12 February 2005 | rmax304823
It's a splendidly done movie. Scott's performance is powerful. He does everything but reach out, grab you by the shirt, and shout in your face. Karl Malden is likable and full of common sense, but he is the only person in the movie whom we can grasp as a character -- except for Scott himself. Scott is as good at his job as Patton was, and in fact the quality of his performance is less volatile than Patton's own, with virtually no weak spots.
That's part of the problem. Patton himself. I suppose that like most people he had a "good" side -- loving family, played with his dog, collected stamps and whatnot. But as good and aggressive a general as he was, he wasn't a particularly likable guy. It's easy to demand that everyone in your command have shoes as shiny as yours -- especially when you've got some black PFC doing your shining for you.
The movie is noticeably slanted. Patton's weakness, like Coriolanus's, is ambition. Sometimes it's played for laughs. He carried the stars of a Lieutenant General around with him until word of his promotion comes down, then immediately has them pinned on. But only three times is his meanness illustrated without tongue in cheek. (1) During a conversation with Bradley he reveals that he's disobeyed orders by sending his army on a mission to beat Montgomery in taking Sicily. He calls the attack "a reconnaissance in force". He receives an order to get his troops back where they belong and tells his aide to send the message back because it's garbled. "A simple old soldier," Bradly comments disapprovingly. (2) He orders General Truscott to stage some amphibious landings which will help him take Messina before Montgomery. Truscott complains that they're not prepared to do that without heavy casualties. Patton lies down and threatens to fire Truscott and get someone else to do the job. (3) While visiting a hospital and presenting the wounded with decorations he comes across a soldier whose nerves are shot and who is weeping, and Patton slaps him twice and sends him back to the front.
His mean streak went beyond those incidents. He used to practice his arrogant, threatening scowl in front of the mirror. Whether or not it improved the GI's morale to wear neckties in combat is, at best, arguable. (What would Patton make of the Israeli army?) But the simple historical fact is that the movie pitches even these "mean" incidents at the audience like softballs. He didn't just slap a soldier who was feeling sorry for himself, which is the picture the film presents. He slapped two soldiers on separate occasions, one suffering from combat fatigue (which is no joke) and the other from malaria and other illnesses. Patton also enjoyed an intimate relationship with his niece, a Red Cross donut girl, who accompanied him in England and France, much to his wife's displeasure.
Those slapping incidents cost Patton a bit in the way of professional esteem but it didn't cost any lives. And it didn't cause him any remorse. Even in his "apology," he claims he was trying to "shame a coward." What DID cost lives was Patton's cobbling together a small task force to liberate a POW camp in Germany shortly before the war's end, when such a dangerous move was no longer necessary. "Task Force Baum" was recognized by its leaders for the lost cause it was, a plunge deep into enemy territory without any backup. There were 53 vehicles and 294 men. All the vehicles were destroyed or captured. Twenty-five of the men were killed, 32 wounded, and almost all the rest captured. The purpose of the mission, it was tacitly agreed, was to rescue Patton's son-in-law.
His fitful harshness towards his troops is usually justified in the movie, even if it looks excessive. The soldier-slapping scene is preceded by one in which Patton kneels in the hospital, whispers something to a soldier whose face is covered by bandages, and lovingly places a medal on his chest. Next thing he encounters: Tim Considine, fully dressed, sitting up, and sobbing with self pity. Earlier, when Patton asks a cook why he's not wearing sidearms, the cook laughs genially and replies, "Sidearms? Why, hell, General, I'm a cook!" I missed the part where cooks learn to laugh in the face of orders from a general, but it gives Patton a chance to tear everybody a new one.
Everyone paid for Patton's ambition and vanity, even those not under his command. The gasoline and other supplies he diverted to his own forces during the run through France helped him alright, but they were also needed elsewhere.
The movie's subtitle is "Salute to a Rebel." Very stylish for 1970 audiences, but the material is presented in such a way as to leave us with a lingering admiration for Patton's genius and bullheadedness. What kind of "rebel" was he? He was more of an authoritarian Arschloch than anybody else in his greater vicinity.
What the writers, the director, and George C. Scott have given us, to paraphrase someone else, is not a warts-and-all portrait but the suggestion that there is something heroic about a wart.
I gave the movie high marks because it's as well done as it is -- disregarding its relationship to Patton himself. I didn't mind so much that the wrong tanks were used and that the production could only find two Heinkel 111s in flying condition. The location shooting is great, the cinematography crisp and unimpeachable, the score one of Goldsmith's best, and Scott's performance deserved whatever awards it got.