8 September 1999 | Danimal-7
Fascinating portrait of the Allies' greatest general
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reading "The Patton Papers," a collection of Gen. Patton's diary entries and letters edited by Martin Blumenson. Having seen the movie, I think that no actor has ever better captured the spirit of a man better than George C. Scott, nor has any movie better portrayed that spirit than PATTON.
Patton was a man who lived for war. World War II was the high point and culmination of his life. He didn't fight for any principles, he didn't fight to defend freedom or democracy or any abstract idea; he fought because he loved fighting. In his diaries you can read of his fear of flunking out of West Point; the prospect terrified him because he was certain that he would never be good at anything except being a general or a leader of a country.
As a leader of men, he was exceptional. His speech at the beginning of the movie is vintage Patton, an almost exact reproduction of a speech Patton actually gave to Third Army. It's tough, and no-nonsense; Patton lets you know in no uncertain terms that he is here to win, to destroy the enemy, and by God you'd better be too. I don't know if Patton actually directed traffic on the roads as he is shown doing in the movie, but it was a very Pattonish thing to do. Patton did on at least one occasion get out of his staff car and join a squad of G.I.'s in heaving a vehicle out of the mud. Try to imagine Montgomery doing that; the very thought is hilarious!
Patton's character explains his treatment of his men. To those who had been wounded fighting for him he was always kind and considerate. But to those whose minds could not stand the horrible strain that war imposed on them, he was merciless; he could not comprehend the fact that other people didn't share his love of violence for violence' sake. PATTON shows this aspect of his character very well.
Karl Malden's Omar Bradley is shown in an almost father-like role; he sees and recognizes Patton's immense talents as a general, and uses them in spite of Patton's natural ability to antagonize everybody around him. Not shown in the movie is Patton's unloveable characteristic of turning on his subordinates once they surpassed him in their careers. Patton had nothing but good to say about Bradley, until Bradley was promoted over Patton's head, whereupon Patton savaged Bradley in his diary. Patton did the same to Eisenhower.
A general can have no higher compliment than the fear and respect of his adversaries, and as PATTON demonstrates, Patton was more feared by the Germans than any other Allied general, at least on the Western front. As one German officer observes all too prophetically, "the absence of war will destroy him [Patton]." And although mankind's single greatest stroke of good fortune in the 20th century was that Russia and America never came to blows, it is still hard not to feel sorry for Patton as he desperately seeks his superiors' approval to carry the war on eastward into the Soviet Union - anything, just to have a war to fight. Patton is like an addict to a destructive drug.
Hollywood has rarely given us such a textured and human portrait of a great man: cruel, often foolish in his relations with others, rude, and psychopathically attached to violence, but brave, dedicated, and loyal. Certainly those who, like myself, have Jewish blood, or who were otherwise marked for death by the Nazi state, all owe him a great debt of gratitude for his pivotal role in destroying that state. And yet, had he been born German, Patton would surely have fought just as devotedly for the Nazi side. I'm glad he wasn't.
Rating: **** out of ****.