"The very idea of losing is hateful to Americans."
- Patton (1970)
Now that Kathryn Bigelow has made it safe for us to recklessly court macho annihilation again, let's examine one of the more respected and controversial military leaders of our time-- General George Patton, and the 1970 film that bears his name, starring George C. Scott, which I recently had the pleasure of acquiring on an excellent blu-ray disc, and which is highly recommended to fans of THE HURT LOCKER (2009), THE DEER HUNTER (1977) and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and anyone whose ever had a heart, who wouldn't turn around and expose its flank to daily howitzer bombardments... or who is interested in this new Tom Hanks-produced mini-series, THE PACIFIC (though Patton wasn't in the Pacific, it's still the same God-damned wonderful war!)
From the famous opening (quoted above) -- Patton's clinically insane and perhaps wrong but nonetheless inspiring opening speech in front of a giant American flag -- onwards, we know we're in for some heavy stuff, as Scott has no plans to pull punches, glorify the American dream or lament the unfairness of war. Indeed, as the esteemed general of the magnificent Third Army, Scott's ranting makes you realize, as a man, that part of cowardice involves forgetting there's no real reward to being alive in the first place, as a coward. Unless you risk it all, it's all wasted.
It makes sense that Francis Ford Coppola worked on the script, since the man knows a thing or too about the seductive lure of megalomania and the high of facing death on a daily basis. Coppola was kicked off the PATTON production but later found fictional editions of that kind of military mindset in characters like Kilgore, Willard and Kurtz in APOCALYPSE NOW, and brilliantly captured the way an ordinary man might find himself manifesting the cold reptilian killer via Michael Corleone's transformation from idealistic young lover of Diane Keaton to cold-as-ice Don in THE GODFATHER. And of course, there's the inspired use of Sicily, a deeply-rooted trans-historical lyricism seems to emanate from the very soil of that island, and Coppola knew it and let it infuse GODFATHER 2.
In order to rouse his newly assigned group of men from their first defeat in North Africa (he's replacing an ineffectual general who let the boys get slaughtered), Patton initially presents himself as a maniac for discipline and army regulation, making his men fear and hate him, but the hate makes them better soldiers, and when they finally measure up, his admiration becomes enough of a reward that they're ready to die for him. As Cesar "The Dog Whisperer" Milan would say, he is an excellent pack leader, radiating calm, assertive energy and understanding that all affection must be earned for it to have value. Or as Tura Satana said in FASTER PUSSYCAT, KILL KILL: "You don't have to believe it, just act it." Patton doesn't mind that your hands shake so long as you're trying to keep them steady. It's only when you cower and quit that he boots you into the deep end like a sadistic but wise pool instructor (my own most hated-feared childhood figure).
I don't dare presume I wouldn't be ten times more afraid and shell-shocked in the field of battle than the man Patton slaps, or even Jeremy Davies in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). One can't know from a besotted armchair field position, but there are other ways to prove your courage, such as smuggling drugs out of Istanbul, or trying to score with the hottest chick in the room without any wingman or back-up, or bluffing your way past the velvet ropes at a hot nightclub, or even just not drinking, one day at a time. True adult courage is important to bear in mind as the alienating effect of technology quietly mutates us back into children via unsupervised lengths of time in complete privacy, allowing the illusion of a mommy bound to serve you instead of vice versa. If God had given us wings he'd expect us to fly, even demand it, so in the age of internet, why not go all the way and abandon your body? If God hadn't meant us to leave our bodies he wouldn't have given us the internet. Needless to say, that kind of alone time is deprived our common foot soldier or tank brigadier. You can get almost anything in the army except privacy. A soldier is booted into manhood and has to stay there until he likes it, and that could take years. By the time he figures it out, the war is over.
A word should be paid in tribute to the blu-ray version of this film: Dazzling! Originally shot on 70mm the picture is deep, and that has made all the difference in the 1080 transfer, enabling a dazzling clarity that lets you look up the nose of a man in a tank 5,000 yards away. The many long range desert battles seem to be in 3-D. The horizon line of the desert (this movie is always very horizon line conscious) warps the sides of the frame (Todd AO fisheye Cinerama 360 lenses) into a sloped elongated triangle, so it's like looking into a sloping Victorian house attic with North African desert wallpaper. If ever there was a reason to get blu-ray, this or Polanski's REPULSION would be it for me. I tried looking at the GODFATHER blu-ray, but got freaked out that you could finally see Bonasara the Undertaker's yellowed teeth clattering in the shadows as he talked of "vengeance for my daughter!"
Scott's nose is amazing on blu-ray, too: we can see three layers of veins in. But his aim sucks. When shooting at German dive bombers, you have to lead them, not shoot behind them! He should have shot straight over his head - you got to "lead" em (1)!
I've seen this movie all through my life and my reaction to that line varies with age. As a child watching it with my dad on TV I thought it was pretentious. Later, it seemed existentially gutsy; still later, callous. Now I see it as a coping mechanism, the very nature of heroism is perhaps this coping mechanism, an alchemical transubstantiation that enables one to derive perverse, counter-intuitive satisfaction from horror, the "you must make friend of horror" aspect, a looking down under the pretty flowers and below the serpents under them, to the deep roots wherein one endures the unendurable through a cultivated detachment, the stripping away of illusion's bodice, to reveal the grinning skull and scythe below. The tripper and the warrior both must kiss this skull and call it love.
To survive this awful surrender the hipster has his rueful irony, the court its jester, the American G.I. his endless complaining and satiric reading of army sloganeering. The Germans never got that sense of humor -- they considered it our weakness. They didn't realize that irony can be a kind of casual loyalty that works better than attack dog allegiance because--and this turned out to be a crucial advantage--the GI could improvise and think on his feet while the German was trained only to follow direct orders. As long as we can gripe and crack wise about it we can endure anything, that was what made us the winners: freedom to gripe about being losers!
One of my favorite war stories is how, during the Battle of the Bulge, the US tanks' top machine guns froze solid and couldn't be fired at the closely advancing enemy. Here it is, Germans breathing down their necks, bullets all around; it's freezing out, guns jammed and what do the machine gunners do? Urinate on them for a quick defrost! See, a German soldier would never think to do that. One needs a certain level of free-flying insanity to win a war, and that's what Patton had, and inspired in his men. To paraphrase Cesar Milan again: Insanity + Discipline, then affection.
(1) from the pages of the DC comic Sgt. Rock (c. 1980) - "You got to lead 'em! Lead 'em" when shooting at passing Messerschmidts. My friend Al and I quoted that a lot.