“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” – General George S. Patton, Jr.
On April 2, 2020, an important moment of film history arrived. Most of us didn’t notice it. The film Patton turned 50 years old.
The timing of this anniversary is of interest to me. Patton is my second favorite film of all time, and my favorite picture not made in my lifetime. I discovered it entirely through home video, then I rediscovered it through my interests in history, and then again through my self-education in film criticism. This piece is for me as much as it is a tribute to the man, the myth, and the movie.
But General George Patton (1885-1945) is not just an interesting protagonist of a movie. He is a seminal icon of American history and mythology. Like Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, William Tecumseh Sherman, Andrew Jackson, Michael Jackson, Christopher Columbus, John Brown, Clarence Darrow, Lewis and Clark, Malcolm X, Elvis Presley, Curtis LeMay, and perhaps one day even Donald Trump, General Patton’s legacy is deeply controversial yet essential to the complete story of the United States of America. Famous as he is infamous; our ability to understand him is uncomfortably tied to our ability to understand ourselves.
In the fifty years since its release, our nation has seen something of an arc that returns us full circle to its initial importance. It is said that at the time of its release in 1970, President Nixon reacted to it as if it were a lightning strike of patriotism – so strong that it may have unwittingly influenced his decision to double down on the Vietnam War through the subsequent bombings of Cambodia. Then in 1972, the Premier of China Zhou Enlai watched the film in preparation for Nixon’s visit. Half a century ago, this film was part of the greater cultural and political illustration of America as a nation.
But today, though contemporary popular culture does not reflect mass interest in too many films like Patton, as a polarized political species we are primed for his return.
Among much of the American Left today is a sudden, bewildering surge of desire to physically assault people who supposedly fit the definition of Nazis. Meanwhile, on the Right today is a kind of yearning for the nation’s might and honor to be restored by a supposedly tough, undiplomatic bull charger who wins at any cost. Patton partially fits into the strange shapes of both. But according to screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola, liberal audiences back then saw Patton as an antiquated cowboy and uncivilized brute who did not represent the shining, dignified image of America on the global stage. Today they would surely thrill to the militant bloodlust that dominates the tone of George C. Scott’s now-famous decorated opening speech with the giant flag in the background.
I have a unique relationship with that speech. I’m not military. But in my sophomore year of college, I gave a complete version of the Third Army speech (replete with all of its vulgarity and bombast) to my Public Address class. The assignment was to construct a profile of a great orator, present part or whole of a noteworthy speech, and provide a context of history around it. Instead of just playing the clip, I did the uncensored, unabridged version myself. What I most vividly remember about the experience was how disturbed my classmates were to hear it. This was, if I may say so myself, a sign that I got it mostly right.
At the heart of Patton’s speech is the projection of manhood, strength, unity, and manifest destiny. He wears the decorated garb and ivory revolvers of an old aristocrat, yet he roars with unpolished youthful eagerness. If war is to be referred to as a theatre, then by god Patton aims to be theatrical. This was new in 1970, and today it would be considered outright parody. Yet it is a credit to Scott and his masterclass of efforts that he is able to embody man and myth alike – to fuse them into a vivid, resonant image of Patton speaking both for himself and for his idea of the great American character. When he speaks, we believe him.
Scott’s portrayal of Patton is absolute. Were it anything less, the film would collapse from the weight of its audacity. And truth tells a stranger tale than fiction. If the opening speech wasn’t unbelievable enough, he openly states as fact a belief in his reincarnation; that his soul has fought and experienced war through the travail of ages, and that his vivid dreams speaking to his love and addiction for it are whispers from his past self passing down lessons. All of history has led him to this moment of destiny, he insists. This is the work of God, he is sure.
A lesser actor would have made it just another narcissistic kabuki show. And indeed there were several who turned down the role largely because Coppola’s screenplay didn’t slip into that. The layers through which Scott runs the Patton gamut only make him more interesting, more human, and more compelling even when we know he’s just stepped in it. His Patton is both distant from the men as a battle strategist yet also both crudely and amicably in their faces. He is dressed and sophisticated with a fluency in French and a delightful dinner charm, yet crass and vulgar with the men and the media. He is profoundly spiritual and reverent, yet he moves and operates as though the glory and victory he seeks is bigger than God Himself. This is all the same person, and it is the finest performance I have ever seen by an actor.
I highlight the contradictions because they are what make him such an enigma. They also go beyond his mannerisms. In the opening speech, he emphasizes that the army is a team and a collective, and dismisses any notion of individuality within it. But as a battle commander he stands out all the time very much on purpose. When his plan to attack Sicily is rejected in favor of General Bernard Law Montgomery’s slower but seemingly more cooperative plan, he protests that he and his American unit won’t get any of the glory. “This is what happens when your commander stops being an American and starts… being an ‘ally,’” he growls to General Harold Alexander. And then, of course, he looks for any excuse possible to defy orders slowing him down. When he takes Palermo, he notes the historical significance of America joining the long list of the city’s conquerors. Then he swears to beat Montgomery to Messina, just as was originally intended.
And then, of course, there is the soldier slap.
In real history, Patton slapped not one soldier but two. One of them had malaria. The other had an unknown injury but showed symptoms for what we would today call “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The second of the two incidents is the one faithfully depicted in the film. But notice the framing. It is not a scene where he cruelly stomps his way into a crowded tent looking for any reason possible to bully the weak. No, he has come to quietly pay his respects for the men who have sacrificed something real for the war effort, and specifically for Patton’s own pursuit of Messina. The first man he talks to is a fellow Californian. Patton sits with him, tells him a joke (an odd decision considering the wound in the man’s lungs), and wishes him well. The second man has just been declared dead. The moment Patton has with him is not a short one. He lays a medal on his pillow, kneels down beside him, and tearfully whispers a prayer. Only then does he see the nervous soldier and proceed to treat him terribly. The scene is so well directed, with Scott’s sincerity and the spacial framing, that it allows us to be offended by Patton’s actions, to understand why he did it, yet to still be upset with him for it. We can see that Patton himself is offended by the presence of a man occupying a bed in a place of honor and humility, sucking his thumb and crying in front of other men without a physical injury to show for it. We can also see that what he’s doing to him is simply disgraceful, and that he just poisoned the good will of his actions before.
Note that this moment comes after another notable incident also depicted in the film. An entire army column is held up and blocked from crossing a bridge by a civilian cart pulled by two mules stopped in the middle. The men can’t get around it and are completely exposed to German air strafing. Patton angrily pulls out his revolver, shoots the mules on the spot, and has the men throw their carcasses over the side. Necessary? Probably. But it’s quite scary to see.
If your conclusion is that all of this behavior, particularly in Sicily, is ultimately just self-serving bratty entitlement, Patton offers as much doubt for that as it does support. Early in the film when Patton arrives in North Africa, he has a moment with General Omar Bradley telling him that one of the things he feared most in his younger fighting days was the idea of a bullet headed straight for his nose. Not long after that, a mythical moment happens where Patton’s frustrated meeting with a British air marshal – during which the marshal assures him that the British own the skies and that there exists no chance of him seeing a German plane – is ironically interrupted by a German air raid. Patton rushes to the middle of the street and loudly dares the pilots to take a shot at him “right in the nose,” and then provokes them further by firing his pistol at them. In real history this moment never happened, but it is in line with the men’s overall idea and impression of Patton.
The film also makes it clear – especially in the second half – that for all the bluster of the man, the Germans are right to fear him. Some of this Patton exaggerates, but in real history many of the Nazi officers who had studied Patton indeed couldn’t believe that he was seriously being punished for slapping a soldier or his crass publicity. What they say about him is ironically in line with the image the General himself wanted to project. But just as poignant is the foreshadow by Captain Steiger: “He too will be destroyed. The absence of war will kill him. The pure warrior… a magnificent anachronism.”
If I had to use a line that cemented the theme, that would be it. The same qualities that suit him so perfectly for the battlefield make him hilariously unsuitable for diplomacy or peacetime maintenance. Fitting, of course, because the entire movie is about the meaning of World War II through him and his relationships with the high command, his men, and, of course, the enemy.
His relationships consist of constant ankle biting and frustration. Even with all of his success, his advice is ignored time and time again. He is vilified by cartoons for having slapped the soldier, forced to apologize (he is obviously insincere while doing so) to his army, fired, and also often betrayed by the press. When he finally is given command, his offensives are slowed and stalled by his superiors. Patton, ever the prima donna, has a loud and incessant complaint every time something like this happens, even when the suspicion he is under is warranted. Then he is relieved of his command entirely when he callously refers to Nazis as just another political party like the Democrats and Republicans while begging for a shot at the Soviet Union, which he had already disparaged multiple times. A notable example of how the film invites the audience to see the war and hierarchy through Patton’s eyes even when he is not present on screen comes during the Sicily Campaign where both German General Alfred Jodl and British General Montgomery have the exact same reaction to the news that Patton has taken Palermo.
But Patton is more learned, more historically knowledgeable, and better read than all of his colleagues and contemporaries. He is routinely proven correct with his predictions – such as the armored attack formations Rommel will deploy at El Guettar, where he thunders “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK!” He predicts that while Monty and the British slug their way through the roads that Patton himself had secured for them, he can traverse the hypotenuse of Sicily, take Palermo, and then rush the length of the island on the northern coast and reach Messina before them. Painful as that operation is in all aspects, Patton succeeds. When plans for D-Day and the Overlord Campaign are being discussed, Patton is left out of it, but he tells General Bedell Smith that Monty will never reach the city of Caen that day, or even D-Day plus 10. Again, he is proven right (it took 15 days).
And then, of course, he correctly predicts the German winter offensive in the Ardennes that begins the Battle of the Bulge. It was perhaps the most theatrical battle in the Western European theatre, and it was by far Patton’s most glorious accomplishment. He is the only one with the foresight to see it coming and the skills to plan a counterattack. Everyone at Verdun is astonished at the speed he promises. They scoff and tell him that it’s impossible. And then he manages it despite the worst possible weather constantly slowing his men down until Christmas Eve. Just as before, his combined audacity and reverence are what sees it through.
Patton is flawed in that it requires a general understanding of the events of World War II, yet leaves out certain important big-picture historical details. It might have helped, for example, if the film gave us more about Montgomery’s failed Operation Market Garden, which was the key reason Patton got stalled in France (and also one of the reasons Hitler thought his Ardennes Offensive would work), or if the film explained that one of the consequences of the Gela landing in Sicily is that even though Patton beat Monty to Messina, he was unable to cut off the Nazi escape into the Italian mainland. But the film’s emotional pacing is one of its greatest strengths. It’s done through highs and lows – a high in Africa, then a low in Sicily, then a further low during his probationary period, then a high in France, then the ultimate high in Belgium, and then a post-V-E Day low.
I have attempted to pace this review much the same way, and now I wish to end it by returning to the question that began it: What do we do with someone like this?
What do we do with someone who so impressively excels at nearly every aspect of something as tragic and terrible as war – even a just and necessary one?
What do we do with someone who makes us uncomfortable even when he’s effective, and whose aristocratic antics, pessimism, and uncouth, undiplomatic manners violate our common sense of decency, and who does not fit into our neat models of civics and respectability?
What do we do with someone who earns the ire of everyone by slapping and berating one of his own soldiers and stomps about his base as a buzz-killing disciplinarian, but who is so in touch with the soul of his fighting force that he can direct a traffic jam between two columns at a crossroads, and get cheers when he passes his men on the front, they ask him, “where ya’ going, General?”, and he responds, “Berlin! I’m going to personally shoot that paper-hanging son of a bitch!”?
What do we do with someone more fit than anyone to lead and command us in perhaps the greatest liberation crusade in history, but who gives us nothing but headache during peacetime or armistice?
Patton does not have a clean answer for us, even as it comes down overall in greater favor of the man than against him. Instead of the crude death he found in real life, his fate in the film mirrors the English folkloric aphorism that “old soldiers never die, they simply fade away.” The movie gives us an ending that evokes national memory and the poetic idea of him. An ending that mirrors the ride off of Shane in Shane, or the door-closing walkaway in The Searchers, where John Wayne’s scarred and hateful Ethan Edwards is exiled from civilization for his sins despite all he did to save it. But it’s not just about what happened to Patton. It’s also about us and the image our nation projects onto the world.
Soon enough, an entire century will have passed between the events of World War II and the present day. Most of our veterans are dead, and then we will lose all living witnesses to it. But war is inevitable. War is part of the human condition and will always be with us. We will always have enemies, and we will also have with us men like General Patton. We will always need men like him, even when they bother us. And as such, we will always have with us a responsibility to try to understand men like Patton, to appreciate them and take them seriously even if with caution and sobriety.
For when we gaze upon our empire, our comforts, treasures, and culture, there will forever remain that whispered warning:
All glory is fleeting.