George C. Scott made an indelible impression playing the title character, Patton, a famous World War II general who was more than slightly nuts. While there are other characters on screen occasionally, none is given any depth, and the film succeeds or fails on Scott's performance, which was more than up to it--this is one of the great screen performances.Partly, Scott was given great material to work with, in a script which was mostly the work of a young Francis Coppola. Faced with making a film glorifying the military success of a man whose personality he loathed, Coppola found ways to get both sides of his personality into the script, and Scott played every nuance. It does glorify military success--but it also outlines its shortcomings.
"Probably the best one-man show ever made"
The character of Patton actually seems designed to make the point. A Bible-reading autodidact and tactical genius who sincerely believed he was the reincarnation of past warriors, Patton achieved astonishing success as a general but was continually in trouble for his opinions and actions, most memorably when he slapped a shell-shocked soldier who, he thought, was simply a coward. A democracy's values can only be at odds with someone like him.
From the famous (and endlessly parodied) initial scene, where Patton blood-thirstily addresses the camera directly, with a huge American flag as a backdrop, this is a portrayal not just of Patton, but of how he thought, and how he thought of himself.
Patton sees himself as a knight, and his army as an extension of himself, and the movie follows suit. The battles are huge spectacles of tanks and explosions and large masses of infantry--but no personal, individual view of the carnage, a la "Saving Private Ryan." It's all Patton, all the time, for damn near three hours. The great triumph of the film, and of George C. Scott, is that they make Patton fascinating enough that we'll watch him for that long.
Patton had a genuine flamboyance, which he channeled towards inspiring his army and men. It makes a much more vivid impression than the rather colorless supporting characters. There's a lovely moment when someone tells him the men don't know when he's acting, and he replies that it isn't important that they know.
About those other characters, we do see them--but strictly from Patton's viewpoint. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden, trying hard in a lost cause) is just there to react to Patton, and Montgomery (played by Michael Bates) is a weak foil, someone to compete with, presented as being as egocentric as Patton but without his competence. Nothing is allowed to distract from that intense focus on the one man.
Interestingly, when Patton has a meeting with Eisenhower, it's like he's been up to the mountain to see God. We see him coming out of the meeting where Ike fired him, towards the end of the war (for casually saying in an interview that the Nazis were "just another political party" like the Republicans or the Democrats!) but they don't show Ike himself, or that meeting. And, indeed, it would have broken the mood of the movie, to have shown Patton meeting with his boss. No one in this movie is allowed to be greater than he.
The prime mover to get the film made was its producer, Frank McCarthy. He went on to make a very similar film about a very similar general: MacArther. MacArthur was more egotistical than Patton, more successful, and the film had a even larger budget. But with Patton, they got it right in a way MacArthur never did, and everyone remembers this movie, while the other is almost completely forgotten.By giving equal weight to his achievements and his shortcomings, "Patton" ends up feeling like we've gotten a true picture of the man. And George C. Scott will always be remembered for this performance.
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originally posted: 11/18/02 01:12:12