At the beginning of this movie, General George S. Patton (played by George C. Scott) stands in front of a large American flag delivering a rousing pep talk to his troops. His brash, sometimes graphic, exhortation to show no mercy to the enemy is liberally laced with profanities. This address (containing quotes from speeches Patton really delivered) acts as an introduction to the man whose life is about to be examined for the next three hours. This indelible first impression also helps to color the filmmakers’ carefully constructed portrait of the controversial World War II leader.
Privy to this personality preview, the audience will not be surprised when Patton is chosen to go to North Africa to shape-up the soldiers after the Americans suffers a crushing (and embarrassing) defeat during a German attack. Under his no-guff grasp, and thanks to his insatiable reading about military history and stratagem, his army is successful at pushing back the German forces.
However, having his praises sung far and wide only adds fuel to Patton’s already burning ambitions to be one of the greatest military leaders of this war. (A believer in reincarnation, he is convinced he has had a champion role in all the great battles of mankind.) Consequentially his pride is wounded when he is asked to play second fiddle to the leader of the British Army, General Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates) during the invasion of Sicily. Ignoring orders, Patton’s ego has him pushing his soldiers to outperform the English, regardless of what that may cost in human lives.
That carnage is depicted with large-scale attacks, air raids, tank shelling and gunfire exchanges. Left in the wake of what Patton seems to relish as a game are the wounded and dead, whose bodies are strewn across the battleground sporting various bloody injuries and the occasional dismemberment. The losses don’t seem to bother the General. Instead his drive to conquer appears to mount as quickly as the piles of corpses.
While his arrogant manner and risk-taking behavior offends the top brass and fellow officer Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), Patton doesn’t find himself in the doghouse until he slaps and berates an emotionally suffering serviceman (Tim Considine) he meets in a military hospital. When the media reports this callous treatment, Patton is leashed and muzzled by White House officials.
Calling on a higher Christian power to ensure he doesn’t lose what he deems to be his divine destiny, a superficially repentant Patton tries to get another commission. Despite continuous verbal blunders (where his true feelings escape his lips) the country’s desperation for a man of his fearlessness and determination eventually allows the paroled General to have another chance to leave his mark on history.
Ironically, the making of this epic film did the same thing. While other important military figures may find their legacies languishing in dusty tomes, the success of the movie (recipient of seven Academy Awards) has given Patton’s story an immortality he could only have dreamed of.
Releasing in 1970, against a political backdrop of anti-war sentiment due to the Vietnam War, likely contributed to the lack of sympathy audiences felt toward the loud-mouthed, opinionated and self-important title character. Still, whether he is remembered as a war hero or warmonger, this carefully crafted production with sweeping vistas and impressive battle scenes is sure to be lauded for its cinematic achievements for a long time yet to come.