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Movie Review: Patton

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North based on the books by Ladislas Farago (Patton: Ordeal and Triumph) and Omar N. Bradley (A Soldier’s Story)
Fox, 1970

The movie Patton has been a victim of its main highlight: General George S. Patton (Best Actor George C. Scott) in front of a huge American flag giving a big speech to who we assume to be a big army.  In that speech, several famous lines are uttered, and thus it becomes the one thing you ever see about the movie whenever some sort of retrospective shows up on TV.  And it’s the first scene.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner had just come off a huge hit in Planet of the Apes, and took on the story of a World War II general who was a brilliant tactician, loaded with historical facts and figures, but was exceedingly unpopular with many men and his superiors.  The Academy also said hello to Francis Ford Coppola, who would make the seventies his awards playground, beginning with his win for co-writing the screenplay here, although he wasn’t present at the ceremony.

In this film, we see Patton taking over a badly-disciplined unit in North Africa, at the behest of General Omar N. Bradley (Karl Malden).  Patton quickly shows he means business, and he whips them into shape in time to start really making waves against the German Field Marshal Edwin Rommel (Karl Vogler).  However, Patton is rivaled by British Field Marshal Montgomery (Michael Bates), and they clash a bit in the effort to conquer the region first.  Patton’s risks and his naivite with the media, saying things “off the record” in front of a bunch of reporters, becomes his undoing.

When it’s time for the Allies to make their own attack, Patton is lucky to run the Third Army, something with little chance of glory.  But a man like him just won’t be denied, as he makes the largest advances during the war.

George C. Scott is tremendous as Patton, as you would expect.  And this wouldn’t mean much if Patton himself wasn’t a character, which he is.  Going by the rule that if a movie’s title is a character name, then it’s more of a character study than a plot-driven movie, fits here.  It’s no wonder these days you don’t see any other scenes of the movie than that first one, because the war scenes don’t really occupy the film’s time.  You see many battles in retrospect.  So this isn’t one of those ambitious tries to be “The Greatest War Movie of All Time.”

Patton is certainly deserving of its Best Picture win, although you’re likely to find many who feel Robert Altman’s MASH is the one that held up the best over the years, and as an anti-war film it serves as Patton’s polar opposite.  MASH was the kind of movie that would define the decade, while Patton was sort of stuck in another era.  This was at the height of discontent for Vietnam.  But MASH probably rubbed most voters the wrong way, while Patton had all the qualities of Best Picture winners before.

Other nominees include the airplane thriller Airport, Arthur Hiller’s Love Story, and Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, another prime seventies example.  Patton isn’t required viewing anymore, but it’s easy to see why it won the prize. 

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