The Pure Warrior
Like other discs I've viewed in recent months I put it in to see what high definition had to offer this film and couldn't bring myself to hit the stop button. 172 minutes later, the credits are rolling and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge that Patton is the best war movie of all time. For the longest time, I felt that Saving Private Ryan was the quintessential war movie. It was so gritty and seemed to really take you into the soldier's story. By comparison Patton is not in-your-face gritty and is certainly more sanitary given the time it was made, but in several ways it does hit home and uses clear, brutal words to nail down its points. In the paragraphs to come I'd like to explore what I find so intriguing about this movie.
You can't talk about the movie without talking about the man. He was surly and stern and loved the act of war. He believed firmly in its application to resolve global conflict. This is not a man you can easily like. Francis Ford Coppola masterfully took this man whom many considered a monster and humanized him. He did it in different ways, but I think the main point of Patton is that he was a man of passion. He was principled and had a drive to do what he loved. We tell ourselves and our kids: Do what you love. Do what makes you happy. Early in the movie Patton looks at himself in the mirror and says: "All my life I've wanted to lead a group of men in a desperate battle. I'm going to do it."
Later on, Patton surveys a battlefield. Tanks and vehicles are still smoldering in the distance. He has a very reverent look about him. He says, "I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life." This admission could galvanize a viewer, but moments before Patton walks up to the soldier leading the battle. The soldier sits by his tank staring at the ground, a broken man. He tells Patton in a shell-shocked voice that the fighting went all night and finished in hand-to-hand combat. Patton leans over and kisses him on the top of the head in probably the tenderest moment of the movie. Coppola uses these incongruous moments to really show a complex man.
In the famous soldier slapping scene, again we see Patton's deep reverence for those soldiers who have paid the price juxtaposed for his intolerance to what he perceived to be cowardice. We might not agree with his actions, but in the course of a few moments, we can certainly understand them.
The other component of Patton's character was his spirituality. He believed he was a warrior reincarnated throughout history to do battle. This higher purpose combined with his straight-shooting mentality combines to portray someone who isn't some power hungry leader exploiting the lives of men to his own ends. While he certainly wanted glory, we got the sense that he wanted to be on the side of righteousness, that he wanted to change the world, to lead an army into history. That he did. The key scene depicting Patton's belief in reincarnation shows him surveying an ancient battlefield and reciting his poetry. It has no direct impact on the plot. If you remove it, the movie is intact, but as far as I'm concerned it's a critical scene as it gets you a little closer to the man.
Patton the man is obviously the key component of the movie, but it's the addition of other elements that really elevate this film to greatness. While Patton is not a very graphic film, it shocks with words. "We're not going to just shoot the bastards. We're going to tear out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We're going to murder those lousy hun bastards by the bushel." While much of that is the hyperbole you'd expect to find in a speach, the use of "murder" intrigues me. It's the first of some very clear and naked words to describe what war is. At another point in the movie Patton says: "Give me the supplies and I'll kill Germans." At a rally in England he professes to a crowd of women that he is eager to get to the Pacific so he can kill Japanese. The audience applauds, smiles all around. When Patton talks to a wounded soldier he remarks that the last German he saw didn't have any chest or head. The soldier smiles. These examples illustrate in the most matter of fact way the reality of war. It's not that we are waging war and a side effect of that is loss of life. It is that we are waging war and we aim to kill people. And it is interesting to note that there is no racism involved in the above scenes, just some sort of stark "if it's us or them, I vote them" admonition.
The last facet of Patton I'd like to talk about is the imagery that rippled throughout the film that stemmed from one line. Patton says: "Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink into insignificance." The first scene is the aftermath of a battle. The Arabs are stripping the dead for clothing. The Americans come and scare them away. Then they shoot some vultures who were feeding on the dead. There is a malnourished dog tied to a tank, barking it's head off. The soldiers survey the area and leave. The dog remains tied up and is barking as they leave. Helping the dog isn't even a thought. In town, some German planes begin strafing the ground troops. Tanks are mobilized. There is a beautiful fountain in the town square. The tank runs it over without a second thought. It was simply in the way. Stubborn mules attached to a cart block a bridge and stall a convoy causing a lot of destruction as it is strafed by German planes. When Patton finds out what the hold up is, he's furious. Without hesitation he pulls out his pistol and executes the mules. The owner of the mules stares in disbelief as the animals are discarded over the bridge. Later in the film, tanks advance over the German countryside destroying a nice stonewalled fence. Again, no hesitation. If there is an obstacle, you go through it and don't waste time going around it.
Finally, there is no mentioning Patton without mentioning its masterful and iconic score. The echoing and fading trumpets capture Patton's historical context and also a hint of his believe in reincarnation. Just perfect. All these things combine to make Patton an intriguing and fascinating film.