Invincible.

So I conclude that Patton is a superhero film. But not one of those films where the hero is a squeaky clean boy scout with a reliable moral compass. It’s the kind of tale where the hero is a madman, a monster, a killer, a machine. The kind of tale that makes it uncomfortable rooting for the hero because it means you have to feel like a monster yourself. Where the hero is only a hero because he’s fighting the Nazis. At a party he’d be the biggest prick in the room, and no one would want to be stuck talking to him. He’d frighten the children. He’d go out of his way to offend everyone with his conversation. The kind of hero that people don’t really like. That’s the kind of film Patton is. And it’s three hours long.

The film opens with Patton delivering a rousing speech to an unseen audience against an American flag that fills the entire screen. “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country,” he declares. “He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.” A good joke. Ol’ Blood and Guts reassures the unseen military men that they will do their duty and gets their dander up: “We’re going to murder them bastards by the bushels.” He leaves the stage, there’s no applause, and the screen fades to black. When it fades back up, we see a vulture perched above a battleground. Women and children swat scorpions from corpses of soldiers as they strip them of their boots and pants, scavenging for supplies. Dead animals everywhere. General Bradley (Karl Malden) rides up in a jeep, his amazing combover hidden under his helmet for the time being, and informs us that the American army spread all over the dirt was defeated by the Germans. “This looks like a job for Patton!” he may as well have exclaimed, before blowing the head off of the aforementioned vulture, so it won’t eat the men I guess.

I’m curious to know how many animals were injured and killed in the making of the film, by the way. They tend to get shot and/or flung off bridges a lot. Anyway.

And from there, it’s a lot of Patton being Patton, a steely renegade General who bucks the system, does what he wants and goes for glory. George C. Scott is amazing in this role, it must be said. Much is made of how Patton believes in reincarnation. He prattles endlessly on about how he was present at all the famous wars of antiquity, without irony. He believes it. “God how I hate the 20th century,” he moans. It’s an interesting comment for a character like him to make. Here’s a man who loves war, who is afraid that the war will end before he wins enough glory. The 20th century: the bloodiest, most ruthlessly war-plagued century in human history, yet Patton doesn’t like it. I suppose it’s because the General believes that Politicians didn’t get in the way as much in the old days. He gets in trouble a lot in the papers for his brash ways and harsh words. The Romans and Carthaginians didn’t have to stand for having their words twisted by reporters, or their wrists slapped by ass-kissing Politicians. In prior centuries, Patton would have had a much wider palette to work with when composing his masterworks of destruction and devastation.

In the film’s most disturbing scene, Patton slaps and shames a nervous soldier in a hospital, ordering him to stop crying or else face the firing squad, then has him thrown out and sent to the front barking “I’ll have no cowards in my army!” How are we supposed to feel when we see our hero behaves this way? I’m sure there are some who think this is a great man, setting some coward straight. I’m sure some viewers imagine that they’re more like Patton in this scene, and could never identify with an enlisted boy who had the best intentions but found it difficult to master his fear. The soldier has a heart in his chest, and is struggling to overcome his cowardice. So it’s good job Patton slapped him. Kid needed a slap, I guess. That’ll sort him out. That will make a warrior of him, right? I understand that other armies would have cowardly men shot dead for wounding themselves in order to be discharged, or for displaying cowardice in one way or another. I understand why Patton acts this way, why leaders, especially military leaders might need to act this way. But am I supposed to applaud the General in this scene? Am I meant to cheer as the weaker-willed get stomped by the heartless warrior? Because I can’t. This probably means I’m also a yellow bastard. Someone should smack me around for a bit and sort me out too.

Although he is a great leader and a skilled tactician, I found the general to be a deplorable man less interested in seeing the enemy defeated than assuring that he and only he defeat the enemy. In one scene Patton is relieved that a German plot to assassinate Hitler failed, because that would end the war before he was satisfied with his contribution to it. When he disobeys orders and pushes through on a campaign of his own, he shows absolute disinterest in how many of his men were killed for his own vanity. Malden’s General Bradley provides a stark contrast. Loyal, dutiful, “The G.I. General,” he’s called. He’s the sort of man that I picture when I think of a soldier. Someone who is doing his duty for the good of others, the role of a defender, fighting to bring an end to a global menace, to bring peace. Patton on the other hand comes across as a monster, a killing machine that doesn’t want peace but bloodshed and death. Because bloodshed, death, and war is the path to glory, right? There are no other ways to be a benefit to the world, to leave your mark, to achieve “glory.”

George Patton was a great general. Glad he was on the right side of the second world war, but that’s about all the good I can say about him.


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