“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.”.
George C. Scott as General George S. Patton is amongst the most famous and best performances in film history. It won him a most well deserved Best Actor Academy Award in 1971 at the 43rd Oscars, which he refused because he viewed the Oscars as political. He was the first actor ever to do so, calling the ceremony a “demeaning” “two-hour meat parade”. Only two other Oscars have ever been refused. Dudley Nichols refused the Award for Best Screenplay for The Informer at the 8th Academy Awards in 1936 because, at the time, the Writers Guild was on strike with the studios. And Marlon Brando refused his 1973 Best Actor Oscar for his role as Don Corleone in The Godfather at the 45th Academy Awards in protest of Hollywood’s characterization of Native Americans. Besides Best Actor, Patton was nominated for 9 other Oscars and won 6, including Best Picture which went to producer Frank McCarthy, Franklin J. Schaffner for Best Director, and Francis Ford Coppola (who was not at the ceremony, presumably working on The Godfather) & Edmund H. North for Best Original Screenplay.
Patton is a biopic in the true sense of the word: A study of the character or lack thereof of General Patton, renowned for his egomaniacal behavior, insubordination & guile. It paints no patriotic, Polly-Anna-ish portrait of man. It does nothing to detract from his legend, and the result is to further his myth. And that, in the embarrassingly rank-and-file, paternalistic, “USA USA USA” chanting post-9/11/2001 (and since there have been 10 of them since that horrible day, the year is warranted at this point in my opinion) country we live in, is very refreshing. It clearly points out the greatest of Patton as a field general, while reminding us of how wretched, mean-spirited, and almost evil he was.
The film’s opening scene is perhaps its most famous: Patton is a full four-star General. He stands against the backdrop of a gigantic American flag, addressing his troops on presumably the eve of a battle in the most to the point, you just may die, language possible. It’s stunning. His uniform, linguistics, presentation & timing are impeccable. This scene alone makes the film worth watching. But the next 2:45 are also great! After that opening scene, the setting moves back in time to 1943, Tunisia in Northern Africa, shortly after America’s first battle against Rommel, the German military commander there. The American’s take a battering. Patton, at the bequest of General Omar Bradley, is brought on to fix the situation. Bradley is played brilliantly by Karl Malden in what has to be one of the greatest nomination snubs of all time. The other nominees and winner are a myriad of good films & forgettable performances: Richard Castellano as Frank Vecchio in Lovers and Other Strangers; Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man; Gene Hackman as Gene Garrison in I Never Sang for My Father; John Marley as Phil Cavilleri in the most overrated Love Story ever committed to celluloid; and the winner was John Mills as Michael in Ryan’s Daughter.
Bradley’s idea is a good one. Patton does indeed rectify the situation. He proceeds to assign Bradley to be his deputy commander; adorn his uniform and Jeep with a third star after FDR nominates him for Lieutenant General, but before he’s confirmed by the Senate, telling Bradley “they have their schedule and I have mine”; get his troops and base in tiptop shape; instill previously completely lacking discipline in his commands; and make sure that everyone including Eisenhower knows who is running the American Theater in North Africa. Patton & his American Army ambush and annihilate Rommel’s army in one battle. Unfortunately for Patton, who longs to outsmart and out battle the man for whom he has immense respect, Rommel was not there. He was recovering from a minor illness in Berlin. The result of the battle and the North African campaign is that Patton’s prominence rises immeasurably. He is suddenly to all but Ike and perhaps Bradley, British Field Marshal Montgomery’s equal. Monty had been pushing Rommel back in the Allied North African campaign for quite some time at that point. Throughout the remainder of the film, there are hints or outright attention called to the none-to-healthy professional rivalry between the British and American commanders.
In what is a very difficult scene to watch, another of the great scenes in this fantastic motion picture, Patton slaps and degrades a soldier in a military hospital for having shell shock. He demands that he “Shut up!”. He “won’t have a yellow bastard sitting…crying in front of…brave men who have been wounded in battle!”! This mistake proves to be the start of his undoing. Ike forces him to apologize to his men and to the disgraced soldier in particular.
The realism in Patton is amazing, in part because producer Frank McCarthy was a Brigadier General under five-star General of the Army George Marshall in World War II. The film is a masterpiece: A must see; a rollercoaster ride of emotions for the viewer toward Patton generated by the script, the setting, the topic, Schaffner’s direction, and most of all Scott’s performance. You’re constantly torn between being honored & amazed by the Lieutenant General’s military genius and discipline, and disgusted by his outrageously unstable & dishonorable behavior. You want him to be removed from power, yet you feel sorry for him when he finally is. The Academy did well to award Patton seven Oscars, even if it really deserved eight.