Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North
Obviously I wasn’t old enough to have seen this when it first came out. And when I did eventually see it, the impact of a movie like this coming while Vietnam was still full swing was completely lost on me. But Patton was one of the first “grown up” films I remember liking, one without giant sharks or spaceships or aliens. While some of the nuance went over my head, it really did start me on the path of viewing movies as something more than just cool things I watched for a few hours.
Because even if I didn’t understand everything Patton was trying to do, I at least understood that it was trying to do something. Pushing three hours, it was definitely the longest movie I’d seen, and that running time added a sense of weight to the whole thing. It had to have something worth saying if it was taking that long to say it. I knew the subject matter was important, even if in my mind World War II was just this great big thing that happened and I had no real grasp of the scope and scale of it. I had the inkling that the film was about more than just what the characters were saying, that there was more meaning underneath the words. And there were subtitles! Granted, it was only when the Germans were on-screen, but that practically made it a foreign film! Add it all together and I felt like an adult when I watched it.
As time went on, I started seeing those layers that had escaped me earlier. Here was a film about a war hero that didn’t gloss over the brutality, egotism, and borderline insanity it usually takes to become good at war. George C. Scott invests him with just the right balance of mania and self-awareness. He’s like a drug addict whose drug is war, knowing that he has a problem, but not wanting to give up the incredible rush he gets from it. When Patton looks out over a battlefield and breathlessly says, “God help me, I love it so,” you get the sense he sort of realizes how screwed up that is. And how okay he is with feeling that way. If not him, it would be somebody else, so why not let it be him, whom destiny has put in the place? That’s heroic and crazy and one hell of a balancing act, and Scott pulls it off perfectly.
You also can’t help but compare the “good” war Patton shows us to the war that was raging in Southeast Asia at the time the film was released. For all the seeming patriotism of that giant flag at the beginning — the symbol dwarfing the men who actually died protecting what the symbol stood for — and all the connection Patton feels to ancient history, there’s a lot of de-mythologizing going on here. We don’t see bloodless, Hollywood victories, but real destruction. We see a flawed man engaged in horrible, inhumane acts, with the knowledge that his enemy was capable of much worse if left unchecked. There’s a sense of purpose to the horror that was completely missing from Vietnam, an even greater horror to be fought that the best efforts of our government and military couldn’t conjure up twenty-five years later. You get the very real sense that the man who at one point suggest he and Rommel get in tanks and fight each other one-on-one to settle the war would have not found the Vietnam conflict at all to his liking.
But all that came later, when I had the head for such things. Initially, I enjoyed the film just for Scott’s bravura performance (and some great supporting work from Karl Malden) and for the sheer scale of it. The added meaning was a bonus, a sort of affirmation of my liking it in the first place. While Patton may not be one of my top films of all time, it definitely helped do the legwork that eventually let me really appreciate the films that are.