Thursday, January 21, 2010


"Patton" (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970) "Patton" was a different kind of war movie. Where most of the genre would concentrate on the cinematic battles, or use the war as a back-drop for soap-stories, "Patton" chose to take the more quixotic route of "Lawrence of Arabia" (or more appropriately, "The Desert Fox" about Patton's "player on the other side" in Africa, Erwin Rommel) by making a personal story about war and how it shapes the human being. The war is the most important story, of course. But the story of General George S. Patton, Jr. (played by George C. Scott, with all the eerie command he brought to every role, probably far more than the real Patton personified) is so intertwined with the war, as a mover and shaker of it, and his fortunes so changed by it (and not for the good) that even as it revels in the eccentricities of the man, it also shows how out of touch a professional warrior and student of conflict can be in this day and age.

"God, how I hate the twentieth century" is one of the laugh-lines of "Patton." But it's one of the truest lines of the script (by Fox scribe
Edmund H. North and a very young Francis Ford Coppola). Patton, the soldier, was from another time (he thought so, literally), and his romantic notions of war and warriors made him an "odd duck" of the military, and a "lame duck" when it came to the political strategies inside an Army at war. He held disdain for bureaucratic warriors on both sides of the conflict (including "that paper-hanging son-of-a-bitch" in Berlin), the exceptions being his West Point classmate Eisenhower, and Rommel, who had opposing tank battle scenarios to Patton's own. The movie has the Germans studying Patton and his techniques, more approving of Patton than his fellow Allied Commanders.

Scott's position as the centerpiece of the film is critical, but director Franklin J. Schaffner,* who apprenticed in live television and whose previous film was the better-than-it-deserved "
Planet of the Apes," brought his customary expansiveness to the war. With a wide-screen process dubbed "Dimension 150,"** Schaffner created vistas of carnage and blazing battles of ferocity that took a dirtier, grimier and bloodier view of battlefield action than had been seen previously in the "clean-kill" war movies preceding it.

Patton, the man, romanticized war, revelled in it, but the film bearing his name went further than most in de-glamourizing the traditional heroics of the less thoughtful war films, carefully explaining the strategies, viewing the battles dispassionately, almost like a chess-master reviewing the board, and in the after-math, taking stock of the scattered pieces. However planned a battle may be, it ends in chaos. Chaos and death. And in "Patton," you can almost smell the stench of a battle-field's carnage.

Death is omnipresent in "Patton," with detailed shots of dead and wounded in the battlefilds, and the crude graveyards made in haste. Some of the eeriest parts of "Patton" take place in those moments, the cascading trumpets and marching jig of Jerry Goldsmith's score stilled to shimmering strings, and unresolved motifs.

Schaffner used his locations well, taking a page from David Lean, cramming as much information into the frames as he could, or by presenting stark landscapes that seemed to go on forever, showing the regimentation of war, how vast numbers of human beings could crowd a frame, or how solitary individuals could be lost in a landscape, or for that matter, History. The scenarists and Schaffner choose to leave Patton alive, just days before having his neck broken in a jeep accident. They leave him contemplating the transience of Glory walking mythically (and quixotically) towards a solitary wind-mill.

It is also about showmanship. A lot of actors turned down the role (some, like
Rod Steiger, to their regret), but it was a tour de force for George C. Scott, who buried himself in the role, studying biographies, running films of the general over and over, doing an extensive make-up transformation—shaving his head to sport a Patton buzz-cut, matching the moles on Patton's face, and even having his teeth capped to make his smile more like the general's. There were some things he wouldn't do, like try to match Patton's voice—Scott felt simulating Patton's high-pitched voice would undercut some of his authority in the role.

The effect was extraordinary. Patton's kids, who were never too keen on the idea of the film, were amazed at Scott's appearance, and the role (which won Scott a Best Performance Oscar—which he famously refused) replaced the real-life General in the imaginations of the Nation, despite ample archival evidence.

Partially, it is the opening. Written by Francis Ford Coppola in an early draft of the script, it is a combination of several of Patton's inspirational addresses to his troops, performed—as if a stage performance—by a solo Scott before an out-sized American flag. It is this section of the script that most intrigued Scott, the stage actor, but also intimidated him. It was the last section filmed, and director Schaffner promised that it would be placed after the Intermission, as the actor—rightly—felt that the address would overpower the rest of the performance.

Schaffner, having a showman's instinct, reneged. And that speech, setting the tone and tenor of the performance that dominated the film, went immediately into pop iconography. It has been parodied and propagated for decades, a radical introduction to one of the more colorful players in the second World War. A thesis, a preamble, if you will, a first movement...but, more appropriately, a shot across the audience's bow.

* Few men were as suited as Schaffner to film this story: during WWII, he was part of the contingent landing at Sicily...under the command of Patton.

** It was camera-maker Todd AO's challenge to Cinerama, and presented a viewing range, or scope, of 150. Only two movies were shot in "Dimension 150"—"The Bible" and "Patton." George C. Scott appeared in both of them.


Phil said...

One of the all time classics!

Matthew K. said...

Really enjoyed the article. This is one of the films I always stop and watch as I'm channel surfing. I'm not sure if the opening scene has ever been topped.

Yojimbo_5 said...

There have been other films when an actor has addressed the audience--"Dracula" "Frankenstein," and "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?"

But you're right...that opening scene is mesmerizing and captures the audience's imagination—the sure sign of its effectiveness is how often it's been parodied.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Oh! And thanks for commenting, gentlemen! You're welcome anytime.