Thursday, April 02, 2015

Telling the Story of General Patton

"I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."

Gen. George Patton (George C. Scott)

There are some movies I will watch whenever they are shown on TV.

"Patton," which premiered on this day in 1970, is such a movie.

The first six minutes are iconic — George Patton addressing an audience of American soldiers. They are not seen, but I have heard that the scene was based on a real–life speech that Patton gave to an audience of soldiers during World War II. The first time I saw the movie, I assumed he was addressing cadets at West Point. Either explanation is plausible, I suppose.

As I say, it is an iconic scene. It established the movie as a classic right from the start. It also established the fact that George Patton always did things his way — and sometimes his way was, well, bizarre.

He wouldn't tolerate "yellow bellies." They were cowards, in his eyes, looking for a "free ride" in the guise of battle fatigue, and he wouldn't permit them to share the same hospital space with soldiers who had been wounded in battle.

A Christian, he believed in reincarnation. Early in the movie, he took his staff to the scene of an ancient battle — and insisted, in a conversation with Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), that he had been there.

He wrote poetry and designed uniforms for tank crews.

When enemy planes attacked the place where he was engaged in a meeting with his staff, he ran outside and tried to shoot them down with his ivory–handled revolver. Folks in the press of the day wanted to call it a pearl–handled revolver, but he corrected them on that. "Only a pimp from a cheap New Orleans whorehouse would carry a pearl–handled revolver."

"'Patton' is not a war film so much as the story of a personality who has found the right role to play," wrote film critic Roger Ebert. "Scott's theatricality is electrifying."

I would agree with that. Scott was electrifying, and it was the story of a personality who "found the right role to play." But it is a role that is no longer available.

The last time I watched "Patton," I found myself musing about whether it would be possible for another Patton to come along — and I concluded that it probably would not be. He's like the old–style football coaches — Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, Vince Lombardi — who were said to be molders of men. The times left them behind, and if a football coach rode any of his players today the way those coaches were known to ride theirs back in the day, that football coach would be out of a job and probably blacklisted.

There is something to be said for hard work and how it shapes character, and perhaps that is why drill sergeants did continue to get away with that kind of thing long after football coaches had to change their ways. But they can't get away with it to a great extent anymore without being accused of abusing their positions of power as well as the boys over whom they have that authority.

And generals, of course, probably can't get away with it at all. Certainly, Patton couldn't get away with slapping a victim of battle fatigue. He couldn't even get away with it then.

There is a point in the movie where the empathetic, human side of Patton could be clearly seen — when one of the American soldiers was killed in battle, and the audience saw Patton standing next to the caisson that would carry the body to a field for burial, and Patton's voice could be heard reading the letter he had written about the soldier's death. It reminded me of the grave marker that Tommy Lee Jones carved for Danny Glover in "Lonesome Dove."

"Splendid behavior," he wrote.

In "Patton," the general wrote in the letter that the soldier "was a fine man and a fine officer, and he had no vices."

"Scott's performance is not one level but portrays a many–layered man who desires to appear one level," Ebert wrote. "Instead of adding tiresome behavioral touches, he allows us small glimpses of what may be going on inside."

Or perhaps German Capt. Steiger summed it up better when, by way of explaining Patton's battlefield strategy, he told Gen. Jodl, "Patton is a 16th–century man. ... Patton is a romantic warrior lost in contemporary times."

Such thinking may have been why the Germans tended to underestimate Patton. Perhaps he was right for the time — and Scott was right for the role — but I wonder if either would be possible today.