News & Politics

The Ambiguous “Patton” Revels in the General’s Lurid Egocentricity

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
February 26, 1970, Vol. XV, No. 9

Films in Focus
by Andrew Sarris

“PATTON” seems disquieting to many critics simply for sticking to its subject without any undue second-guessing. A right-wing movie might have chuckled over the Allied decision to let “our brave Russian allies” be the first to enter Prague and Berlin. A left-wing movie might have shown more blood from the lowly hostages to Patton’s glory. “Patton” does neither. Director Frank Schaffner and producer Frank McCarthy are both veterans of World War II, and they still cling to the old-fashioned liberal preference for balance over bias in the treatment of their subject, “Patton” is therefore neither “The Green Berets” nor “Dr. Strangelove,” but something ambiguously in between. The screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North based on factual material by Ladislas Farago limits itself largely to its protagonist’s range of vision, and inevitably colors an entire period with the lurid spectrum of Patton’s egocentricity.

Unfortunately, the movie comes along at a time when political attitudes are becoming so polarized that the mere mention of a subject causes debate. The very fact that a movie was made of Patton presupposes a degree of favorable interest in the subject. Some pacifists would argue that war movies are as irresponsible as war toys, and that a three-hour movie on a rabidly militaristic general is especially irresponsible. This argument is not too far removed from the Agnew line that the media should not publicize or glorify individuals the Vice-President deems socially irresponsible.

The fact remains that movies tend to focus more often on the extrovert rather than on the introvert, the doer over the thinker, the romantic over the realist, the warrior over the peace-maker. It is no accident that there have been more movies on Al Capone than on Al Schweitzer. To draw a moral from this demonstration of audience affinities is to overlook the oppressiveness of untrammeled virtue. Also, it is but a short jump from the aesthetical imperative of movement in the film medium to the even less ethical corollaries of movement: action and violence.

Another problem with “Patton” is that most of us have heard of him without knowing too much about him. My image of Patton has always been colored by the account of the slapping incident in Sicily, the image of pearl-handled revolvers, the growling sound of foul language, the implacable hostility of the late Drew Pearson and the late Ernie Pyle. Patton was no nice guy…

Shaffner’s repeated isolation of George C. Scott’s Patton against a background of vast, empty landscapes is reminiscent of the abstract visualizations of an empty planet in “Planet of the Apes.” We see and feel the self-imposed solitude of a man who refuses to come to grips with the social and psychic complexities of the 20th century. This then is the deeper meaning of the slapping incident of a soldier claiming to be suffering from battle fatigue. Patton, so fully versed in the campaigns of Hannibal and Scipio, Napoleon and Wellington, Grant and Lee, had never gotten around to acknowledging the existence of Sigmun Freud on this planet. The idea that a man’s mind could be shattered as painfully as a man’s bones, failed to penetrate the thick armor of a soldier’s honor, and Patton had to be punished, and he was, and yet was it not Oscar Wilde who once said that all he asked was that he be spared physical pain and he would take care of all his spiritual pain himself?

And so we are caught up in a maze of mixed feelings. Those of us old enough to remember the way we were completely brainwashed in and by World War II into thinking we were the good guys even when we were incinerating civilians in Dresden and Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki, must wonder now how we ever managed to be so self-righteous. World War II was the perfect war for brainwashing. The left suppressed its pacifist and anti-capitalist rhetoric for the sake of Mother Russia and anti-fascism, and the right unleashed all its racism in a hunt for slant-eyed Japs, preferably by misappropriating the property of Japanese-Americans in California in the name of patriotism. For once, the CP and the KKK could join hands in a common struggle, and endorse the same lies. And so there was no one to tell the truth about the war, and afterward the discovery of the death camps cast a retroactive halo over the conflict, and that was the end of that…

Hence, what people may be reacting to in “Patton” is not so much the historical figure himself as the forced awakening from the mythically misty sleep of World War II. By seeing that war from the obsessive point of view of one of its more controversial participants, we are made uncomfortably aware that all wars, especially “just” wars, are God’s gift to glory-seeking warriors. George C. Scott’s performance cannot be praised highly enough for capturing both the violence and the vulnerability of the Patton personality without degenerating either into vulgar caricature or cardboard sentimentality. Scott inhabits his character without inhibiting him. The swagger is there, but only as part of the whole man, and when Scott’s Patton explains angrily that his hand-guns are ivory-handled, not pearl-handled, the latter appropriate only for New Orleans pimps, the explanation transcends its immediate context to alert us to the perils of oversimplification. When critics complain that Schaffner and his colleagues fail to take a stand on Patton, the complaint may merely mean that Scott’s performance in depth fails to provide easy laughs or easy tears, but instead a chilling awareness of the ultimate complexities of even the cartoon memories of the past. Indeed, I think many of us are going through a painful period of ideological entropy in which good and evil are hopelessly intertwined in a disillusioning spectacle of idealism perverted in practice. Hence, Patton at his most tactlessly jingoistic emerges as a nonconformist doing his own thing, possibly because his opportunity to grow up as an affluent autodidact enabled him to escape the nice-guy conformity and spiritual regimentation of the American high school system.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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