Today, is, of course, the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry into what was not then known as WWI. I don’t, oddly, have a lot to say about it. I think that commemoration of the First World War in Britain is a thorny subject and an area in which I feel very much like an outsider. I do think it’s interesting that people are so invested in something that happened a century ago — more emotionally invested, perhaps, than in the Second World War, or at least emotionally invested in more difficult ways.
But like I said, I don’t feel like I have a lot to say about that, so instead I’m gonna talk about Patton, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North, and starring George C. Scott and Karl Malden.
I’m not going to go into the story of the film — it’s the career of Patton in WWII, from North Africa to the end of the war in Europe. It’s correct in broad strokes, though it has some niggling details that did bug me. For instance, Patton says his famous line about personally shooting that paper-hanging son of a bitch while driving implacably into the heart of occupied France here, whereas in reality I believe he said it at a press conference. In the film, Patton loses his temper once and slaps a soldier who has battle fatigue, for which he is cast into outer darkness; in reality, it happened at least twice.
It’s interesting that the battle fatigue issue comes up in this film; it was a real problem for the US and British armies, who generally had pretty humane responses to the kind of nervous breakdowns that would get you stood up against a wall and shot, or at best just ignored until you got killed, in the Wehrmacht or the Red Army. Although this kind of approach probably saved a lot of lives, viewing the strain of combat as a medical rather than a moral issue was far from universal at the time.
But that’s actually not quite the thing that bugged me about the film. I think the film does show Patton as a series of contradictions — a man who loved the limelight but didn’t know how to handle it, who was foul-mouthed and gruff but educated and cultured. In short, as someone who was putting on a show in almost everything he did, whether spouting poetry at his aides or charming British generals with a lavish dinner or chewing cigars and cussing out malingerers.
But what interests me is that, as far as I can tell, that’s not what people remember about the movie. What people remember is all the gruff tough-guy one-liners. Which is what Patton wanted people to remember, but not, I think, what Patton wants people to remember, if you see what I mean. Even when the film is about the showman, the show is just so powerful that it persists.
I am pleased to learn that the reality of Patton’s charisma was as shifty and unknowable as history tends to be. Check out this comparison between Scott’s opening speech and actual footage of a speech given by Patton:
There are a lot of pieces of conventional wisdom among wargamers and other WWII buffs, and one of them is, of course, that when someone is all talking about how great Patton was, you sort of sniff and say “Bradley.” I wonder how much that owes to Karl Malden in this film, playing the sane, humane counterpoint to the Romantic warrior? It may also be that Bradley’s book was one of the sources for the film, and very popular at the time.
Anyway, it’s a great film, combining all the splosions and casts of thousands that I usually enjoy in a historical epic with a more interesting and conflicted look at the character. It’s hard to imagine it being made today, somehow.
Next week I will try to have the film be terrible like usual.