Wednesday 19 June 2013

Movie Review: Patton (1970)

A larger than life biopic for a larger than life war hero, Patton combines man and war to provide grand entertainment. George C. Scott's inspired performance embodies both Patton's self-serving bombast and his career-limiting failings.

It’s 1943, and the initial American foray into the North African theatre of World War Two is not going well: Rommel’s tanks inflict a heavy defeat on the Allies at Kasserine Pass. In response, General George S. Patton (Scott) is placed in charge of the American II Corps. Confident, aggressive, and a loud mouth, Patton appoints General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) as his second-in-command and adopts an all-attack, all-the-time mentality while instilling discipline and improving morale. Before long, Patton masterminds an impressive victory over Rommel at the Battle of El Guettar.

Patton believes in reincarnation and destiny, and is convinced he has lived previous lives and participated in key battles throughout history. It is now his destiny to play a leading role in the Allied victory. After success in North Africa, the next objective is the invasion of Sicily, and Patton places great emphasis on personal glory, turning the invasion into a personal race with British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Michael Bates) to reach the key port city of Messina. But Patton finally allows his passion to get the better of him: he accuses one of his soldiers of cowardice, and strikes him. The incident stalls Patton’s quest for glory, and he is forced to wait in the wings while Bradley is promoted into a key role as the Normandy invasion looms.

A war movie filled with the thunder of conflict and the agony and ecstasy of the humans who wage war, Patton is an enduring cinematic achievement. Through the eyes of General Patton, humanity's deranged but passionate love of carnage is expressed. Patton was born to lead men into war: ironically, the battlefield of death is the one place he feels most alive. The movie makes no apologies and no excuses. Men like Patton turned back evil and won the war, and this is his story.

Driven by a palpable sense of historic purpose, Patton is portrayed as a man bulldozing his way to the certainty of victory. Scott’s performance is a seminal achievement, dominating the screen with personality, and filling the General's boots with a take-no-prisoners, accept-no-nonsense attitude. But the self-aware tragic hero within Patton also emerges: an inability to control his mouth or his temper, a propensity to place personal objectives ahead of strategic needs, and an almost obsessive focus on immediate tactics as opposed to the big picture. 

The contrast with the more restrained Bradley, portrayed with resolve by Karl Malden, is a study in divergent leadership styles. Bradley is more cerebral and careful, creating fewer waves, and demonstrating more empathy. Patton has no time for the desktop generals and their political masters, and in an organization as complex as the US Army, it is no surprise that Bradley is more effective at climbing the ladder.

Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, everything about Patton is large. The running length is close to three hours, the opening scene speech in front of a gigantic flag is audacious, the assembled armies of men, tanks, and trucks are huge, the battle scenes are impressively grand, and the personality battles are absorbing. Director Franklin J. Schaffner finds engaging settings and interesting camera angles for almost every shot, and Jerry Goldsmith provides a rousing yet poignant soundtrack. Patton is an artistic epic of legendary men eternally defined by a monumental conflict.

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