It is better to leave this world with a bang than with a whimper. That is the ideology and inherent truth General George Patton holds onto throughout 1970’s “Patton.” It is through George C. Scott’s portrayal of the larger than life Patton that we get to see the last of the conquering heroes, the last man to be as celebrated as he was reviled as a wartime general. This is “Patton.”
General Patton was made to be a star, and he relishes that fact. Patton is an abrasive man with a gregarious public speaking persona that simultaneously prepares his troops for battle and makes them wonder how full of crap their leader truly is.
Patton was a decorated combat soldier who lived by the same “get action” mantra of President Theodore Roosevelt and loved the opportunity to charge into the unknown for the prospect of gaining glory. While this attitude endeared Patton to writers and regular Joe Americans across the country, it also lent itself to increased scrutiny from the peanut gallery.
For the 1970 film “Patton,” this wildcard of a man is all on display.
From his pearl-handled revolver to the visions of his former lives as soldiers and leaders in many conflicts through history, Patton never saw himself as anything less than a consummate warrior commander with a track record of only excellence and victory. But remove Patton from his own self-created mystique, and we see a fragile man who is afraid of irrelevance and petrified of a death he deems ignoble.
Many things Patton does through the film are both genius and outlandish. The displays of these juxtaposed feats begin with Patton’s chess match against Erwin Rommel in the deserts of Africa and continue with his contests with General Montgomery from England in their offensives against the Axis forces. These are utterly farcical and misplaced considering the two are both Allies fighting the same cause in the biggest war in the history of humanity.
These moments of over-extension and subsequent exasperation illustrate to us that Patton is an excellent field commander that can outmaneuver anyone deemed an enemy. However, when given the opportunity to look at map and plot the course for his and his men’s future, Patton seems to look too far ahead—losing perspective of the mission at hand and being far too willing to play with the lives of his soldiers as though they are pawns in his quest for glory and victory. All the while his much cooler headed contemporary, General Omar Bradley, maintains a grounded and realistic approach to military leadership.
While at first it appears Patton’s artistic and unconventional approaches to life and military will propel him to five stars on each shoulder, it ultimately leads to his repeated punishment by superiors and removal from commanding positions. But like the comeback we love in every American story, Patton always gains a new post and propels whatever men he has to victory. Every time, after doing this, Patton shoots himself in the foot. Slapping soldiers, frustrating commanders with his brazen approach to conversation with media and fellow military leaders, Patton gains notoriety just as quickly as he loses power and any real steam.
Through all of the tumultuous events Patton subjects his subordinates to, and through all of the odd tangents and tirades we the audience see, Patton does not receive the glory he does so desire. His own personal war is not won when the Allies gain victory over the Axis in the European Theatre. At that point for Patton, he has won without being the leader of the offensive as a whole, which in his mind makes him less than all those great leaders that came before him.
“Patton” concludes with a line from its much-maligned star character. While walking his dog, the General ends his own story, somberly reflecting upon his career and his last major conflict as a leader, saying, “all glory is fleeting.” Leaving us all to see for the first time Patton for what he is, a regular man with the same fears of complacency we all have — we just couldn’t see that until the end because of the mythology surrounding the man.
Grant Mitchell is a junior majoring in public relations. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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