Thursday, February 27, 2014

Patton (1970)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner                        Writers: Francis Ford Coppola & Edmund H. North
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                           Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Edward Binns and Michael Bates

Patton is one of the most iconic films of the seventies. In fact, it may be the iconic film of that decade. The historical perspective on the film is equally fascinating, made as it was in the midst of the Vietnam War, a war that was being “lost” by the United States and an idea that George C. Scott says in his opening prologue is hateful to Americans. But Vietnam was a very different war, with very different objectives, and a decidedly unclear opponent. World War II, by contrast, was anything but unclear. Still, there’s something of an undercurrent of change that is represented in this war story of General George S. Patton, thought it wasn’t the warfare itself. Politics suddenly played a part in war in a way it had never done before. If a man like Ulysses S. Grant had had to run the gauntlet of reporters and public opinion the way Patton had to, it’s likely he would have suffered the same fate. But Grant went on to become president of the United States while Patton suffered a slow death in Germany after having his spinal column severed in a traffic accident--an event that is foreshadowed at the end of the film but left out of this story.

The film begins with a wonderful prologue written by Francis Ford Coppola, in one of his early assignments as a writer in Hollywood, two years before he made his name with The Godfather. It’s unlike almost any other film at the time, with the giant American flag behind Scott, and yet perfectly sets the tone for what is to come. After the first American operation in North Africa, and a resounding defeat at the Kasserine Pass at the hands of the Nazis, Patton then takes command of the tank corps but his personal aide is killed in the battle. His replacement is the most obsequious, and yet perfectly attuned to his commander, officer on film. After winning in Africa, the next objective is Italy and it’s here that Patton’s rivalry with British General Montgomery. It’s the slapping incident, though, were Patton shames a soldier suffering from “battle fatigue,” that loses his command. He doesn’t get back in the war until after D-Day and has a renaissance, proving his superior leadership and tactical abilities by driving deep into Germany to end the war. But more mistakes with reporters wind up losing him a command in the Asian Theater.

While Patton may have been overshadowed after World War II because of his early death and the rise of Douglas McArthur, this film brought him back into the public consciousness and, some would say, his legend has superseded that of his Asian Theater rival. Many of the men who served under him subsequently talked about their experiences in the war and the respect they had for Patton as a leader and their pride at having served in his command. What’s fascinating about the film is the portrayal of him as a man who drew on everything from a belief in reincarnation to an odd relationship to Christianity if it would help him in battle. There are also a couple of non-diegetic ways of interpreting the film. The first way is the most obvious, the film as positive war propaganda at a time when the country was questioning its involvement in Vietnam. The memories of a just war, soundly won, made for an unambiguous reminder of America’s military prowess. But another interpretation symbolizes the U.S. military in the person of Patton himself, a powerful and precision instrument of warfare that is hampered by politics and politicians who ultimately wind up destroying that military strength and bear responsibly for the botched policy in Southeast Asia.

Either way, the film struck a chord with audiences and it became a huge hit. It was also the big winner at the Oscars that year, nominated for ten awards and taking home seven. The film won best picture and director for Franklin Schaffner, as well as best actor for George C. Scott and best screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North for their adaptation of Ladislas Ferago’s biography Patton: Ordeal and Triumph and Omar Bradley’s memoirs A Soldier’s Story. For Scott it was the defining moment in his career. And while he would forever be associated with the role, it certainly didn’t typecast him, and he did many of his best films in the seventies. The other star of the film is Karl Malden, who did some great work in the sixties, but went from this film almost immediately into The Streets of San Francisco. There is a lot to like about this film, from the performances of the actors to Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar nominated score. Patton is not only one of the great biopics in film history, but a terrific war film and a cinematic tour de force in its own right.

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