Saturday, September 20, 2003
Patton's Secret is the Past
by Nicholas Stix
"Das Geheimnis Pattons ist die Vergangenheit," says a captain in the German high command. "Patton's secret is the past." The secret of the man and the movie.
The moment Patton opens, you know this will be like no other war movie. General George S. Patton Jr. (1885-1945) stands before the biggest American flag I have ever seen, wearing a highly buffed, black helmet and a uniform suggesting the 18th or 19th century, weighed down with medals domestic and foreign, bearing not one but two ivory-handled revolvers, and holding a riding crop. As a bugler plays reveille, the camera focuses on each feature in turn. And then Scott lets loose with the now famous monologue, which was actually the last thing the filmmakers came up with.
"Now 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...!"
Atten ... tion!
Consider the time. It was 1970; America was mired in a highly unpopular war in Vietnam, the draft had just been ended, and America was preparing to pull out its fighting men from the first military defeat in its history. And here was this spirit from the past, saying that "Americans love to fight," and "will not tolerate a loser"!
Early in Patton, we hear the sound of distant trumpets, as in 1943, the general surveys the ancient battlefield where Carthage (modern name, Tunis, in Tunisia) was burnt to the ground by the Romans in 146 B.C.
Patton is standing near the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, where over 1,000 American G.I.s were butchered in their first encounter with the German Wehrmacht, in the form of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. "I was there," he tells his assistant. In 146 B.C.
Is he mad or is he teasing? The answer is, a little of both.
He quotes part of a lush, romantic poem of the eternal warrior -- he is the poet. An American poet-general? Clearly, we are dealing with a man singular in the annals of 20th century American warfare. "I hate the 20th century," the old "cavalry horse officer" remarks.
Through a Glass, Darkly
George S. Patton, Jr.
Through the travail of the ages,
Midst the pomp and toil of war,
Have I fought and strove and perished
Countless times upon this star.
In the form of many people
In all panoplies of time
Have I seen the luring vision
Of the Victory Maid, sublime.
I have battled for fresh mammoth,
I have warred for pastures new,
I have listed to the whispers
When the race trek instinct grew.
I have known the call to battle
In each changeless changing shape
From the high souled voice of conscience
To the beastly lust for rape.
I have sinned and I have suffered,
Played the hero and the knave;
Fought for belly, shame, or country,
And for each have found a grave.
I cannot name my battles
For the visions are not clear,
Yet, I see the twisted faces
And I feel the rending spear.
Perhaps I stabbed our Savior
In His sacred helpless side.
Yet, I've called His name in blessing
When after times I died.
In the dimness of the shadows
Where we hairy heathens warred,
I can taste in thought the lifeblood;
We used teeth before the sword.
While in later clearer vision
I can sense the coppery sweat,
Feel the pikes grow wet and slippery
When our Phalanx, Cyrus met.
Hear the rattle of the harness
Where the Persian darts bounced clear,
See their chariots wheel in panic
From the Hoplite's leveled spear.
See the goal grow monthly longer,
Reaching for the walls of Tyre.
Hear the crash of tons of granite,
Smell the quenchless eastern fire.
Still more clearly as a Roman,
Can I see the Legion close,
As our third rank moved in forward
And the short sword found our foes.
Once again I feel the anguish
Of that blistering treeless plain
When the Parthian showered death bolts,
And our discipline was in vain.
I remember all the suffering
Of those arrows in my neck.
Yet, I stabbed a grinning savage
As I died upon my back.
Once again I smell the heat sparks
When my Flemish plate gave way
And the lance ripped through my entrails
As on Crecy's field I lay.
In the windless, blinding stillness
Of the glittering tropic sea
I can see the bubbles rising
Where we set the captives free.
Midst the spume of half a tempest
I have heard the bulwarks go
When the crashing, point blank round shot
Sent destruction to our foe.
I have fought with gun and cutlass
On the red and slippery deck
With all Hell aflame within me
And a rope around my neck.
And still later as a General
Have I galloped with Murat
When we laughed at death and numbers
Trusting in the Emperor's Star.
Till at last our star faded,
And we shouted to our doom
Where the sunken road of Ohein
Closed us in its quivering gloom.
So but now with tanks a'clatter
Have I waddled on the foe
Belching death at twenty paces,
By the star shell's ghastly glow.
So as through a glass, and darkly
The age long strife I see
Where I fought in many guises,
Many names, but always me.
And I see not in my blindness
What the objects were I wrought,
But as God rules o'er our bickerings
It was through His will I fought.
So forever in the future,
Shall I battle as of yore,
Dying to be born a fighter,
But to die again, once more.
(Note the similarities in Mick Jagger's lyrics to "Sympathy for the Devil." In the movie, Scott quotes only the poem's highlights.)
Patton refers to himself as a prima donna, but as director Franklin Schaffner, scenarists Francis Ford Coppola (yes, before he became Hollywood's greatest active director, he was its greatest active screenwriter!) and Edmund H. North, and star George C. Scott portray him, megalomaniac is more like it. Before going in to battle, as he stands before his mirror, his Negro soldier-valet carefully placing his begoggled helmet on his head, he more closely resembles a Roman general (or Il Duce) than a modern officer. And in a notorious, true incident, upon encountering a shell-shocked soldier, he slaps the man silly, threatens to shoot him, and is almost cashiered by Ike. But he was our greatest 20th century field commander.
(The valet is played by a trim, youthful-looking, fifty-year-old Jimmy Edwards. Unfortunately, Edwards (Home of the Brave, Bright Victory, The Member of the Wedding, The Manchurian Candidate), whose career was limited by racism, died of a massive heart attack before the film's release. Edwards went through hell, paving the way so that the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington could become screen icons, while he was forgotten.)
The making of Patton clearly influenced Coppola, when the latter made Apocalypse Now. At one point on a battlefield, Patton smells the smoke of spent gunpowder and says, "I love it, God help me, I do love it. I love it more than my life." This scene clearly anticipates the scene in Apocalypse Now, where Robert Duvall's Lt. Col. Kilgore famously says, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like ... victory."
In Patton's brutality, his talk of never giving up an inch of land (Hitler said the very same thing.), in his contempt for civilian authority, in his joy at killing, he comes across as a fascist or Nazi, which is how he was depicted at the time. Amazingly, the movie is able to glorify this man, while maintaining a posture of cold sentimentality towards him. Schaffner loves Patton, but without illusions. Patton wasn't "larger than life" - no one is - he WAS life, or at least the martial, intellectual, and aesthetic lives, in all their fullness.
General George S. Patton Jr. had a sense of destiny; his purpose in life was to do great things on the field of battle. And as he observes, only once in a thousand years, do the heavens so align that a soldier has such an opportunity to change history.
Fortunately, in the movie as in life, Patton had humble, ordinary Joe -- at least as Bradley tells it -- Gen. Omar Bradley (the last five-star, General of the Army, in the history of the U.S. Army) as a counterweight. Bradley is played by Karl Malden with a restraint and self-effacing humor that perfectly contrast Patton/Scott's bravado.
Jerry Goldsmith's score has just the right blend of the elegiac (distant trumpets) and the pompous yet playful (fanfare of horns and flutes), corresponding to the tempers of Patton's personality.
While almost three hours long, Patton does not flag, and could easily have been longer. Some of its early battle scenes, while competently choreographed, seem to have been filmed with an insufficient complement of armor and extras. And in one early scene, the line of Scott's makeup, giving him Patton's receding hairline, shows.
The DVD has a lovely documentary on the making of Patton, as well as Jerry Goldsmith's rousing score. However, I do not believe the claim of the movie's late director, Franklin Schaffner, that he did not make Patton in response to the anti-war movement. Producer Frank McCarthy was a retired general, and many generals felt that the media lost Vietnam for us. And the media is depicted in despicable terms -- if Patton wanted to be sure something leaked out, all he had to do was say it was "off the record" -- and one reporter is shown personally insulting him.
Patton: "For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph -- a tumultuous parade.... A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."
Just as Patton could not savor his success, so too George C. Scott, the rare actor who could carry a film on his shoulders, was unable to build on his success as Patton. After a series of brilliant performances culminated in his well-deserved Oscar for Patton, Scott, a violent drunk, went downhill until his death in 1999. He still got steady work, but the work was largely undistinguished. But for one moment, he tasted of that perfection that comes when the stars align, and a great role is delivered into the hands of just the right actor at just the right moment in his career. It was George C. Scott's destiny to play Patton.