Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day Two: Patton

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #226
Year: 1970
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: George C. Scott and Karl Malden

Making World War II pictures is a tricky business. All the clich├ęs are well-established. The same goes for biopics. We've seen characters overcome struggles in their personal lives to excel in whatever it is they're famous for a thousand times. Combining the two genres is a cocktail set to fail. Still, Franklin J. Schaffner's follow-up to his well-received science fiction film Planet of the Apes, 1970's Patton, is heralded as an all-time classic. Is the praise deserved?

In a word, mostly. A lot of that is thanks to George C. Scott's Academy Award-winning performance as General George S. Patton. The film opens with Scott famously standing against an American flag – with 48 stars, I counted – and giving a speech to what is presumably an audience of young recruits. This six-minute monologue would be very nearly enough to make a great film on its own, and it certainly has to be one of the greatest opening sequences of all time – indeed, the extent of my familiarity with the movie going in was Space Jam's parody of the scene and the sample Skinless took from it as an intro to their stellar "Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead". The film follows Patton from his entrance on the scene in North Africa through the Germans' surrender in 1945.

The film clocks in at an epic 2 hours and 49 minutes, so there's plenty of development of General Patton. What didn't really surprise me but may surprise some is the fact that the movie is really driven by Patton's personal affairs and not much by the events in the European theater of the war. Many of his actions are motivated by a rivalry he has with a British commander, a petty desire to be the best general in the Allied Forces, and the disciplinary grit that earned him the nickname "Old Blood and Guts" ("Our blood, his guts," one wounded soldier quips after a battle).

Perhaps it's just because today is the Fourth of July, but despite Patton's bloodthirstiness, petty attitude, and maltreatment of his emotionally fragile soldiers, Scott drums up a lot of sympathy for the man in his portrayal of him. He's constantly gazing over battlefields and talking about skirmishes that occurred there in the B.C. Era, reading and writing war poetry, and attempting to recreate the battle strategies of Julius Caesar and Alcibiades, so the fact that he doesn't really understand PTSD is permissible.

Faced with the tall order of immortalizing an enigma as sacred as General George S. Patton, the people behind Patton did a more than competent job, and despite some questionable pacing that leads to the movie's marathon length, it's fair to call it a great film.

The Good: George C. Scott's performance as Patton, particularly in the famous opening sequence. Special mention once again for connecting with my life: When a group of reporters questions General Patton at one point, they bring up what Ernie Pyle has written about his second-in-command, General Bradley. Hey! Ernie Pyle! He's who my program at Indiana is named for!

The Bad: For being a biopic and not an honest-to-God war movie, there's a lot of pointless, extended scenes of tanks rolling over things and things blowing up. The movie is about Patton, not the World War II.

The Skinny: Patton is a great movie, but to me, it's not a masterpiece. But are there even 250 masterpieces in existence such that the Top 250 should be masterpieces-only? If not, then Patton finds itself at the right part of the list – towards the bottom. Grudgingly approved.

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