George C. Scott was born to play General George S. Patton. Scott didn’t feel he got it right, but man, he nailed an emotional performance that sticks with you. You get the complexity of a man who reads his Bible “every Goddamn day” and is sure he can win the war while getting all the accolades. Or at least make sure the Brits, General Bernard Montgomery (Monty) in particular, don’t get any. It’s easy to show Patton as a buffoon, but he was an intelligent, cultured, complex man.
The movie opens with a speech that is a group of Patton sayings, not one particular speech. From there we go to the War in North Africa where Patton is shown as arrogant but right, and brave but foolhardy. All these characteristics are demonstrated in the scene where he’s meeting with the British general in charge of air support. While the Air Force general is telling Patton that he will see no more German planes, they are strafed. Patton goes outside stands in the middle of the road and shoots at the planes with a pistol!
He’s a man of high standards, for himself and everyone around him. He will not tolerate anything that looks like cowardice or incompetence. And he does not like British Army General Bernard Montgomery.
When it’s time to take the war to Italy, Sicily has to be taken to use as a base. Patton has a plan, but Monty also has a plan. Monty’s plan has the Americans slog through the middle of the island while he takes the road up the coast and gets to take the prize town of Messina. The higher ups go with Monty’s plan. Patton takes the first opportunity to ignore orders and use his own plan and get to Messina first. On the way, he slaps a soldier who’s in the hospital tent for “nerves,” AKA shell shock. After Sicily, Patton is relieved of command for both ignoring orders and embarrassing the Army by slapping a soldier. Now Patton is used as bait to mislead the Germans who are sure that Patton will be the one to lead the invasion of Europe.
After some time as a decoy, a humbled Patton is allowed to take command of the Third Army and he storms through Europe. Scott helps you feel the frustrations of a proud man humbled and chomping at the bit to get into the largest war in history. My Grandfather was with the Third Army as part of the 35th Infantry Division and was part of the liberation of Bastogne. His part in the War ended about two weeks later in the Ardennes Forest. A German machine gun cut across both his legs, completely breaking a bone, leaving one leg at a 90 degree angle in the middle of his thigh. Somehow they put it back together and today he’s 94 years old and still mows his own lawn. And that was his second Purple Heart. Anyway, he never met or saw Patton in person, but he was part of the march north to the Battle of the Bulge where all this happened.
After the war, Patton made some rash remarks about the Soviet Union which put him back out of favor. Scott plays this to perfection. A man so determined he is right he is almost unhinged. Almost, but not quite. They should have immediately sent him off to the Pacific theater.
Patton won 7 Oscars among numerous other awards. There are other actors in this movie, but it belongs to George C. Scott completely. I must say that for once, I don’t find Karl Malden annoying, he fits as General Omar Bradley. Director Franklin J. Schaffner has a small but impressive resume: Planet of the Apes, Papillion, and The Boys from Brazil are also directed by him.