Bright Lights Film Journal

In Praise of Dangerous Men: Patton (1970)

“The very idea of losing is hateful to Americans.”

Now that Kathryn Bigelow has made it safe for us to recklessly court macho annihilation again, it may be time to focus on one of the most respected and controversial military leaders of all time — General George Patton, and the 1970 film that bears his name, starring George C. Scott. I recently had the pleasure of acquiring the film on an excellent Blu-Ray disc, and highly recommend it to fans of Hurt Locker (2009), The Deer Hunter (1977), and Apocalypse Now (1979) and anyone who's ever had a heart, who wouldn't turn around and expose its flank to daily howitzer bombardments . . . or who is interested in this new Tom Hanks-produced mini-series, The Pacific (though Patton wasn't in the Pacific, it's still the same goddamned wonderful war!).

From the famous opening (quoted above) — Patton's clinically insane and perhaps wrong but nonetheless inspiring opening speech in front of a giant American flag — onwards, we know we're in for some heavy stuff, as Scott has no plans to pull punches, glorify the American dream or lament the unfairness of war. Indeed, as the esteemed general of the magnificent Third Army, Scott's ranting makes you realize, as a man, that part of cowardice involves forgetting there's no real reward to being alive in the first place as a coward. Unless you risk it all, it's all wasted.

It makes sense that Francis Ford Coppola worked on the script, since the man knows a thing or too about the seductive lure of megalomania and the high of facing death on a daily basis. Coppola was kicked off Patton, but later found fictional editions of that kind of military mindset in characters like Kilgore, Willard, and Kurz in Apocalypse Now, and brilliantly captured the way an ordinary man might find himself manifesting the cold reptilian killer within, as in Michael Corleone's transformation from idealistic young lover of Diane Keaton into a cold-as-ice Don in The Godfather. And of course, there's the inspired use of Sicily; a deeply rooted trans-historical lyricism seems to emanate from the very soil of that island.

In order to rouse his men from their first defeat, Patton initially presents himself as a maniac for discipline and army regulation, making his men fear and hate him, but makes them better soldiers as a result, and when they measure up, his admiration becomes enough of a reward that they're ready to die for him. As Cesar "The Dog Whisperer" Milan would say, he is an excellent pack leader, understanding that all affection must be earned for it to have value. Or as Tura Satana said in Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, "You don't have to believe it, just act it." Patton doesn't mind that your hands shake so long as you're trying to keep them steady. It's only when you cower that he boots you into the deep end like a sadistic but wise pool instructor (my own most hated-feared childhood figure).

I don't dare presume I wouldn't be ten times more afraid and shell-shocked in the field of battle than the man who got slapped, or even Jeremy Davies in Saving Private Ryan (1998). One can't know from a besotted armchair field position, but there are other ways to prove your courage, such as dealing drugs with narcs and cops all around at a Dead show, or trying to score with the hottest chick in the room without any wingman or backup, or bluffing your way past the velvet ropes at a hot nightclub, even just not drinking, one day at a time. But at the same time, mom's apron strings are hard tentacles to hack all the way off. Look at how the magic hand of mom reaches all the way into the midst of WW2 in Saving Private Ryan and the internet makes it easier and easier to avoid actual face-to-face contact with anyone but our immediate family and work crowd. To paraphrase Ed Wood, if God had given us wings, he'd expect us to fly, so in the age of internet, why not go all the way and abandon your body and real-life social ties? Because you will be running away from the real, that's why – trying to escape the mud and fog and stained bandages, jammed machine guns, and ammo shortages. Needless to say, that kind of alone "escape" time is denied our common footsoldier or tank brigadier; he lives in the real. His ears are perked to every danger; he's in love with his rifle, his squad captain, his general, hateful of the enemy and determined to survive. He is not allowed to escape or run, and so he is free.

Patton realizes that even with all this killing and combat going on in the pre-nuclear days of World War II, there's the odd soldier here and there who hasn't yet realized that mom's not coming, that no bell is going to sound signifying the end of dodge ball — a soldier who still clings to his notions of civilized fear and won't access the inner savage, who thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his ego will strengthen rather than destroy him. In the end, all the military drilling and exhaustion is partly for this purpose — to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets — against all common sense and instinct of self-preservation — because you love your platoon-mates more than life itself, and revere/fear your general like the big Other he is. When you're more scared of running away than you are to fight, cowardice evaporates in the crossfire. It's like skydiving or a roller coaster; you can't get off, so just scream into the wind all you want. Mom can't hear you. As long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. However, though I realize all that now, I used to think him a bully for bullying sake, and apparently so did the bulk of America. Yet Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequence of not respecting boundaries, for it made him what he was. The way Eisenhower masterfully played the event up to deflect Nazi attention from D-Day (he had Patton scoping locations in Turkey, making the Germans sure that he would invade there, and that the slap incident was a flimsy smokescreen).

Remember that while Patton seemed to be recklessly chasing the Germans back across France, he very nearly might have won the war single-handed if Ike wasn't so eager to give all Patton's gasoline to Montgomery right as Patton was approaching the Elba river. Now we can't know for sure if Patton wouldn't have found his third army cut off, but who the hell knows, he could have caught the Germans off-guard and spared thousands of lives in the process. If you consider it as chess, Patton was the kind of player who goes right for the checkmate with his first few moves, like a pit bull to the jugular, keeping his opponent on the defensive, always fending off aggressive moves with no time to regroup or mount a counter-offense. Montgomery and Ike, on the other hand, were more the types to advance a few miles than to fortify positions, allowing the enemy to do the same, afraid to extend themselves too far and risk being cut off, meanwhile subjecting the men along the lines to constant shelling and mortar fire.

The Blu-Ray is one of the more amazing of its kind, no doubt due to the restoration making full use of the fact that it was shot on 70mm, enabling a dazzling clarity of image that works extraordinarily well in the many long-range desert battle sequences. On my projector screen the image seemed to be 3-D without any glasses, the horizon line of the desert being the far side of an elongated triangle, like looking into a pinkish sand-colored diorama in the sloping Victorian house attic bedroom. Surreal and very very cool. We learn, for example, that the lip syncing in the opening speech is a bit off, or maybe you just need to adjust your phaser. But if a guy standing three miles away in front of a giant color bar flag that used to be your friend is talking and you can see his lips don't match, then Blu-Ray is pretty amazing. Scott's nose is amazing on Blu-Ray, too — we can see three layers of veins in — but his aim sucks. When shooting at German dive bombers, you have to lead them, not shoot behind them! What's the point of using real planes if you're not going to shoot correctly? But these are quibbles meant in love.

Consider the line from the hippest movie ever made, Performance: "The only performance that truly makes it is one that achieves madness." When George C. Scott looks out at the carnage along the River Elbe and says "I love it. God help me I do love it so," one's aware of a performance that "truly makes it."

I've seen this movie all through my life, and my reaction to that line varies with age. As a child watching it with my dad on TV, I thought it was pretentious. Later, it seemed existentially gutsy; still later, callous. Now I see it as a coping mechanism. The very nature of heroism is perhaps this coping mechanism, an alchemical transubstantiation that enables one to derive perverse, counter-intuitive satisfaction from horror, the "you must make friend of horror" aspect, a looking down under the pretty flowers and below the serpents under them, to the deep roots wherein one endures the unendurable through a cultivated detachment, the stripping away of illusion's bodice, to reveal the grinning skull and scythe below. The tripper and the warrior both must kiss this skull and call it love. To survive this awful surrender, the hipster has his rueful irony, the court its jester, the American G.I. his endless complaining and satiric reading of army sloganeering. "You found a home in the army, bud" is the in-joke repeated amongst the dogfaces of Battleground (1956), indicating how much they're enduring freezing in the cold thinking only of warm, clean, dry socks. But by the end it's come to be true, even as the satirical edge remains. The Germans never got that sense of humor; they considered it our weakness. They didn't realize that irony can be a kind of casual loyalty that works better than attack-dog allegiance. As long as we can gripe and crack wise about it, we can endure anything; that was what made us Americans: freedom to gripe!

For in truth, there is no rational response other than to either vomit in horror and just die from heartbreak and unfocused anguish or surrender completely to the "I love it, I do love it so." Like a mantra, do not the true prophets teach even that? To love your enemy like a brother even as you kill or are killed by him? The movie ends with Scott intoning Patton's description of the triumphant Roman processionals of loot and conquered slaves before him: "And behind him, stood a slave with a golden crown, holding it over the conqueror's head while whispering in his ear, 'all glory is fleeting.'" But the film holds an even more shattering truth: life fleets faster and death is not the end. Ladies and gentlemen, as he was in Rome shall he be in this future life. General Patton will be back.