Sunday, October 5, 2008

Don't Make a Scene: Patton

The Set-Up: "Patton" is a biography and a war film--it has to be because the subject was never more alive or at his best than when he was at war. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. was a warrior in every sense of the word. He studied campaigns and the history of warfare and knew battles backwards and forwards. His ideas on the mechanization of warfare and tactics were almost a throw-back to a by-gone era, and he came to believe that he might have actually lived in the past, so vivid was his recall of past battles.* Of all the tacticians during the second world war, Patton was an odd duck in a room of bureaucrats--colorful, eccentric, vain-glorious, and a promoter of his own myth, as this scene illustrates. But he was aggressive, pushing his troops to their limits, though always on achievable goals, not simply "staying the course" for the purpose of saving face.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Patton, but it was because he was such a fascinating personality--it never occurred to me at that age that he might be so colorful because he was so screwed up. What I saw was excellence and eccentricity and I was drawn to that.

In High School, I did a report on the general, and got an "A" on it, but the teacher drew me aside after class to tell me why he liked the report. He had served with Patton during the war (so did my Uncle, and the teacher and Uncle's memories of the man matched) and told me that of all his commanders, Patton was his favorite--he was the only one who got into the trenches with the men, talked to them, and got to know the men he commanded, as opposed to some who would ensconce themselves in the Ivory Towers of the Field Office and treat the war and the men they ordered like they were of some glorified chess game.** My teacher had seen some of the worst of it, and he'd been there opening up one of the concentration camps. He said the screen "Patton" was more reflective of actor George C. Scott in officiousness than the real general, but that it was a fine portrait, nonetheless.

This was his favorite scene of the movie. Something about the magnificent wide-screen photography (Franklin Schaffner had a great eye for framing), and Patton reminiscing among the ruins, surely. It's a compelling, strange scene of Patton "playing" Patton, and the audience is left shaking their heads, as much as Malden's Gen. Bradley probably does. But Patton's biographer Ladislas Farago did mention this happening--of Patton commanding his driver to a battlefield no one knew about. Patton was a student of warfare, after all. He could have known it was there. But, still....

The Story:Patton (George C. Scott) has just arrived in North Africa to take command of the First Army after a crushing defeat of Allied forces by German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Patton finds the soldiers demoralized, undisciplined and begins to make radical changes. On a tour of the area with General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), he takes a little side-trip.

Action, goddammit!

Gen. George Patton: Hold it. Turn right here.
Driver: Sir, the battlefield is straight ahead.
Patton: Please don’t argue with me, Sergeant, I can smell a battlefield!
Gen. Omar Bradley: He was here just yesterday, George!

Patton: It’s over there! Turn right, dammit!

(Patton gets out of jeep, then Bradley)

Patton: It was here. The battlefield was here.

Patton: The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred.

Patton: The Arab women stripped them of their tunics and lances.

Patton: The soldiers lay naked in the sun.

Patton: 2,000 years ago. I was here.

Patton: You don’t believe me, do you, Brad’?

Patton: You know what the poet said:
"Through the travails of ages, amidst the pomp and toil of war..."

Patton: "...Have I fought and strove and perished countless times upon a star."

Patton: Uh..."As if through a glass and darkly, The age old strife I see..."

Patton: "For I’ve fought in many guises, many names...but always me."

Patton: You know who the poet was?
(Bradley shakes his head)
Patton: ...Me.


Words by Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola

Pictures by Fred J. Koenekamp and Franklin J. Schaffner

"Patton" is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Video

* The music for "Patton" was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, and, as was his style, he wrote for the interior story of Patton the man--his theme comprised of electronically echoing trumpets (suggesting reincarnation), an organ background (suggesting religiosity) and a Irish jig-like melody (for Patton's joy of battle)

** My favorite story of Patton was the time he was visiting troops during a bivouac, and he casually mentioned he'd forgotten to eat, and one of the men said, "Have one of my K rations, general! They're pretty good." Reportedly, Patton teared up, and told the dog-face, "I love every goddamn bone in your goddamn head!" I don't exactly see Scott doing that...

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