PATTON (1970)

pattonI’m not a huge fan or aficionado of military history – but I’ve been exposed to it all my life, through my grandfather, my father, and now my partner. I’ve heard a lot about battles and generals over the years. But I had never heard that General George S. Patton believed in reincarnation. I might have taken a stronger interest in him long ago if I had.

Stuck in the snowstorm, we watched the 1970 Best Picture winner Patton a few days ago. I had told Mouse that I wanted to mention how closely I have been following the very rightful #OscarsSoWhite discussion when we next spoke about a film. We will say more about this when we get to our 2015 and then 2016 films, but I couldn’t bring up an Oscar winner at this moment in time without mentioning this. In studying the format for choosing nominees, I can see how this unjust and embarrassing reality has unfolded. I think we as the general public have very little understanding of who chooses nominees and how. I admire folks like Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee for opting to sit this year out (in a style of resistance that as my friend Bomani pointed out calls to mind Marcus Garvey’s philosophy – if folks of color aren’t recognized by this ritual and institution, perhaps it’s worth a concerted effort to not care about it and focus instead on other things). The rub, though, is that there is money connected to winning an Oscar. There are parts offered as a result. And Hollywood had better contend with the fact that over 40% of seats sold to theater goers are to people of color. It’s time for better, more complex roles and real recognition.

Another awkward factor in this #OscarsSoWhite conversation is that the current President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science is a Black woman. Another dear friend of mine pointed out how often Black people are placed in positions like this where they are essentially having to publicly hold up and justify racist practices. In media, she has spoken of her desire for the Academy to do better, and has said that she is heartbroken. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch and hear. As host, I really wonder what Chris Rock will say about it all this year – also a strange position to be in.

In Patton there is one actor of color who has a small role towards the end of the film. When it becomes clear that after stepping out of line and allowing his big mouth to get away from him Patton will not receive a significant promotion in post, this character consoles him. Not a particularly complex or interesting role, but sadly I was shocked that there was even a Black character at all in this film.

The movie tells the story of a man who lives for combat. Patton was a tank commander in World War II, and our story begins with his role in North Africa, progressing through the invasion of Europe and the fall of the Third Reich. He is blistering, pushy and loud – and we see in several scenes that he believes he is a warrior from past battles reincarnated. Other characters seem to think he is kidding around when he asserts this, but apparently his belief in reincarnation was deeply held. Another interesting fact about Patton, which I learned from this film, was that of all the Allied Forces military leaders at the time, German High Command seemed to hold him in highest regard. It’s an interesting thing to think about when remembering his life.

With all this talk of industry people staying home from the Oscars, it’s interesting to watch this movie now. At the 43rd Academy Awards, there was a conspicuous no-show: George C. Scott, nominated for his role as George Patton, refused to accept the Best Actor award, becoming the first person to actually decline an Oscar. However, he wasn’t protesting any exclusionary practice, rather he objected to the entire idea of a competitive award for acting in the first place. I can’t say I object to the sentiment, although if I were somehow to find myself in his shoes, I doubt I would have the stones to pull such a stunt.

My personal worldview leans toward the peacenik, anti-militaristic, ‘glory of war is all moonshine’ variety. But like all red-blooded Yanks, I do love a good war movie. Despite being peppered with battle sequences, Patton is primarily an extended character study of the flamboyant WWII general, focusing largely on his personal style of command and relationships with other commanders, particularly the more conventional general Omar Bradley (Karl Malden). Attention is also paid to his rivalry with his British counterpart Bernard Montgomery, as well as his obsession with personally besting Rommel.

The movie explores the theatricality of General Patton’s command style; the film opens with that famous scene of Scott as Patton stepping onto a stage, bare except for an enormous American flag, to address his troops before battle. He delivers the monologue to an unseen audience and departs, leaving us with the suggestion that General George S. Patton is some sort of character he is putting on and war an extended performance. Later, when Patton is at top energy, driving his army on through Belgium to relieve Bastogne, a subordinate even mentions that it’s hard to tell when he’s acting. This is all contrasted ironically to the other running theme through the film: Patton’s inability to get a grip on his public image. He is plagued by gaffes and impulsive missteps, earning him nearly as many detractors as supporters.  

That first scene with him in front of the flag is powerful. Mainly in that, for me, it sets him up to be a man so alone – so very alone. He seems more present in battles of the past at times than he is in his own life. I guess arguably he feels that some of those experiences were his past lives.

I told my parents we were watching this film and my dad quipped, “What do you think about his love interest?” I paused, searching to understand what he could be talking about. The joke here for my dad is that you can’t even imagine this man having space or room for much of a romantic life. At one point in the film, I looked at Mouse and said, “Imagine what it would be like to be married to this guy – seems awful!” He is a barrage, he is loud, he is bossy – but as history showed, he did get things done and he could whip troops into share.

The culture of militarism has long been disturbing to me. I do understand that the entire system functions through top-down orders and direction. From friends of mine who have been in the military, I understand that the transition from this world of authority to civilian life can be challenging – and I believe it. Patton’s incident slapping a soldier for having a case of the nerves rather than a physical injury was particularly hard to watch. He seems a man unwillingly to grapple with the invisible wounds of battle – PTSD, depression, ongoing exposure to bloodshed. For him, this is the province of the lily-livered. He has neither time nor space for it, and wants to make sure to root it out.

Even 70 years ago, Patton’s approach to so-called cowards was seen as totally extreme and out of place. Perhaps his consistent belief in reincarnation is not just an eccentric belief, but a subconscious yearning for a time when someone like himself with his martial values would be more easily accepted.

General Patton may be willing to overlook what a grisly business war is, but the film isn’t afraid to remind us. Dead and dismembered bodies are shown throughout and notably the film’s title screen juxtaposes the man’s name with the image of a single vulture in the desert, a less-than glorious battlefield image. Make of that pairing what you wish.

I like that observation about wanting his own values to be more easily accepted. I think that is something we all as humans hunger for – a broader acceptance of the things that are so fundamentally important to us, the things that are at the core of who we are. As much as Patton annoyed me throughout the film, I also admired his laser focus. He knew what he wanted to do and would not let anything get in his way. World War II is also such a different war than most to consider – Hitler made for such a clear enemy, and there wasn’t a lot of moral ambiguity in stopping him. War is always awful and horrific, but so was Hitler’s vision and dream.

Because his enemies are Hitler and Rommel, then, we can see Patton as “a good guy.” He’s on the right side of history. But at times it is unclear if that even matters to him. He seems to hold contempt for some of his Allied Forces counterparts, and simultaneously an abiding respect for Rommel. It is understandable, given who he is, but still sets him far apart from his peers in terms of his motivations.

In the history of warfare, there are different types of generals. There are, for example, the capable, even-keeled commanders; often the ones who are able to maintain coalitions or manage the political side of things. The guys like Eisenhower and Washington. And then there are the rock stars. These generals command with a force of personality that approaches that of a charismatic leader, in a tradition that goes back to the likes of Scipio and Caesar. George S. Patton definitely belongs to the latter camp. And while that may have made him a controversial figure in his day, it does make for an interesting subject for the screen.

Hard to overlook among the competition is MASH, and it’s worth noting that in this year of two army themed nominees, the Vietnam War was still a going concern. But the counterculture-friendly MASH is about as different from Patton as could be. And while it lacks the winner’s scale and production values that are normally the trappings of a Best Picture, it is an incredibly creative and forwarding-looking film. Let’s just call it a worthy runner up.

One last thing: if Patton was, in his lifetime, soldiers from earlier times reincarnated, does that mean someone today was George S. Patton in a previous life? Who is it?

Also nominated in 1970:
Five Easy Pieces
Love Story

Next film: ANNIE HALL (1977)


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