Patton (1970, Franklin J. Schaffner)

This blog is abstaining from passing real judgment on Patton because I’m reasonably sure that it’s a very good movie, just one this particular viewer happens to be incapable of appreciating. We can explore the reasons for both these things, but not to an entertaining or even logical conclusion. If a film like this commands an unusual respect for impossible “objectivity” in criticism, it’s because it’s a piece of storytelling that prides itself on its own objectivity, taking considerable pains to achieve an agenda-free balance and maintaining a careful distance from its subject, the blustering and brilliant and fatally bigmouthed George S. Patton, whose spirit and callous manner are captured adeptly by actor George C. Scott, writer Francis Ford Coppola, and director Franklin J. Schaffner, all of whom are dedicated to facts rather than analysis, direct narrative absent of subversion. Immaculately directed and technically powerful, even soulful, the film nevertheless feels flat and impersonal.

These elements could easily be seen as deliberate; Schaffner’s film and the manner in which he approaches it immediately recall David Lean’s large-scale epics of the prior couple of decades, in particular Lawrence of Arabia with its devotion to detail and its somewhat unfair embrace of a simultaneous upholding and debunking of a human myth. Patton comes across as a formidable figure with a touch of sheer insanity, exactly the same way T.E. Lawrence did in Lean’s film. The chief difference is that the central performance in Patton is exponentially stronger than Peter O’Toole’s. Whether Coppola’s recitation-of-truths-and-half-truths script really reveals anything about Patton as a human being or not, Scott lights up the character with enthusiasm, body and intelligence; he brings the creature to life. In some ways it’s the perfect role for him, dark complexity and perpetual fear lurking under a ribald and stony exterior. His eyes are haunting, his voice echoes off the walls, and he embodies not just this specific legend but the idea of giant-sized legend itself. When the film has Patton improbably shouting out his enthusiasm for coming up against Rommel, you believe it from nothing more than the giant grin Scott plants on his face.

Like Lean, Schaffner is a little too attached to the sheer size of his 70mm frame, and he tends to shoot scenes from an awkward distance, which results in a film that’s likely breathtaking in large format but seems uninvolving on television, where most of us inevitably will now see it. Still, you come away wondering why this director has passed into the realm of the forgotten, since his compositions are striking and his handling of nearly every sequence is a technical miracle. Nevertheless it is, to say the least, a strange way to mount a serious-minded character study.

That’s what Patton really is; even if it contains a few interminable battle sequences, it’s not much of a war film, fixated instead on the General’s personal follies and the way his juvenile behavior toward other soldiers, the press, and eventually other nationalities led to his downfall and an unhappy early retirement. Opinions vary about whether Patton is thus a patriotic portrait of a great American or a takedown of a big boorish jingoistic ape. Either way, Coppola is maybe a tad naive in attempting to form all this into conventional screenplay structure, first by forming Patton’s historical fixations and reincarnation fantasies into some sort of preposterous prime mover for his every tactical maneuver, and many of his day-to-day conversations with inferiors (the ubiquitous Karl Malden can’t quite overcome being upstaged so constantly and gives one of his weakest performances), then by tiredly depicting Rommel and the Germans as a mirror image of Patton and his inner circle, an all too rote recitation of “the hero and villain are really the same” clichés.

Schaffner’s style and elegance are a formal distraction from a perceptive central thesis about the toll taken by war and the sort of life in which said war is the entire purpose, often to an unreasonable and violent extent. Patton deserves its reputation as finally an even-handed and illuminating story. But it’s simply too much of a slog if you don’t share its specialized interests. All that said, its opening moments — which Scott reportedly didn’t want in the film — are pure cinema, featuring a pep talk by Patton to an unseen gathering of soldiers in front of a massive American flag. Scott spits and chirps and bellows his way through a hell of a speech, a call to arms, a sincere and full-throated definition of a spirit and a man. The actor protested that there would be nowhere for the film to go after this if it preceded the credits. He was right. If you want to see everything that really matters and resonates about Patton, feel free to leave after the first five minutes.

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