Francis Coppola’s Patton (1970) is a film about General George S. Patton, who is one of the most prominent, American Generals during World War II. He was a great field and tank commander but also a very controversial figure in his time due to his outspokenness and propensity to say whatever was on his mind with a complete disregard for political correctness. The movie does a great job in showing both aspects of Patton and stars George C. Scott, who not only plays Patton but is Patton. Although it has been ten years since I originally watched this film, there are many memorable scenes and quotes from this movie that I have never forgotten. If you are interested in World War II, American history, or just a great movie, this film is an American classic and a must see.
The opening sequence is one of the most iconic images and scenes of the movie. It begins with a large, American flag as the background before Patton steps out to address the audience. The speech is a shortened version of multiple speeches given by Patton to the Third Army prior to the Normandy Invasion. I have always remembered the first sentences of that speech: “I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country”. Immediately, Patton makes it clear that he is all about battle and winning. If there is any doubt of it after his opening words, he continues to place emphasis that “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hooting hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have not lost and will never lose a war because the very thought of losing is hateful for Americans.” Another thing his speech shows is Patton’s aggressive style of warfare and leadership as he states “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.”
The next scene in the movie is at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, which was the first encounter between German and American troops after America’s entry into the war. As such, Dwight Eisenhower or “Ike”, 5 star general and eventual Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, sends General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) to survey the defeat and represent Eisenhower. After reporting how badly the American troops were outclassed by the German Afrika Korps, Ike sends Patton to take command and whip them into shape. In a conversation between Bradley and Patton, Patton points out that the lack of discipline was the reason for the defeat as he states “They don’t look like soldiers. They don’t act like soldiers. Why should they be expected to fight like soldiers?” As a result, Patton wastes no time in setting strict rules and is unforgiving and unapologetic in turning his men into real soldiers. He tells Bradley that” They’ll lose their fear of the Germans. Let’s hope to God that they never lose their fear of me”.
Of course, Patton is exactly what the American troops needed at the beginning of the war as he instills discipline and quickly trains the troops. In the next battle at El Guettar, the much improved American forces are able to defeat the Germans. One of Patton’s fantasies is to take on Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), German Field Marshall of the Afrika Korps. Rommel was Germany’s best commander. He quickly distinguished himself quickly in World War II by perfecting the blitzkrieg in toppling France and was also nicknamed the “Desert Fox” by British newspaper for his skills in desert warfare in North Africa. By the time the United States entered the war, Rommel and British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery or “Monty” (Michael Bates) had established themselves as the two titans in the conflict in North Africa and both had won big battles. As Patton believes himself the equal or better of the two, he desires nothing more than to prove it. Thinking Rommel was commanding the Germans at El Guettar, Patton ecstatically boasts during the battle, “Rommel. You magnificent bastard. I read your book”. Of course, Patton is bitterly disappointed when he gets Intel that Rommel was back in Berlin due to an infection and was not at the battle. However, Colonel Charles Codman (Paul Stevens) reassures Patton that Rommel planned the battle and that beating Rommel’s plan is the same as beating Rommel. Patton’s ego is a source of both strength and weakness and a key theme throughout the film. Colonel Codman does a great job in stroking that ego as most generals are prima donnas.
After securing North Africa, the Allies set their sights on Italy. Without the prize of defeating Rommel still on the table, Patton sets his sights on upstaging Monty and lays out his plans for the invasion of Sicily, the key to conquering Italy. However, Monty gets his plan approved by Eisenhower and the Allies leadership in which Patton supports Monty forces by protecting his left flank as Monty goes up Sicily’s Eastern coast. Although Patton reluctantly follows the plan at first, he takes the first opportunity to switch to his original plan where he moves northwest to take the city of Palermo and then moves back east to beat Monty in taking the key port of Messina. When Monty enters Messina, he marches in victorious with bagpipes playing. When he gets to the center of the city, Patton is already waiting for him with a smirk on his face.
While Patton accomplishes his goal in beating Monty, he does it at great costs. First, he disobeyed orders from the leadership of the Allies. Next, his aggressive and insubordinate actions put him at odds with his deputy Omar Bradley. During the Sicily campaign, Bradley follows Patton orders but argues that Patton is gambling with his men’s lives so he can beat Monty to Messina for glory. This point is emphasized by the film as there is one scene where a soldier refers to Patton by his nickname “Old Blood and Guts” and his comrade responds with “our blood, his guts”. Bradley further points out “There’s one big difference between you and me, George [Patton]. I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it. You do it because… you love it.” As I noted before, most generals, like Patton and Monty, are prima donnas and fight for glory. On the other hand, Bradley is humble and will go with the best strategy that wins the war but cost as few of his troops’ lives as possible. As such, Bradley’s nickname is “The G.I.’s General”. The difference between Bradley and Patton is a key theme in the film and is one of the best elements of it.
The Sicily campaign was also when Patton controversially slapped two soldiers and got severely reprimanded. In the film, Patton enters into a medical tent to pay tribute to and boost the morale of the wounded. When he runs into a soldier who is in the tent because of his nerves, Patton flips out by slapping him across the helmet, calling the soldier a coward, threatening the soldier with his pistol, and demanding that the soldier be put back into the field at the very front. Once the newspapers learn of the incident, Patton takes on a lot of heat. In the film, a newspaper paper shows Patton with an iron boot with a swastika kicking a soldier. Moreover, Patton gets a personal reprimand from Ike and is forced to apologize to the soldier, the medical staff and everyone else in the tent, and the entire 7th Army. Consequently, he is relieved of the 7th Army and Omar Bradley is given the top American Command on the field.
Another part of the movie I enjoyed was that the German perspective of Patton is shown throughout the film through scenes of the German high command and intelligence. Captain Steiger (Siegfried Rauch) is responsible for gathering intelligence on Patton and gives his opinions of Patton throughout the movie, generally to Rommel and General Alfred Jodl (Richard Münch). When Steiger updates Jodl that Patton is receiving a lot of negative press from American newspapers for slapping a soldier and may even face court martial, Jodl shakes his head disregarding the report as nonsense and responds “Would they sacrifice their best commander because he slapped a soldier?” I thought it was a very comical moment. As we have only gotten much more politically correct over the years, I can only imagine how the rest of the world probably does not understand why we make such a big deal out of being politically correct all the time.
Patton is eventually moved over to Great Britain ahead of the Invasion of Normandy to liberate France. Due to the Germans’ respect for Patton and the controversy back in the United States, he is used as a decoy instead of leading the invasion. As Calais is the shortest point between Britain and France, Patton is situated near Calais with fake crews and landing craft to have the Germans focus on Calais and divert their attention from the real target of Normandy. It is important to also note that the Germans still believed Calais would be the main point of entry and that Patton would lead the invasion even after the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy.
While Patton is waiting in Britain in hopes of getting into the war, he stumbles on his words again during a rally in Knutsford when he halfheartedly tell s the crowd that it is the destiny of the Americans and British to rule the world after the war. Of course, he leaves out our Russian allies in that remark which lead to outrage. Moreover, the comments anger Ike who has it communicated to Patton that he needs to keep his mouth shut. Patton desperately pleads with leadership and notes that he did not intentionally omit the Russians, he has no political ambitions after the war, and he just wants to command troops in combat. At the thought of being sent back home and out of the war completely, Patton unleashes his frustration in a private moment in the movie and shouts “The last great opportunity of a lifetime. An entire world at war and I’m left out of it? God will not permit this to happen. I’m going to be allowed to fulfill my destiny.”
Of course, Patton is allowed to fulfill his destiny. He reports to Bradley in France. Patton knows that his legacy is on the line as he will either be remembered as a disgraced General who slapped a soldier or a great commander who won great battles. As such, he knows he needs to get back into the war as soon as possible as the outcome is certain and there are only so many more opportunities for glory left before the war ends. He begs Bradley to let him command and that he will keep his mouth shut and behave. After Bradley lets Patton sweat it out a bit, he informs Patton that Ike came to the conclusion 3 months prior for Patton to lead the 3rd Army across Paris.
The rest of the film depicts Patton gallantly leading his troops through Europe to Germany. Along the way, it also shows Patton’s role in the Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive. The city of Bastogne was the key to the battle. The 101st Airborne was defending city but they would probably be overrun if they did not receive immediate reinforcements. In the film, the key leaders of the Allies discuss the situation. As it was winter and the weather was very inclement, they felt it was impossible for an army to withdraw from their current battles and make the trek of over 100 miles against snowstorms to help the 101st Airborne hold Bastogne. Of course, Patton disagrees and promises that his 3rd Army could do it in 48 hours. As his army is able to make the journey with no rest and no food in inclement weather, Patton has a moment of pure pride that the men he trained were able to accomplish the feat. The movie also utilizes one of the most memorable, actual moments during the German siege of Bastogne: in response to the German request for the 101st Airborne to surrender, Brigadier General McAuliffe response is “Nuts”. When Patton hears of the response in the movie, he delightfully notes that “A man that elegant needs to be saved”. However, if you have seen the HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” about the 101st Airborne, you will know that they made it clear that they did not think they needed the help of Patton’s 3rd Army to be able to hold Bastogne.
Nevertheless, Patton is unable to finish up his command of the 3rd Army without putting his foot in his mouth again. Immediately after the war, Patton is riding a horse as he is interviewed by the press. First, he acknowledges that President Roosevelt promised him a command in the Pacific. However, with the death of the president, it is unlikely that he will go as General Douglas McArthur would not want another big personality to rub against his own legend. He is also asked about “wonder weapons” the Germans were developing in which long range rockets would be used instead of soldiers. Patton responds that he hates the idea as there would be killing without heroics which would have no glory and no heroes. As such, he notes that he will be happy to not be around for that day. However, the comments he made about denazification and the Russians gets him into trouble. Patton took heat for using Nazis after the war to keep utilities and the country running, jobs such as running the railroads and keeping the telephones working. In his defense, it is smart to continue to have the people with the expertise to keep the country running, regardless of who they are, until you can find someone qualified to replace them so the country does not fall into chaos while you try to make that transition immediately. Nevertheless, the comments that got him into most trouble were when he compared Germans joining the Nazi party to be similar to Americans joining the Democrat or Republican parties. In regards to the Russians, he was asked whether he made comments that he would attack in both directions if he was surrounded by the Russians and Germans. In the film, he responds that he did not make those comments but wish he had.
Of course, Ike and American leadership is furious with Patton’s comments. In the film, he is called by Ike’s representative who voices Ike’s displeasure. Patton responds angrily noting that the war with the Russians is inevitable and that they should fight them now while the Army was at full strength and in position to attack. He also boasts that he can have a war in 10 days and make it look like it was the Russian’s fault. As Americans did not want another war with the Russians, he is a relieved of his command of the 3rd Army. In one of the last scenes with Captain Steiger of the German command, he summarizes it perfectly: “He, too, will be destroyed. The absence of war will kill him. The pure warrior. A magnificent anachronism”. Warriors like Patton not only live for war but they need it. If they do not have a war, they want to create one. It is why he needed to be relieved of his command. It is also what ended Douglas McArthur’s military career when he wanted to expand the Korean War by attacking China against the orders of the President and was also relieved of his command. For Patton, it may have been a literal point. In real life, he dies of a car accident in December 1945 about 7 months after Victory in Europe Day.
In the film and in real life, he addresses the 3rd Army after he is relieved of command by saying “”All good things must come to an end. The best thing that has ever happened to me thus far is the honor and privilege of having commanded the Third Army.” The movie ends with Patton and Bradley exchanging some kind words and promising to have dinner before Patton walks into a field with his bull terrier. As he is walking into the sunset, there is a voiceover of Patton speaking about how a returning hero in ancient Rome was honored with a victory parade in which a slave whispered to that hero that “all glory is fleeting”.