"Well... I shoveled shit in Louisiana.", “Old Blood & Guts”, Biopic, Carl Malden, Catch-22, Epic, Erwin Rommel, Film, film review, Francis Ford Coppola, Franklin J. Schaffner, General George Patton, General Omar Bradley, George C. Scott, Julius Caesar, military, Patton, Planet of the Apes, The Longest Day, World War II
There really are few films that can be called truly great both subjectively as well as objectively. There are also few films about World War II that can leave the viewer so enraptured by a personality without actually showing much of the battlefield.
It’s a tradition in my family’s house that Memorial Day Weekend is reserved for sitting on the couch, turning on TCM, and watching war movies back to back to back to back. Since I’ve moved out the house this tradition has been altered a little bit, and so this Saturday when I arrived we had prearranged three war movies set up for a triple feature. The films in order were Patton, The Longest Day, and Catch-22. The last film was a bit surreal and entirely different than the book which had brought me so much pleasure, and The Longest Day seemed waned from the previous 20-30 times I had watched it before. However nothing changed with Patton and I was reminded why I continually return to the film. The first time watching it was in my early teens. It had come on AMC and the actual joy of watching it was really solidified as I would watch Dad say the lines of the film before George C. Scott did. Dad was often telling me stories about World War II, Churchill, Reagan, and Patton, and watching the film then was like watching the narrative come to life. When I watched it again, I was a bit detached, but the ritual was still the same as before, only this time I spoke along to the first lines of the film:
Patton: 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.
It’s important to realize that just because he died that doesn’t give you any real authority to call him a poor dumb bastard, but Scott’s delivery is so perfect it’s impossible not to laugh or be in awe of him as he delivers the now iconic opening speech. The image of Patton standing in front of a massive flag that almost absorbs his body into it has become the iconic symbol of this film and in many ways contributes to the quasi-nostalgic mythos that is the man of Patton who, in real life, was a bit of an oddball. Before I get to him though it’s important to understand the speech at the beginning of the film for in many ways it’s a short film unto itself. Apart from Alvy Singer’s opening monologue in Annie Hall, I really have never observed a film in which a character is so fully revealed and developed so that the viewer immediately understands the character in just a few lines, but Scott delivers the character so that within only the first few lines the viewer completely understands the man they’ll be watching:
Patton: The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.
Patton: Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that “we are holding our position.” We’re not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose!
This is followed later on by one of the many gems in the dialogue:
Patton: Thirty years from now, when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, “What did you do in the great World War II,” you won’t have to say, “Well… I shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
Patton is a biopic but also an epic and once the film has been watched can this designation really be understood. Patton as an individual was an anachronism, a “pure warrior” as one German intelligence officer put it, and in life he expressed only ever a desire to embody the ideals of a true warrior. He believed in reincarnation and studied military history from the writings of Julius Caesar to even the notes of his contemporaries and enemies such as Erwin Rommel. In life he never possessed any political ambitions other than leading an army, though this did come to create conflicts for his career as he was often interviewed and monitored by military as well as civilian press. One such instance, which occurs in the actual film, was when he slapped a soldier suffering from battle fatigue. The film portrays Patton visiting soldiers in a field hospital when he talks to the soldier and the following scene unfolds:
Patton: What’s the matter with you?
Soldier Who Gets Slapped: I… I guess I… I can’t take it sir.
Patton: What did you say?
Soldier Who Gets Slapped: It’s my nerves, sir. I… I… I just can’t stand the shelling anymore.
Patton: Your *nerves*? Well, hell, you’re just a God-damned coward. [Soldier starts sniveling]
Patton: [Slaps him, once forehanded, then backhanded on the rebound]
Patton: Shut up! I won’t have a yellow bastard sitting here *crying* in front of these brave men who have been wounded in battle!
[Soldier snivels some more, and Patton swings a vicious forehand slap, knocking his helmet away]
Patton: *Shut up!* [to the doctors] Don’t admit this yellow bastard. There’s nothing wrong with him. I won’t have sons-of-bitches who are afraid to fight *stinking up this place of honor!* [to soldier] You’re going back to the front, my friend. You may get shot, and you may get killed, but you’re going up to the fighting. Either that, or I’m going to stand you up in front of a firing squad. I ought to shoot you myself, you god-damned… bastard! Get him out of here! [pulls his service automatic. At that, the doctors leap forward and hustle the soldier out of the tent. Patton keeps shouting at the soldier’s back] Take him up to the front! You hear me? You God-damned coward! [Takes deep breath] I won’t have cowards in my army.
This scene in the film is possibly one of the most dramatic because throughout the film Patton is presented as a true soldier, and almost a kind of father to the men he’s overseeing and commanding. That’s not to say his character is without fault, for while watching the film I was reminded something that has always bothered me about the character. While General Patton always speaks about the inherent nobility of soldering and battle there is something troubling about the way he revels in fights that he is almost always miles away from. There are numerous instances and scenes showing him overseeing the troops, and one of the best moments in the movie is when he actually enters a row of his troops marching and the viewer watches him interacting with his men, but the desire to conquer and win was clearly some kind of ego trip and should be looked upon as suspect.
The bloodthirsty nature of his personality is almost always apparent however and at one point Carl Malden playing General Omar Bradley says it best:
General Omar N. Bradley: There’s one big difference between you and me, George. I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it. You do it because you LOVE it.
It could be that I’m just being overly harsh. Patton was a man from a different generation, but it’s also important to remember his character as an individual being. General George Patton is played by George Scott as a man out of his own time; a man who should have been born in the ages of conquerors and heroes rather than the latter half of the twentieth century as generals were becoming political figures rather than warriors and soldiers. There was a time when I would watch Patton, mostly during puberty when my identity was angst ridden and possessed always by the idea that I was out of place, and relate tremendously with his character because like him I felt out of touch with the reality and society I was expected to become a part of. One of the most haunting moments is when Patton takes Bradley to the site of a Carthaginian ruin and describes the “memory” of being in this place centuries ago.
[Visiting an ancient battlefield]
Patton: The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago. I was here.
It’s at this point the reader asks so what? What’s so important about a film from 1970 about some old war obsessed, history obsessed General? True it’s from World War II, but if there’s no battles why does it warrant any real attention?
First of all there are in fact several battles. The most in-depth of which takes place in Northern Africa. This scene holds value not only for Patton personally, seeing as how his leadership eventually ousted the Germans from Northern Africa, but also because it demonstrates his ability to defeat the leadership of Erwin Rommel the “Desert Fox” who was considered one of the finest military minds in all of the Third Reich. Little side note Rommel would eventually participate in the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler.
As for why the viewer should watch this film the simple reason is because it’s simply a beautiful film. In the contemporary cinematic landscape of the post-Avatar world, if a director wishes to accomplish an epic of grand scope that includes explosions, the movements of hundreds of people, and a coordinated battle sequences they would most likely rely exclusively on CGI. Even Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy relied heavily upon CGI for most of the battle sequences despite the fact he was able to fund hundreds of extras dressed up as orcs, Rohirrim, and the legions of Gondor. Patton might not wow audiences for the displays but it does spellbind the viewer who is willing to recognize that the stunts and arrangement of all of these figures was put in place and operated by one man. Franklin J. Schaffner is a director who during his lifetime directed a few films, but largely worked in television. His previous film should strike a familiar cord with the reader though seeing as how before Patton the man had directed Planet of the Apes.
The film is also an interesting opportunity to observe a young Francis Ford Coppola. His name might also sound familiar seeing as how he was the director of The Godfather, The Outsiders, Jack, and Apocalypse Now. At the time Coppola had written and produced a few films, and it would only be two years later before he would direct The Godfather and become the cinematic powerhouse he was to become.
Apart from these men, and apart from George C. Scott who would win best Actor for his performance and be one of the firsts to refuse to accept the award, the reason the viewer should take the time to see this film is simply because the film is beautiful to watch. Films about the military are not often able to be called beautiful because often their scenes are the battlefield which is a gore speckled, crater pocked landscape of death and terror. Patton takes the effort however of placing the soldiers within the landscape and culture of Europe and Patton himself is often situated in one of the numerous palaces of Europe. The modern warrior, with his brown uniform, is set amidst the Rococo and Baroque interiors and yet despite this Patton as a man is somehow greater and grander than all of it. In some ways placing Patton against these beauties of antiquity is an effort to demonstrate the “man out of time” motif that recurs throughout the entire film, but I think there’s still a deeper impression that the film offers.
At the end of the film Patton walks his dog Willie (originally William the Conqueror before he get’s scared off by an Englishwoman’s Pomeranian) for a walk in the German fields. There’s a scene of the man, walking his dog, set against the mountains that saw the likes of men like Frederick the Great and perhaps a few old Roman Conquerors, and while he walks beside a windmill George Scott offers a voiceover that closes the film:
Patton: [voiceover] For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph – a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.
Patton himself would never leave Europe. He died from injuries sustained during a car accident on December 21, 1945. There are some that have tried to construct a conspiracy theory around the man’s death, and while I do believe something stinks in that particular Denmark my job here isn’t to write about the “Hidden Hand.”
Patton is a film that continues to impress me because it is a brilliant presentation of an individual man. In terms of genre Patton is a biopic and a World War Two Film, but leaving it in those two categories would be doing it a grand disservice. Patton is art in the way it manages to convey completely another human being that, while we may not be able to identify with, we can still appreciate his character and know the world more deeply. Films that attempt to lay out humanity for what it is, both weakness, strength, idealism, and tragedy are rare because too often artists attempt to ham up aspects of individuality because they are either daunted by the task or unable to balance the factors accordingly. With a man like George Patton there was a tremendous capacity to fail miserably because the man from afar seems more like a cartoon character than a living breathing being tortured by the lack of fortune to be born just a few years earlier.
Instead of this cartoon character the viewer gets a real man, tortured by his own rashness and zeal, but who played so crucial a role in the victory over the Third Reich that he’ll be remembered forever always as “Old Blood & Guts.”
Here’s a small video that plays the audio of the speech Scott makes at the beginning of the film. I apologize that it’s only an audio but there’s no good video online that gives a good video. This speech is a bit of a bastardization of a real speech
I’ve also posted a link to a small essay “The Famous Patton Speech by Charles M. Province” about the famous speech that also goes into the character of Patton and how the film sanitized his profanity for American authors:
I’ve also found a website entitled George Patton.com and if the reader is at all interested in it here’s the link below:
I didn’t get a chance to include this in the bulk of the essay but at one point General Patton is overseeing the barracks in order to determine what is needed to improve the army. He enters the mess hall with his aid and the following scene transpires:
American GI Cook: Up bright and early, General? Uh, breakfast?
Patton: Am I to understand that my officers have already finished eating?
American GI Cook: Uh, well, we’re open from six to eight. Most of the men are just coming in now.
[Indicates two soldiers who enter the mess hall]
Patton: Please inform these men that the mess hall is closed.
American GI Cook: But sir, it’s only a quarter ’til eight.
Patton: From now on, you will open at six, and no man will be admitted after six-fifteen. Where are your leggings?
American GI Cook: Leggings? Oh hell, General sir, I’m a cook.
Patton: You’re a soldier. Twenty dollar fine.
[two more soldiers enter the mess hall. Patton looks them over]
Patton: Gentlemen, from this moment, any soldier without leggings, without a helmet, without a tie, any man with unshined shoes or a soiled uniform… is going to be skinned.