Thursday, August 25, 2011

Patton: A Character Study Of An Eccentric Warrior

The Good: Decent character work, Decent acting, Cinematically impressive
The Bad: Quite a bit of mood over substance at points (long and feels long)
The Basics: Intense and impressive, Patton is a character study of a very military mind and his counterbalance.

As a pacifist, it probably should not surprise me that I have not watched a whole lot of war movies. War movies - outside Star Wars - never truly interested me. On a deeper psychological level, my antipathy toward war movies probably has a lot to do with my childhood. My former step brother was into war movies and he used that as a point of pride over my brother and I; he got into "R" rated movies before we did by visiting his biological father, who took him to war films. It never thrilled me to hear about the movies as a result. But now, I find myself occasionally taking in a war movie. Tonight's was Patton.

Patton is a character study and it is based on historical events and accounts. Still, it is worth noting that my review is simply of the film, not of the writings upon which it is based or World War II. The longer Patton went on, the more average I felt it was, but what brings it up now in my evaluation is the DVD presentation. On DVD, Patton looks good and sounds good as well. Whatever faults the film has, it is a cinematic triumph and it is an engrossing character study of a weird officer who is presented as a rather unique cinematic character.

Opening with a monologue by General George Patton on the need to thwart the Nazis fearlessly and decisively, the United States enters World War II in force. Arriving at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in 1943, General Patton is transferred from a military governorship to the field of battle on the recommendation of General Bradley. Immediately disappointed by how slovenly the troops are taking their jobs, Patton fines, cajoles and threatens his way into the command role he has been given. Responding to a threat by Rommel, Patton marshals his troops and lays an ambush of Nazi forces in north Africa where he defeats the superiorily armored German tanks using Rommel's own strategies!

With the first decisive American victory in Africa, Patton leads his troops forward, competing with and supporting the forces of the British General Montgomery. Patton competes with Montgomery to take Sicily in order to open up the Italian front. Ordered to support Montgomery's advance along the eastern coast of the island, by keeping his western flank clear, Patton defies orders and uses his troops to take Palermo and he and the Allied General race north. But once Sicily is taken successfully, Patton finds himself relieved of duty there as General Bradley is promoted to lead the European Offensive. After an intermission, Patton rallies the French at Corsica, arguably punishment for slapping a soldier who did not feel like fighting. After his probation, Patton enters the European theater as part of an aggressive gambit to break the stalemate that followed the Normandy invasion. As the Germans fret, Patton inspires Allied forces to victory.

More than a standard, straightforward war movie, Patton is a character study. General Patton is presented as something of a contradiction, as he is a law-and-order career officer who also violates military codes (in slapping an enlisted man and humiliating him thus) and defying orders himself. Throughout the film, he expresses an adamant belief in reincarnation. For Patton, reincarnation is not an abstract religious theory, he believes he lived past lives as famous warriors and scholars fighting in Europe. The contradictions in the character actually make for a more engaging and interesting film.

This becomes most impressive in the later parts of the middle when Patton is put on probation and is essentially forced to sit out on D-Day. When one too many faux pas's puts Patton at the mercy of the Chief Of Staff, Patton reluctantly admits that his best hope is in the fact that his judge is known to be fair. Patton, after being stony and cold, is completely desperate and he has a surprisingly realistic sense of who he is. All he wants is to command an army and he knows he is not political, but rather more of an ideal soldier than anything else. And for viewers, there is a sense of empathy with this weird warrior as he seems utterly unable to do anything other than bark orders. In the process, Patton actually inspires his troops. So, when his position is imperiled by his own stupidity, Patton actually is easy to empathize with.

Even so, Patton is a twin character study. Just as Patton is the arrogant and forceful leader of the Americans fighting in Europe and Africa, General Bradley is cool, quiet and efficient. He is in many ways the ideal soldier, doing what he is ordered to. But he is also something of a milquetoast and while he is entirely competent, he is utterly without the charisma. As a result, Patton is naturally offended when Bradley is promoted over him.

But General Bradley makes for a reasonable and human figure amid the larger-than-life nature of Patton. The result is a pair of foil characters who work best when together. Bradley follows Patton and executes his sometimes ridiculous wishes, while Patton is only grounded by Bradley's pragmatism. It is hard to consider, for example, Bradley pulling off the notion of getting a priest to make a special prayer for good weather (which Patton does and pulls off without it seeming too absurd). Bradley is a pragmatist, while Patton is a dreamer, though he is not the classical dreamer. Instead, his dreams are those of a tactician, whereas what motivates Bradley at the end of the day is something of a mystery.

Patton is amazingly cast, though it is monolithically male in its cast. I was thrilled to see Michael Strong in the film, instantly recognizable from his role in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" (reviewed here! ) the moment he first speaks. Karl Malden plays Bradley and in every scene he is in, he manages to have as much screen presence and sense of character as George C. Scott does as Patton. Malden never tries to outshine or outplay Scott and as a result, he fills out the position incredibly well, with a sense of dignity that is constant. Whereas Scott's role is complicated, Malden is solid, a constant. Malden is able to pull off such simple things as General Bradley asking Patton to dinner in a simple, very human moment. He makes it seem as big as anything Patton does in the rest of the film.

To write anything about George C. Scott's performance as Patton seems strangely pointless. Scott won the Best Actor award for the role and he deserved it for never even letting even the hint of himself through. Scott is flawless as creating a powerful screen persona without any hint of the actor playing him while also making Patton seem entirely human.

On DVD, Patton has an audio featurette on the life of the actual General Patton as well as the film's theatrical trailer. Rumors persist of a two-disc version, but the one-disc version is somewhat minimal on the bonus features. Still, the movie is surprisingly enjoyable, even for those who are not fans of military films.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, available here! Please check it out!]


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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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