Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Review: Patton

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. 1970.

Since its release, Patton has split audiences into those who see in it a glorification of the military ethics and those who find  condemnation of it. Critics like to wax about what it's "really" about, but the opinion is in the eye of the beholder because Patton is a pure distillation of the warrior ethos. This is not an equivocating cop-out like the sentiment that the titular character is both "hero and villain," expressed in the Cosmo review quoted on the movie poster to the right. Instead, it's an invitation to consider the ancient warrior's virtues and his place in a liberal society. Steven Pressfield in his 2011 The Warrior Ethos pulls together examples ancient and modern to examine the question and here I'd like to look at some of the virtues he identifies through the example of Schaffner's Patton.

We already called the warrior virtues ancient, but are they modern too? Throughout Patton we see a man who identifies more with Alcibiades, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon than with his fellow commanders. On his way to the front, the general orders his driver to divert to a nearby field on which sit ancient ruins. Stepping out, Patton describes the ancient Roman sack of Carthage as if he sees it unfolding before him. He says:
Through the travail of ages,
midst the pomp and toils of war,
have I fought and strove and perished,
countless times among the stars.
As if through a glass and darkly,
the age old strife I see,
when I fought in many guises and many names,
but always me.
The poem distills from every man-of-war in every age, the warrior's ethos that pervades and unifies them all. Beyond merely identifying with his predecessors, Patton sees himself as the present incarnation of the pure warrior in a timeless continuum. Yet the warrior's ethos is no longer timeless, and everyone around Patton seems to see that he's out of place. His aide bashfully tells the general how his ideas, like his poems, just don't fit in nowadays. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), his fellow general, tells Patton with a hint of fear and disgust, "I do this job because I've been trained to. You do it because you love it." Even the German lieutenant tasked to research Patton calls him a pure romantic warrior, a Don Quixote out of time. The question to us is whether Patton has a place in our society, or whether he's chasing windmills.

From the outset Patton seems to contradict the established liberal order. His very presence with all of his medals, stars, and commendations upsets the egalitarian order of civilian life. The General is in charge and his authority not only commands fealty to a superior but it shames the raw cadets who have yet to earn any prestige for themselves. He proceeds to shame them again, taunting them that at least, should their grandchildren ever ask what they did in "The Great WW II," they wouldn't have to say they "shoveled shit in Alabama." This also fosters a sense of unity with the army, distinction from both civilians and other regiments, and of course the enemy, whose fate he describes without a hint of pity or mercy. Later on he promises to send a soldier right to the front lines: he might die, but he won't sit a coward in Patton's army. In contrast to our natural inclinations toward self-preservation, Patton's warrior ethos gives honor to the man who fulfills the mission and shame to anyone who fails.

Likewise, where we in civilian society praise individuality, he calls individuality on the battlefield a bunch of nonsense. Instead, an army functions because of the soldier's obedience to the chain of command and compunction to fulfill his duty to the mission and his comrades. He does not glorify himself but functions as part of a team.

The differences mount. Where civilians reward the guy who finagles the best of all worlds, the warrior honors the man who lays down on the wire. As Pressfield writes, where we value moderation, the warrior values aggression. Where we value luxury, the warrior prepares for adversity. You can see this all in the satisfaction on Patton's face when he looks at the carnage on the battlefield. Observing the remnants of a bloody struggle he confesses to his aide, "God help me but I do love it so."

Alongside the warrior thread, though, is Patton's arc as a highly imperfect man. More specifically, Patton's change is a coming to grips with his vanity. He wants to be the hero of the war, sometimes at the expense of the allied agreements when he taunts his British counterpart Bernard Montgomery, sometimes at the expense of his men when he presses an attack simply to make time, and sometimes at the risk of shattering the chain of command when he exceeds orders disciplining men. Patton learns a little humility after he's put on probation after the successful Sicilian campaign and the film's finale is a bloody blast through the liberation of France and Patton's counter to Germany's final, ferocious assault. Patton shines here, pressing the American technological advantage and capitalizing on the training and discipline of his unit. The question of Patton's reform and self-awareness is never taken for granted, though, and after one of his outbursts ending with, "Let no one come back alive!" his aide notes that sometimes the men can't tell when he's kidding, to which Patton replies, "It's only important that I know." Is it, or ought not those taking the orders and to whom he reports, know too?

There's also one especially good line from one of the soldiers, from whom we seldom hear, who upon hearing Patton called "Old Blood and Guts," replies, "Yeah, our blood, his guts." The line stands out but in the right way, for it's a bit too easy to get wrapped up in the Great Man telling of history.

The structure of Patton revolves around the three set pieces of the North African, Sicilian, and post-Normandy operations in France and Germany, and for a nearly three hour picture, it's pretty sleek. Yes, the battles are a tad padded with wide shots and explosions, but every scene ties into Patton's arc and the arc of the war. Unifying the whole movie, though, is Jerry Goldsmith's march. It's a simple little tune which reveals its protean nature as it occurs in various guises throughout, here exuberant, there defeated. Sometimes it's full and vigorous, other times it's truncated, echoing ruefully into the distance. Sometimes in darkness it sours the stomach after a grisly defeat and other times in brightness it presages the glory of victory. Does it have any one true face, or are the permutations of the warrior's march the permutations of the warrior?

Like Patton, has the warrior won the war but found himself antiquated? Both Patton and Pressfield seem to point the way. Pressfield concludes The Warrior Ethos with the story of Arjuna from Bhagavad-Gita, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna start killing his enemies. Pressfield writes,
The names of these enemy warriors, in Sanskrit, can be read two ways. They can be simply names. Or they can represent inner crimes or personal vices, such as greed, jealousy, selfishness, the capacity to play our friends false or to act without compassion toward those who love us.
In other words, our warrior Arjuna is being instructed to slay the enemies inside himself. [Pressfield, 80]
As with Arjuna, Patton has to turn his warrior virtues that brought him success on the battlefield and that he taught his soldiers, on himself. These are not the virtues of war, but life.

The final shot closes all arcs. The man returns home, having conquered his demons. The general returns triumphant, but having learned that "all glory is fleeting." The warrior walks past a windmill: is he still an anachronism, or will the warrior's virtues serve him, and others, in peace?

Pressfield, Steven. The Warrior Ethos. Black Irish Entertainment. 2011.

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