As I have mentioned a number of times already, I am a historian by trade. When I was a young one, my dad would regale me with tales of Napoleonic History. He had majored in History in college, and the only outlet he had for whatever knowledge he gleaned from his studies was his son, me. His passion for such subjects was not focused solely on the Corsican farm boy turned French emperor. Military History, in general, provided a rich field of stories of the past over which we bonded. It also helped that near where I was born in the Chicago area is the history buff’s paradise that is Cantigny Park. It is the palatial estate of the Chicago Tribune’s founder Colonel Robert R. McCormick. He got that rank by serving with the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One more familiarly, and my experiences touring his grounds with my dad is a big reason why I spotted the nonsense of the arm patches in Ghosts of War (2020). Outside of his elegant and spacious home is a museum dedicated to the long service of the military unit McCormick so dearly loved. Among its collections are a number of tanks from various moments in time where they have rumbled across battlefields. A few of these are Patton tanks, named after one of the most famous generals in American History, George S. Patton. This is all a long and nostalgic way of introducing you to the fact that I recently watched Patton (1970).
The beginning of Patton does not have much to do with anything truly historical. Patton (George C. Scott) strides onto a stage with a massive United States flag as backdrop. As the trumpeted fanfare takes its course, he salutes. The camera then focuses on the plethora of military paraphernalia adorning his spotless uniform and shiny helmet. The ensuing speech he gives to a group of unseen soldiers is meant to introduce everything you need to know about the character: he loves war. It then cuts to North Africa in 1942, the site of the first American landings in the war against Germany. Unfortunately, it does not go well, and the Germans deal a crushing defeat to the Americans at Kasserine Pass. Surveying the damage as an observer for General Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower is General Omar N. Bradley (Karl Malden). His assessment leads to the appointment of Patton as the new American commander in the area. He quickly turns things around and before too long the Germans are being forced to abandon the whole region. It is now time for the next step, the so-called “soft underbelly of the Axis,” Italy, via Sicily. This is when Patton begins coming into competition with one of his British allies, the hero of the Battle of El Alamein, Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates). Both are glory seeking, but specifically doing so for their respective countries. They also agree that the key to controlling Sicily is the town of Messina, which is at the tip of the island closet to Italy. Thus, when their respective armies land on the island, they race each other to take the all important city. In the drive to get their first, Patton does not countenance anything but full commitment to the mission. This manifests when, while visiting a hospital, he slaps a soldier there whose nerves had been shattered by the fighting. Patton accuses him of cowardice and orders him to be sent back to the fighting immediately. This incident lands Patton in trouble with the high command, and he spends much of the next year acting as a decoy for the Germans, who believe he is the most talented among the American generals and must be accounted for at all times. He does not get a chance to command men in combat again until after the invasion of France is well underway. This time his second-in-command in North Africa and Sicily is his boss, Bradley, though his experiences with Patton did not leave the more junior officer with the best impression. Regardless, Patton is turned loose in France and he leads a fantastic dash across the country, killing and capturing more Germans along the way than any other army in the Allied horde. He is also able to pull off a brilliant maneuver whereby he swings his forces northward in order to relieve the beleaguered defenders of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge at the end of 1944. What “kills” Patton, or at least his command (he died shortly after the war in a car crash, though that is a different film), is the end of World War II. He does not like the Russians, and in comments to reporters suggests that the Americans should rearm Germany and together go to war with the Soviet Union. At one point, he even offers to start the conflict with the future Cold War enemy. He is soon relieved of his command. The film ends with him walking off with his bull terrier William the Conqueror, or Willy due to its latent timidness, recounting the accomplishments of the men under his command and reminding himself that all glory is fleeting.
I love Patton, though one aspect needs to be pointed out that always irks me about it. The main advisor for the movie was an aged Omar Bradley. If you know a little bit about the actual history from which the film draws, you understand that Bradley and Patton were not the friends they are made out to be. Patton is portrayed as being a self-serving prima donna, even if a brilliant military leader. Bradley, whose film character is practically on par of importance with the title one, is depicted as a simple “soldier’s soldier.” In other words, he looked after his men instead of seeking glory like Patton. Throughout the film, Bradley is either annoyed with Patton, or using Patton’s mouth to say nice things about himself. What I mean is that there are lines of dialog that were likely never said in real life, but where Patton is effusive in his praise as to how good of a general is Bradley. Bradley is the only general Patton says anything nice about other than himself, and the lines do nothing to advance the plot. They are there seemingly only to assuage Bradley’s ego. And they said Patton was the prima donna. People also sometimes complain about the wrong tanks being used, which were all Patton model tanks, incidentally. For me, though, it is hearing Bradley brag about himself that is the most grating aspect of the movie.
One of the reasons I chose to talk about Patton is because of the complexities of the character, and much of this is lifted straight from the pages of history. One of the more interesting aspects of the person, cinematically and in real life, is his belief in reincarnation. Supposedly he could remember past lives, and they were invariably as soldiers. At one point soon after his arrival in North Africa, he is able to guide his jeep seemingly by memory to the site of a battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians. It is remarkable that he would have such convictions when he is also apparently a man of God. Before facing his army proceeding the slapping incident, he is praying inside a church. As his army is making its way towards Bastogne, he orders a chaplain to write a prayer for good weather. When the chaplain balks at the notion of asking God for better weather so that they could better kill their fellow man, Patton reassures the man of the cloth that, given the general’s personal relationship with the Almighty, the prayer will be heard. Finally, he says that he reads the Bible every day, though he says it in a more colorful fashion. I juxtapose these two aspects of his character because they are at odds. Christianity does not believe in reincarnation. Once we die, our souls go to their eternal rest, either with God or in the other place. There are many Christians today who also think reincarnation is a thing, and it is understandable. It is a concept that is sort of like granting eternal life. Do not worry about death because you will simply be reborn. Christians do have a rebirth of sorts, but it is into the life that Christ desires for us, one that is not meant for an everlasting existence in this world. Besides, Heaven is worth it.
Patton is a long movie, but it is a good one if you can make it through it. George C. Scott deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of the title role. As a war film, too, it is pretty good even if the tanks are not accurate. My apologies if what I shared about Bradley takes away from your experience of the movie. If you can somehow manage to forget he is in it, then it becomes a pretty enjoyable experience overall.