PATTON (1970)

  • Release Date: 02/04/1970
  • Cast: George C. Scott, Karl Malden, Stephen Young
  • Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

One of the greatest war films of all time with a stellar performance from George C. Scott

There is something about the old Hollywood war films that not even Hollywood can re-create today. It was an amalgamation of the performances, visuals, realism, stories and the old world feel that each of these films were able to bring to the fore. No matter how many times you see these films, you can never have enough of them. One such film that stands tall among them is the 1970 Patton by Franklin J. Schaffner. As I was growing up with films, I didn’t like this film much as it didn’t have the kind of war action that I enjoyed in those days. But now, with my cinema aesthetics changed and developed enough to appreciate different sensibilities and approaches to similar themes, Patton has over the years, become one of my favorite war films of all times.

The film starts with a roaring speech by General George S. Patton Jr. (George C. Scott) that gives us clarity of how the psyche of the man works in relation to wars and how they can be won. “you don’t win a war by dying for your motherland, you win by making the other dumb bastard die for his country”, roars Patton as he goes ahead and makes it amply clear that USA will soon be a part of World War II. This speech is enough to engulf us in the persona of the man and through the rest of the film we learn how great a general he was because of his genius war tactics and ingenuine methods but at the same time we also learn how out-of-control a man he can be when he is imagining himself in the image of gods from bygone eras and when he decides to run after glory unheeding the sense of right and wrong and also the safety of his men.

The Africa Corp of the Allied Forces is crumbling when Patton is brought in to put things in the right perspective. His first decision is to get the man en-tasked to review him to be his second-in-command. This man is General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden). The next thing he does is wear the three stars that the president has recommended him for, but the senate hasn’t approved. And then he sets forth to straighten out the men who are getting increasingly undisciplined. Within a short period of time he starts the battle rolling in America’s favor and is isn’t long before the German are on the run.

Following his success in Africa, he is given chance to make his presence felt in Italy. This is where his conflict with British Field Marshal Montgomery (Michael Bates) comes to the fore. The two practically get into a race over the capture of strategic towns and this leads to a lot of bad blood. The alliance leadership also must contend with Patton making crude statements, going against plans, risking greater mortality of his soldiers to drive his own personal agendas and an incident where he slaps a soldier in a medical tent. As a result of it all, the thinktank rob him of his command and hand over the command of the Europe invasion to General Bradley who was Patton’s junior and served as his deputy in Africa and Italy. The rest of the film is about Patton coming to terms with his short comings and yet never fully overcoming them. It is also about the great feats he achieved in Europe and how he did it.

Patton won an Oscar apiece for: –

Best Actor: George C. Scott brings out a version of Patton that I cannot quantify how close was to the real man. However, his essay is so lifelike and on your face that you cannot help but be in awe of his act. Apart from the rousing scenes where he is supposed to make an impact, it is the little scenes here and there where he emotes through his eyes and expressions that let us know what a great acting effort it was from Scott’s part. From the moment he appears on the screen, you forget that Scott exists and take him to be this larger than life general who would stop at nothing to get what he wants out of life. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Scott got the most well-deserved Oscar out of all the Oscars that the film received.

Direction: Franklin J. Schaffner who also produced the film gave it his everything. It might just be his best film ever. Again, there are things in the film that grab your attention, but his dealing with smaller matters and the more subtle sequences tell us what a great job he has done. In one of the scenes in the film, we see Patton abuse an infantryman in a medical tent. This scene is not only referenced multiple times throughout the runtime of the film but it gives us an insight into how Patton could get violent when faced with cowardice or insubordination. He sees every soldier in his own image and as an extension of himself and to think of them as anything less than that was impossible for him to fathom. This one little scene puts that out beautifully. There are also a few scenes that don’t paint a pretty picture of the man and these scenes were done with equal élan. Just to imagine how well Franklin J. Schaffner undertook this mammoth undertaking and made all ends meet in the end was nothing short of greatness.

Editing: Patton is 2 hours 52 minutes long. Long periods of time are spent on sequences wherein Patton speaks to his men on a wide range of subjects. There are prolonged sequences of the passage of vehicles and men through a route documenting their difficulties en-route. The few actual battle sequences that are there are also pulled on a little longer than what we are used to in today’s breakneck editing style. This kind of editing allowed for two things to happen. First, the viewer could enjoy the stunning visuals that the film is characterized by and let us associate with the humanity involved in every frame of these visuals. Second, we are also able to associate with the character of Patton and the things that he is shown doing. We move with him at his pace and experience the circumstances from his perspective. This would never have been possible had the pace of editing and style had not been as per the character’s own pacing.

Art Direction: I was mighty impressed by the art direction of this film from the get-go. The uniforms, the interiors and the exteriors of the army establishments, the tanks, weaponry, aircraft, ships et all. The film presents a kind of picture that will land you smack in the middle of the topography that it is in at any given point of time. This, I believe, would never have been possible had the art department not done such a fantastic job. I believe that most of the vehicles used were originals from WWII but the biggest challenge that the art department had to deal with was with the three different topographies of the campaigns that Patton undertook in Africa, Italy, and France and be consistent with it. Again, the magnitude of the work undertaken by the art department makes my head drop in reverence. Mind you all this was achieved in a time when there was no visual effects wizardry like we have now.

Original Screenplay: the screenplay of Patton can be broadly divided into the three major campaigns that Patton undertook in Africa, Italy, and France. Each span almost a quarter of the film’s runtime and shows us the highs and lows of the man in the particular quadrant. The film feels very coherent and to the point in how it is written. The dialogues are rousing where and when they must be but at the same time remain subtle and realistic for the most part. I just loved the give and takes between Patton and the other supporting characters like Gen. Bradley, Field Marshal Montgomery, Gen. Beetle, etc. they are so authentic and organic that you are immersed in what you are watching and hearing.

Sound: The background score of the film is in strong keeping with its mood and fervor. Not just that, the way the film makes use of the atmospheric sounds and uses it to breathe life into various sequences reminds us of all that is the very best in sound design.

Picture: Is it any surprise that with all the above – mentioned qualities, the film won an Oscar for Best Picture? I don’t think so. Everything in the film fell in place and it was not a single factor but an amalgamation of all these above traits that made this film so great.

Patton is one of the essential viewings for anyone who appreciates great cinema. However, it goes beyond saying that one needs to let the film take over their senses and give it the time it needs to build on you. It is not for the people who walk into a film expecting an action-packed over the top representation of war. It is a realistic and almost documentary-like picture of one of the greatest generals of our times who fell in and out of his superior’s grace just as violently as he made his way through German territories. If not for anything else, this film is worth a watch for George C. Scott and Karl Malden’s stellar performances.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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