In the famous pre-credit opening to Patton, George C. Scott, standing in full dress uniform in front of a screen-filling American flag, gives a speech to (unseen) recruits about to go into battle. He exhorts the troops to fight hard and ruthlessly because as Americans they should loathe losers and want only to win. The startling juxtaposition of such strident jingoism with exaggerated stylization arouses contradictory feelings by framing a strutting egotist’s contempt for weakness in a sophisticated presentation, putting his complex psychology on display like a specimen under glass.
Written by Francis Coppola and directed by Franklin Schaffner, Patton is very much a product of its era (1970), full of such mixed attitudes toward the military, and while contemporary neo-fascists can no doubt shout “Hosanna!” to each of Patton’s anti-humanist tirades, it does not take much to recognize that his attitudes get him nowhere. He is a poet, a Don Quixote, a “magnificent anachronism” in the words of the German intelligence officer charged with dissecting his personality, but also his own worst enemy. To cheer his blood-and-thunder speeches is to ignore those self-defeating contradictions.
It is also to overlook the considerable achievement of Coppola, Schaffner and Scott in creating such an ambivalent portrait. The actor may have refused the Oscar for his performance, but there can be no question that Scott is Patton, as well as Patton. Another actor is inconceivable for Scott does not just dominate every scene; he is the scene. That is partly because Schaffner mounts the film in places as expansive as the general’s grandiloquent personality, like deserts or castle interiors, as if only imperial space were adequate.
As much as I admire both Scott and Patton, however, it is arguably not the actor’s best performance. It is just a touch too well suited to Scott’s over-sized personality. Memories of his General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove bubble under the surface, always at risk of boiling over. Being too comfortable in the role is most obvious in the lack of real interplay with the other actors. None of them, not even Karl Malden as Omar Bradley, the relatively sympathetic “GI General,” register as much more than sounding boards for Patton. (That many of the actors have a slightly used look from too many television appearances does not help.)
The film’s scale and sophistication make it very far from being a TV movie, but anyone who expects Patton’s wide canvas to provide the excitement of a war film will also be disappointed because the battle scenes lack the kinaesthetic thrills the genre usually provides. The battles are cool, detached, even elegant (particularly the Battle of the Bulge sequences), too handsome not to impress, but lacking any visceral participation. Like that opening speech, the results are fascinating, intelligent, sometimes riveting, but simple only for those who cannot recognize that to worship strength is the greatest weakness of all.