Patton: The Man, The Mystery, The Legend, The Legacy, The Film
“Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” -General George S. Patton
Along with encapsulating the eccentric brilliance of one of America’s most gifted Generals, Patton explores the country’s core values, which seem to transcend time — from 1940, to 1970, to today. Simply put, George S. Patton is what it means to be an American. He is representative of conformist America, which is now commonly viewed with either a sense of nostalgic romanticism or utter odium: traditional values, a conspicuous intolerance for aberration, and staunch patriotism. However, there is a much deeper, almost hidden part of the General that speaks to a modern, progressive America: a romantic, philosophical perspective on war, beatnik-esque poetry and thoughts on transmigration, and strong convictions in support of individualism and existentialism.
Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans, traditionally, love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. Now, I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans. Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating. Now, we have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world. You know, by God, I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to shoot the bastards. We’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun bastards by the bushel. Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you’ll chicken-out under fire. Don’t worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Nazis are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Shoot them in the belly. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend’s face, you’ll know what to do. 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. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose, and we’re gonna kick him in the ass. We’re gonna kick the hell out of him all the time, and we’re gonna go through him like crap through a goose! Now, there’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home, and you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee, and he asks you, “What did you do in the great World War II?” — you won’t have to say, “Well, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.” Alright now you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh, I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere.
This is the opening of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton: an intense, explicit, rousing monologue for a man of equal potency. In a 2014 interview, screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola shared his perception of this acclaimed scene: “Well, I thought if you just look at this man in front of the (American) flag, the audience would get an insight into him quite naturally.” In the same interview, Coppola referred to Patton as an “enigmatic figure,” which is conveyed quite clearly throughout the film. In an exchange between Generals Jodl and Rommel, the audience gains perspective on the complexity that is General George S. Patton: “He writes poetry and believes in reincarnation… He prays on his knees but curses like a stable boy. He has one standing order: Always take the offensive, never dig in.” This ‘never dig in’ attitude is in vivid display when the General faces down a Nazi fighter pilot; Patton shouts, “Come on you bastards, take a shot at me, right in the nose!” Coppola helps us understand the significance of this moment in an earlier conversation with Senior Officer Omar Nelson “Brad” Bradley, during which Patton muses, “I can remember when nothing frightened me as much as the idea of a bullet coming straight for my nose.”
The film continues in Northern Africa with Patton’s arrival at the US II Corps Headquarters in February 1943, shortly after the United States’ first major defeat of World War II: The Battle of Kasserine Pass. Nazi Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps obliterated US General Lloyd Fredendall’s outfit in a mortifying display of German technological dominance over the United States in regards to tanks, known among the soldiers as “Purple Heart Boxes.”
A Purple Heart is a medal given to those wounded or killed in battle. Because US tanks ran on gasoline, a much more flammable fuel than German diesel, they would explode on contact with shrapnel, earning them this morbid name.
Upon receiving this information from Officer Bradley, Patton begins to make the first of many swift changes; he immediately contacts Chief of Staff Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith to clear Brad as his deputy commander and proceeds to change the rank-signifying stars on his collar from two to three. (Two stars on a soldier’s collar signifies the rank of Major General, while three stars signifies the rank of Lieutenant General. This is significant because although Patton was nominated by the President for a rank change, it only becomes official when voted on by Congress. When Brad confronts Patton with this formality, the general responds with: “They have their schedule, I have mine.” This also signifies the transfer of power from Fredendall to Patton.) Patton advances to implement strict changes in unit organization, from the kitchen, to the barracks, to the infirmary.
“Gentlemen… from this moment any man without leggings, without a helmet, without a tie… any man with unshined shoes or a soiled uniform… is going to be skinned.” -General Patton
The General discloses to Brad, “We’re going to start turning these boys into fanatics, razors. They’ll lose their fear of the Germans, I only hope to God they never lose their fear of me.” Herein lies the true Machiavellian essence of Patton’s character. Patton is a military historian, a “romantic warrior lost in contemporary times,” as the film reminds us. As Niccolò Machiavelli famously (or rather infamously) stated, “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” However, it is Patton’s strong belief that to be a respected General and command a respectable outfit means to know that one can never be both feared and loved — which is why he was left confounded upon receiving “fan mail,” as his aide referred to it, in the wake of taking Palermo and later Messina in clear violation of orders.
This presents another undeniable congruence between Patton and his Italian predecessor: utter disregard for authority. Patton proposed his ingenious plan of attack to British General Harold Alexander during a dinner party; the United States would land in Palermo, General Montgomery would lead the British into Syracuse, and the allied forces would proceed to take Messina, the “jugular” of the island, together, just as the Athenians did during the Sicilian Expedition of 415 BC. When General Smith decides instead to follow General Montgomery’s plan, which would have Patton’s army protecting Britain’s left flank as they drove up the coast and took the glory of Messina, Patton is disgusted. On his own authority, the General defies President Eisenhower’s orders and lands with his outfit on the beaches of Palermo. Such actions are encouraged by Machiavelli, who believed the people were in no way subject to obey their leader. He writes,
“Their government is [weak] and… insecure, because it rests entirely on the goodwill of those citizens who are raised to the magistracy, and who, especially in troubled times, can destroy the government with great ease, either by intrigue or open defiance… the citizens and subjects… are not of a mind to obey him” (Machiavelli, Niccolò. Chapter IX, The Prince. 1532.)
Patton’s rejection of authority is, especially in the case of Messina, simultaneously his greatest strength and greatest weakness in a figurative state of quantum superposition. While Patton’s military genius saved countless lives and allowed the Allies to take Sicily, his blatant insubordination ultimately caused him to be relieved of his duties and instead used as an impotent figurehead to indirectly aid the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Quantum superposition is defined by theoretical physicist Paul Dirac as when the sum of two quantum states is itself a valid quantum state, and, subversley, that all quantum states can result from a sum of two other distinct states. See the Schrödinger Cat Analogy: the cat is both alive and dead when inside the box, and it is only until the researcher opens the box that the cat’s superposition collapses into one of the two states.
Beyond the enticement of eternal glory as a war hero, General Patton is motivated by an almost violent need to relive (in his case, literally) historical battles. Despite being a devout Episcopalian, reincarnation laid at the epicenter of his dogma. On his way to the Kasserine battlefield, Patton ordered his driver to turn right, stating simply yet firmly that he can “smell a battlefield.” The General and Bradley step out of the car and into the ruins of the Battle of Carthage. Patton inhales deeply, and, upon turning to his companion, says, “The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred… 2,000 years ago. I was here.” He goes on to prose from his poem “Through A Glass Darkly”:
“[Perhaps I stabbed our Savior in His sacred helpless side. Yet I’ve called His name in blessing, when in after times I died.] Through the travail of the ages, midst the pomp and toil of war, have I fought and strove and perished, countless times upon this star. I have sinned and I have suffered, played the hero and the knave, fought for belly, shame or country, and for each have found a grave. So as through a glass and darkly, the age long strife I see: where I fought in many guises, many names; but always me. [So forever in the future, shall I battle as of yore, dying to be born a fighter; but to die again once more.]”
Patton Producer Frank McCarthy initially proposed the movie in 1951 after returning from duty in World War II, during which he knew and held great reverance for the General. However, it was not until the mid-1960s that the multitudinous obstacles he faced would finally recede. When the film, which outwardly glorifies war, was released in 1970, it did so into festering anti-war tidal pools breeding war-hating doves, for this was the zenith of Vietnam’s anti-war movement.
The loury reality of this perilous endeavor, and the career-threatening truth it posed, loomed portending in the psyches of all involved. In Vincent Canby’s review of Patton, published in The New York Times on February 5, 1970, the movie’s thesis was met with utter abhorrence. Canby writes, “‘Patton: A Salute to a Rebel’ is likely to strike terror into any rational person who refuses- perhaps absurdly- to believe that war is a man’s most noble endeavor… It’s both fascinating and appalling the sort of extravagant technically superior spectacle that only a big Hollywood movie company could afford to make, and the story of a man about whom only the Establishment could become genuinely sentimental.” In the movie’s prologue, which Canby defines as “pure Camp” imparted in front of a “huge, almost Rauschenberg American flag,” General Patton delivers the line: “All real Americans love the sting of battle.” This line was drafted by the General to bestir combat soldiers into a united front and consolidate morale, but, when it fell upon the ears of liberal Americans, most of whom had never seen a battlefield, it did little but aggrieve them. However, once the potency of this movement began to subside, American citizens allowed themselves to appreciate the artfulness of both the movie and the man. Thus, the film’s relevance: it represented a pro-war perspective in a world that presented little deviance from an anti-war societal standard. The production didn’t allow Americans to see the good in war, it forced them to — from 1970 to today — all in glorious technicolor.