Saturday, September 20, 2003

Patton (1970)

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.

Mermaids, 1990

Neither Fish nor Fowl

by Nicholas Stix

A gentle chick flick with a token male, Mermaids nominally stars Cher, but is really a dramatic coming out party for Winona Ryder. I’d forgotten how winsome (no pun intended) Hollywood’s most notorious shoplifter could be.

Mermaids is about a wandering “family” of mom “Rachel Flax” (Cher), and her daughters “Charlotte” (a teenaged Ryder) and “Kate” (a very young Christina Ricci). Following another of countless relationships gone bad, Rachel has moved the girls yet again, to a small town in New England, in the early 1960s. We are supposed to find the family endearingly eccentric, and though this shtick is forced, it works with Ryder’s Charlotte, and early in the picture, with Cher’s Rachel. Mermaids was made in 1990, when the “eccentric”/”fish out water” fad was heating up, beginning with TV's Twin Peaks (and then Northern Exposure), etc., except that instead of a town full of eccentrics, here we get eccentrics in a staid town.

Mom is supposedly a slut, but the locals do not make the family suffer for her “loose” behavior; indeed, the town’s character is not fleshed out.

As noted, Cher, who was then living off of her best actress Oscar for 1987’s Moonstruck, gets top billing, but she basically bulls through her scenes on star power, and as the picture progresses, is on screen less and less. Her Rachel Flax neglects her daughters, who get into trouble in her absence. You might say that she neglects the viewer, too. How can a “star” be absent from the screen as much as she is? It’s as if the director, Richard Benjamin, had a change of heart halfway through filming, and decided to shift the focus of the story. Or perhaps Benjamin, the third director – the others were Lasse Hallstrom and Frank Oz -- on a troubled production, was caught between two semi-rewritten, June Roberts scripts. (Some reports blamed Cher for the contretemps.)

Whatever dramatic interest the movie generates is through Ryder, who herself replaced Emily Lloyd, who reportedly walked off with director #1, Lasse Hallstrom. To the degree that Mermaids functions as a movie, it is as the coming-of-age story of this demure yet blossoming Jewish teenager who wants to become a nun, and who when she gets her first kiss, thinks she is pregnant, bound for a virgin birth. And yet, such cutesy naivete doesn’t fit the daughter of a mother who’s been around the block as many times as Rachel Flax has.

Bob Hoskins’ character, “Lou Landsky,” pops up early in the picture, has an affair with Cher’s Rachel, and apparently employs Charlotte (for one brief scene, at least) in his odd, mixed-use store. While the affair continues for the rest of the picture, Hoskins’ character is dribbled away. I guess the production team decided, “That’s enough for the guy; this is a chick flick, not The Terminator.” But Mermaids sank at the box office.

Mermaids has been identified as a coming-of-age story, but that is merely one of the many tossed-off themes in June Roberts’ underdeveloped script.

While entertaining, Mermaids is a movie with only one fully fleshed-out character and some nice scenes, but something less than a story.

I Know What You Did Last Summer 1997

Where Do I Go to Get My Two Hours Back?
by Nicholas Stix

Writer Kevin Williamson is undeniably a talented fellow. I was a devoted fan of Dawson's Creek for its first two+ seasons (i.e., until Williamson started farming out the writing), and I enjoyed Scream 2. But there is a dark side to Williamson, and I don't mean slasher stories. It's a greed that has him create a quality work, and then maximize his salability by signing seemingly countless contracts for other projects, quality be damned. This movie, which was clearly written with Williamson thinking more about a sequel deal than the original, is a prime example of such greed and its consequences.

In I Know ..., four friends seem to have accidentally killed a young stranger. Only he's still alive. So, they kill him for real. Except that he's not young, nor is he dead.

Each member of the group starts getting anonymous notes saying, "I know what you did last summer," and is terrorized by a faceless individual in a fisherman's slicker with a huge fish hook, who ultimately begins killing them off, one by one. They determine that they are being punished for the killing the previous summer. Except that they didn't kill who they think they killed. And then it turns out that the man they "killed," was already dead.

So, why would an already dead fisherman go get himself killed, and then exact vengeance for a non-existent crime? And why would he also kill people who had nothing to do with the original, non-existent crime? But trying to answer such questions will just give you migraines. The real crime is the way Williamson and director Jim Gillespie insult the viewer's intelligence.

Although I Know ... is only 100 minutes long, I saw it on TV, which is why it cost me two hours of my life. I am writing this review, to save others from suffering the same fate.

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