Patton -- An Unbiased Biopic of an Apprehensible Megalomaniac

                                An American unbiased war movie is as hard to find as an untheatrical Bollywood movie. And, especially after 9/11 and ‘war-on-terror’, Marines, CIA and NSA in American films have waged numerous battles in the Middle-East. No other film industry in the world is as efficient as Hollywood in incorporating the fear or feeling that there is some out there to harm their country (even from outer space). In the cold war, we had numerous American actors speaking English with a Russian accent (the latest one is Kenneth Branagh in “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”). For the past decade, they hired talented Middle-East actors to play ‘bad Arab’ and ‘good, faithful Arab’ (recent example is “Lone Survivor”). A pro-war movie would show shattered bodies of enemies as American Marines walk over them in glory. The offensive terms they use to call their enemies might have changed (like ‘Krauts’, ‘gooks’), but there is always a dangerous enemy. Auteurs like Oliver Stone, Coppola and Stanley Kubrick have made excellent anti-war movies, but they are often accused of clinging to a particular ideology and of insulting the memories of a common soldier fallen in the battle front.  

                               Personally, I believe in the statement ‘War Is Hell’ and would highly rate anti-war statements made in the likes of “Apocalypse Now”, “Full Metal Jacket.” But, is it really possible to make a war movie without giving way to balance than bias? Director Frank J. Schaffner’s “Patton” (1970) is one of the answers to such a question. The eight Academy Award winning film, was not only an ambiguous war movie, but also a fascinating character study. Although, “Patton” wanted audience to read the film the way he/she wanted to, it is wrongly depicted as a pro-war movie. It is referenced that President Richard Nixon was inspired by this movie to escalate the Vietnam War. Made on a budget of $12 million, “Patton” singularly depicts the weakness and strengths of Gen. George Patton Jr., an undiplomatic World War II war hero.

                            “Patton” has one of the most magnificent opening scenes. Impressively uniformed George Patton (George C. Scott) stands at attention in the backdrop of a huge American flag. With a stern expression, he delivers the famous ‘kick them in the ass’ speech and emphasizes his military philosophy. We then go to Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, situated in North Africa. It is 1943, and the American forces have recently suffered a terrible loss in the Battle of Kasserine Pass. General Omar Bradley (Karl Maden) decides that his army needs the best tank commander against the blustering German corps. Patton arrives to take command of the de-moralized US force. He fiercely disciplines them and prepares the force for fighting against notable German Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler) at El Guettar. Patton’s no-nonsense attitude clinches a victory in the Battle of El Guettar. From North Africa, Patton moves his forces to Sicily, sweeping across the island to take ‘Palermo.’

                           The victory also brings a strong desire for Patton to fight for fame against the other prominent figure of Allies -- British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates). The invasion of Sicily flares up these men’s rivalry as Patton races to take over the city of Messina, even though he’s been ordered to stand by. All of Patton’s bravado and victory reaches a threshold point, when he physically and verbally abuses a soldier distressed by ‘battle fatigue.’ The newspapers ridicule him by comparing with the Nazis, while the bureaucrats demanded a direct apology from him. Patton offers a public apology, but he gets side-lined in the Allied forces of invasion of Europe. Patton is asked to keep his mouth shut, but his flaring speeches provide sensational news for journalists and create a ruckus for the politicians. At last, he is only used as a decoy during the Normandy invasion. However, Patton’s last glorious stride starts when he is granted command of the Third Army, which won over the last major Nazi force.

                          “Patton” is not just a biographical account of a military general. It is about a solitary man with self-imposed beliefs, who refuses to come to grips with the complexities of the 20th century. "Through the travail of ages, Midst the pomp and toils of war, Have I fought and strove and perished, Countless times upon a star. As if through a glass, and darkly, The age-old strife I see, For I fought in many guises, many names, But always me." Patton utters this poem as he stands on the battlefield when the Carthaginians fought the Romans, centuries ago. The film is imbued with moments like this, where he yearningly recalls ancient battles, believing that he actually took part in them. In another scene, after explaining his invasion plan for Sicily, a general comment, “You know, George, you’d have made a great marshal for Napoleon, if you’d lived in 18th century.” Patton answers him by saying, “Oh but I did sir, I did.” He is a military historian obsessed with the strategies followed in old battles. In yet another scene, he simply shoots two mules blocking the bridge without hesitation. However, director Schaffner doesn’t limit our views of Patton with these incidents. On an exterior account, Patton is easier to judge, but when the movie starts contemplating his internal emotions that is where it becomes complex.

                             In real life, the slapping incident is mostly said to be seen as a symbol of Patton’s implacable hostility. But, the film offers the internal conflict that goes inside him. We sense the dilemma inside him as he is about to sacrifice his troops for gaining glory against Montgomery. He slaps the soldier after this dilemma and immediately after praying for a heavily injured man, awarding him the ‘Purple Heart.’ He seems irked at that fatigued guy, because he somehow hates his own decision and the word’ coward’ is more self-directed. Patton’s life also showcases the contrasting dualities we all possess. He is a historian, well versed in the campaigns of Romans, Napoleon, Grant and Lee, but he couldn’t grasp the idea of psychology. He thinks that a man could only be shattered by bullets, not by psychological pain. Like, Patton, we might have studied a lot, but one or other time we would find hard to rein ourselves when our ego takes the better of us. A clergyman asks Patton, whether he has time to read Bible. He answers, “Every Goddamn Day!” The simple one-liner depicts the contrasting characters of Paton: a highly religious man, who also known for his cursing and temper.

                           “Patton's” another important theme lies in detailing the absurdity of self-righteousness. Wars have always brain-washed the whole population, good and bad ones alike, making them think that their side is the right side. In America and Britain, during World War II, a false sense of self-righteousness took hold and the people were brain-washed, as thousands of innocent civilians in Japan and Germany got incinerated. The media unleashed racism on Japanese, but suppressed the capitalist rhetoric for the sake of Russian allies and anti-fascist enemies. All kinds of lies joined hands in the name of patriotism. The same thing happened in Germany and in the end, lies exhumed with bodies found in concentration camps. This false sense of self-righteousness is well handled in “Patton.” Since we see the film from a war-obsessed guy’s point of view, we get increasingly mindful of the fact that wars are not about showing one’s patriotic feelings; it’s just an event for politicians and military leaders to seek glory.   

                            Does “Patton” glorifies hard-line militarism or does it satirize the circumstance? Even in the first scene, this question arises. As he stands before the huge American flag, delivering the rousing speech (“we’re not holding onto anything except the enemy; we’re going to hold him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass!”), we could see both a fierce and ridiculous individual. The same question pops up at various junctions in the movie, and the answer could be derived according to your own standpoint. During its release, many critics is said to have criticized Edmund North and Coppola’s script, and Schaffner’s direction for failing to take a stand on Patton. But, it is this ambiguity that has given the classic and timeless quality for the film.
                             Patton belongs to an era, where warriors ruled over a country. His spirits have soared only when there is a war. He doesn’t see the victory in the battle as his triumph. In the end, as the Russians celebrate over Allies victory, he just sits in a table with a reclusive look. And, further he makes statements claiming that he will wage war over Russians before they become a trouble. He might have been hated by millions, but think what would have happened if he had been born in the era of Alexander or Napoleon. History would have bestowed him with accolades. But, in the period of bureaucracy and diplomacy, he is just used as a tool. At the very end, Patton soliloquizes, relating the tale of ancient Roman war heroes. He is left alone and walks with his dog apprehending the meaning of cautionary words: “all glory is fleeting.”

                             “Patton” was shot over 18 weeks in Spain, England, Morocco, Greece and America. Shot in 70m Dimension, Fred Koenkamp's cinematography does full justice to the picture’s quality. The battle sequences were shot in a grand epic style, reminiscent of David Lean movies. Apart from the war scenes, the framing was also equally adept bringing the viewers close to the personal moments. Director Schaffner made “Patton” after the smashing box-office success of “Planet of the Apes” (1968). He shows a restraint that captures sweep of the war as well as the intimacy of the characters. George C. Scott didn’t act as Patton. He looks as if he has crawled into the skin of the general (watch documentaries or footage of Patton to see how accurately he is portrayed). Since Scott, didn’t believe in warfare, he was able to capture both the violence and the vulnerability of his character. As Bradley, Karl Malden gives a wonderful performance, but gets dwarfed alongside Scott’s unstoppable performance.

Real Vs Reel 'Patton'

                           Those who have very detailed knowledge about World War II might find factual and technical errors in the movie, but for the most part it is reasonably realistic. Some might complain the cartoonish depiction of British Field Marshal Montgomery, or the wooden acting by supporting players. I feel these flaws are insignificant when compared with the large scope of the film.

                          “Patton” (171 minutes) can’t be categorized as a ‘World War II movie.’ It is a historical drama, which de-constructs the enigmas surrounding a war hero or a warrior. It provides a throbbing awareness about the ultimate complexities present within a war. 



Rahul said...

really inspiring article..

Mike B said...

In the context of the times, it was necessary for Patton to be Patton and Germany to be defeated. Yeah war is hell but it takes two to war; the axis powers were the assailants responsible for the holocaust.