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Silver Screen Streak List #20: 03. Patton (1970)

Silver Screen Streak List #20: 03. Patton (1970)

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by dorrk
13 February 2022


That imagery. That speech. That performance. That music. I profoundly dislike the cliche "They don't make them like they used to," but, keeping in the spirit of Patton (1970), in which General George S. Patton is depicted as an anachronism in his own time, Franklin J. Schaffner's epic look at Patton's turbulent final years also feels out-of-time at the dawn of "New Hollywood"-era filmmaking. Five decades later, the differences are even starker, both between the grand stature of the film compared to the gimmickry of more recent historical war movies (like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and 1917 (2019)), and between the stature of Patton the man and current notions about war, leadership, victimhood, and the personal flaws of bold men.

In the spirit of Patton's mercurial march across the European theater of World War II, I will fearlessly march through my thoughts as they occurred to me while re-watching a film I last saw maybe in the early 1990s.

  • The contents of this famous, iconic opening speech are nearly a foreign language now. Surely, in 1970, at least one of Patton's two Oscar-winning screenwriters (WWII vet Edmund H. North and whippersnapper Francis Ford Coppola) was aware of the irony of highlighting Patton's gung-ho spirit — "...Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans..." — while the Viet Nam War was changing the way Americans thought about its military adventures. Now Patton's attitude, which was controversial in the 1940s, would exile him from a public life that celebrates victimhood.
  • This movie is big and bold and grapples with the complexities of history, war, and the flaws and contradictions of its title character. The lovely thing about this screenplay is that it is unafraid to observe the multitudes of Patton, without obligatory criticism. What in earlier war movies might have been straight adulation for Patton's military verve, and later outright cynicism is handled here with a mournful affection, resigned to the troubling and inspirational contradictions and quirks of a large figure. Even though Patton himself cultivated a sort of cartoonish mythology of himself to his soldiers and the media, aware of the effect of his big persona, the movie never falls for the easiest interpretation of it.
  • Patton was obsessed with the military pomp, any military from any culture and era, including his enemies. He loved "the soldier" as an abstract symbol, as a set dressing, and as a human overachiever making the ultimate sacrifice.
  • Scott is a terrific actor and this is his most-grand showcase, exuding inspiration, authority, and humanity.
  • Patton is consciously writing himself into the literary, poetic history of war.
  • Beautifully and emotionally shot by Fred J. Koenekamp. Schaffner, Scott, and Koenekamp re-teamed in 1976 for the now-forgotten Hemingway biopic Islands in the Stream. That I must seek out.
  • Perfect: "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!" I don't know enough about Patton to have any idea which part of this story are actual fact, apocryphal embellishment, or pure Hollywood invention, but this movie is full of gold-standard myth-of-the-man stuff that is absolutely delicious.
  • In Scott's Patton we see a heartbreaking duality that both craves the glory of battle and grieves every battlefield casualty. They are inseparable qualities. As he says later: "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so."
  • Patton is not a myopic genius: he understands the political component of military strategy, and he plots his advances on that battlefield with some shrewdness, but he's not as proficient, and this will be his downfall.
  • Interesting idea that Germany is obsessed with Patton, and yet their failure to appreciate his romantic military historicism renders them vulnerable to his tactics.
  • Valid question about warfare: Is Patton crazy, and is crazy necessary! This is a provocative notion in today's atmosphere of second-guessing mercurial and badly behaving overachievers. If some victories can only be won by the biggest asshole, are they not worth winning, or should there be room for assholes?
  • "This is what happens when your commander stops being an American and starts being an 'ally...'" is a provocative appraisal of the necessary hierarchy of political compromise over achievement.
  • Patton is a dutiful soldier who gracefully works within the limitations of his orders, even when he disagrees with them. It's part of his assumed identity as an honorable soldier.
  • Patton has no time for mental fragility. Like many innate geniuses, he struggles to comprehend those who do not share his instincts. He's tough with underlings, adores those who live up to his standards, and can't countenance those who fall short. The media compares him to the Nazis. He’s forced to grovel to non-military political and social forces who despise him.
  • Brilliant strategy to use a sidelined Patton as a diversion, manipulating the German obsession with his movements, but it humiliates him. The overriding theme seems to be that anachronistically large romantic figures like Patton are up against a world that both needs them and resents them. He is being minimized in correlation to his success.
  • Some of the fight choreography is a little too neat and staged. But it's also inspiring to see this kind of large-scale cinematic effort with all practical elements.
  • War demands leaders who will eliminate obstacles and push forward without second-guessing every detail or everyone’s feelings, but a livable society demands the opposite.
  • A smart joke at the end referencing Patton’s real accidental death as beneath the stature of such an important and big personality.
  • Why a mountain and windmill at the end? This imagery is lost on me. It seems out of place, but maybe it fits in with the mournful idea at the end that the soldier has been removed from the victory, which makes hollow the noble gains of war and undermines the glorious efforts of the lost men who made it possible.
  • This was extremely satisfying to revisit. A near-masterpiece. It's interesting how different in tone Patton is from Schaffner's Papillion (1973), which I rewatched recently and found maudlin and overwrought in just about every way. Patton (1970) is one of the peak examples of the marriage between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood, taking the best from both eras.
Silver Screen Streak List #20: 03. Patton (1970)



So far, the Silver Screen Streak movie challenge has involved 67 movies. I watched the very first entry, Russian Ark (2002), two years ago, and it has remained the highest ranking in the entire challenge, with a spot on my Flickchart at 84.34%... until now. Patton (1970) is the new top dog, shooting into the rarefied top 10% of my Flickchart, with a rank of #414 (92.25%). This makes it the first movie to earn THREE FREE PASSES for surpassing 90%. This means that with only three movies down, Elisabeth Miller's list 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has already earned FOUR FREE PASSES total. Up next is another long-overdue re-watch, the influential film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955) from director Robert Aldrich.

The Top 10 Silver Screen Streak movies, after two years:

  1. Patton (1970) — 92.25%
  2. Russian Ark (2002) — 84.34%
  3. The Heiress (1949) — 81.51%
  4. The Fallen Idol (1948) — 76.89%
  5. The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) — 76.67%
  6. Queen Margot (1994) — 76.20%
  7. Black Orpheus (1959) — 76.17%
  8. Amour (2012) — 74.62%
  9. Late Autumn (1960) — 74.02%
  10. The Turin Horse (2011) — 73.48%