“So as through a glass and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names – but always me.”
– General George S. Patton, Jr.
Patton (1970) was a major success for 20th Century Fox. Its depiction of General George S. Patton, Jr.’s exploits during World War II did well at the box office and won seven Academy Awards. These awards include Best Actor for George C. Scott’s performance as Patton, Best Original Screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, and the coveted Best Picture prize. Some film buffs might argue that M*A*S*H or Five Easy Pieces should have won Best Picture. But Patton certainly possesses one of the key qualifications for that award: the ability to reflect American character and temperament.
In his introduction to the DVD for Patton, Coppola says that he felt he had “to make a film that both sides of the coin will be interested in” — in other words, people on the left and right sides of the political spectrum. It seems like the primary way that he did this was to include Patton’s real words as much as he could. For example, the famous speech at the beginning of the film that Patton gives in front of an American flag was based on several speeches that Patton gave to troops. (My grandfather fought in the Third Army and heard a version of this speech. The part he remembers best is the bit that begins “Thirty years from now, when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee…”) There are some criticisms that Patton didn’t curse as much in real life and that his voice was higher, but the filmmakers often stuck to the historical record.
Patton presents its title character as a man of contradictions. He was a man who loved the brutality of warfare but spoke French and read the works of Julius Caesar. In one scene he shows great tenderness to a soldier who was wounded in battle, and then slaps a soldier suffering from PTSD. These contradictions enabled this film to be popular on both sides of the American political divide.
Celebrated historian Rick Perlstein analyzes the initial differing reactions to Patton in his book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He notes that Patton’s opening speech was “so bombastic the left experienced it as a satire of militarism gone mad” (Perlstein 472). Scenes of children trying to tear the rings off of corpses in North Africa and a little kid in an adult’s army helmet giving a salute could be read as criticisms of how the younger generation learns violence from their elders. Director Sam Peckinpah, a leftist who loathed Nixon, hammered this theme home in his New Hollywood classic The Wild Bunch.
But Perlstein notes that conservatives also loved Patton. They admired his anticommunism and determination to fight no matter the cost. Patton was one of Richard Nixon’s favorite movies, and Perlstein documents the similarities between them at length (Perlstein 473). Nixon even sometimes watched this film before making decisions about military campaigns in Vietnam and Cambodia.
What stands out about Patton today is that, in the midst of a period of intense political polarization, it still has the potential to speak to people on both sides of the spectrum. Conservatives can watch it because they feel that it speaks to their nostalgia for the days of World War II. Liberals can criticize Patton’s excesses while respecting his military competency. Leftists can still laugh at the movie’s absurd sense of humor. In addition, they might find Patton’s lament about “wonder weapons” creating a world dominated by “killing without heroics” to be an early criticism of drone warfare.
Patton endures for a variety of reasons. It is a confident epic with a beautiful visual style (there at least two scenes where the camera starts on a tight close-up before zooming out to a wide shot that are beautiful). The performances are excellent, especially George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning turn as Patton. But more than anything, Patton speaks to our national character: our intelligence, our arrogance, our desperate need to succeed and our even more desperate fear of failure. Patton believed in reincarnation, and the poem cited above was about his belief that he lived many lives as a warrior in different time periods. But Patton wasn’t a commander of Romans, or a field marshal under Napoleon, or even a celebrated World War II general. Ultimately, he was us.
Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Scribner 2008.
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed six short films.