It’s not hard to imagine what the opening of Patton must have looked like in 1970.
The war in Vietnam War is lost. The army is falling apart. Officers get “fragged.” Racial tension is at an all time high. Military discipline is at an all time low. Drug use is rampant. You’re sitting in your seat at the movie theater. It’s General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. Behind him is an enormous American flag. The speech is an unabashed ode to militarism and American exceptionalism. Surely, you think, this is satire, the kind of thing that, if you jumped into your time machine, you might see on the Steven Colbert show. But no. The three hour movie that follows treats the fascist creep George S. Patton like a hero, a problematic hero to be sure, but a hero nonetheless. This isn’t a B-movie like the hilariously inept Green Berets by John Wayne. It’s a big budget, mainstream, well-acted film based on a script by Francis Ford Coppola. What the hell is going on?
A lot of people in 1970 saw Patton as a slap in the face to the anti-war movement, as the voice of the silent majority. Richard Nixon is reported to have had frequent screenings in the White House, often to psych himself up before another bombing. Others saw George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton is deep, complex satire, as a portrait of a man so out of touch with modernity that it drove him crazy. Robert Duvall would reprise Scott’s performance 8 years later in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he would say to the cheers of conservatives and to the horrified appreciation of liberals. Both movies are complex, and often contradictory mixtures of liberalism and militarism. If Apocalypse Now has Colonel Kilgore and the even more unbalanced Colonel Kurtz, it also has Captain Willard, a complex man struggling to remain sane in the Vietnamese madhouse. Patton, in turn, has Karl Malden’s Omar Bradley, the “soldier’s general,” a humble man who seems to embody the values of the New Deal. The United States high command sends Willard to kill Kurtz when he went too far. In Patton, the solution is a bit less extreme. He’s rigidly monitored, kept on a short leash by the adults in Washington and London, by Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Harold Alexander. He was a capable tank commander, the film seems to say, one who never had any political influence.
Patton is neither pro nor anti-war, liberal nor conservative. It’s neither patriotic nor a send up of American exceptionalism. It is, rather, a portrait of the military man as a neoliberal corporate executive, as a “job creator,’ as a maverick who blows into a stodgy old company full of stuffed suits and makes it profitable, as Donald Trump with 3 stars and a pearl handled revolver. Patton opens in North Africa in the immediate aftermath of the German victory at Kasserine Pass. The United States Army, which in in North Africa to lock down France’s old colonies before the “natives” get any ideas about declaring their independence, is in bad shape. Discipline is lax. Moral is low. It is, in short, the same United States army that, in 1970, was falling apart in Vietnam. Patton, like a good corporate “efficiency expert,” blows in like a cyclone, not only restoring traditional military discipline, but subjecting the troops to a series of rigid, yet arbitrary rules designed to make them feel insecure enough to work as hard as they would if they were in the private sector. He even dismisses a brigade commander on the spot and replaces him with his second in command. Think Donald Trump in The Apprentice. “You’re fired.”
Throughout the film, George S. Patton is an anti-communist and a Russophobe, a quality that constantly gets him into trouble with the Allied High Command. The Russians, after all, are the ones doing most of the heavy lifting to beat Hitler. Piss them off too much, and they might just negotiate a separate peace with the Germans. But Patton’s real nemesis is not Russian. He’s British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, the hero of the Battle of El Alamein. Patton is Coke. Montgomery is Pepsi. Patton is General Motors. Montgomery is Ford. If the Englishman and the American aren’t allies, they’re not exactly enemies either. Rather, they’re two corporate CEOs, two “job creators” whose rivalry pushes both their armies onto achievements they wouldn’t have achieved under a man like Beddell Smith or Omar Bradley. It wasn’t democracy that beat Hitler, the film tells us. It was capitalism.On the surface, Patton is liberal, if liberal, as Arthur Schlesinger defines it, means “the bureaucratic state putting limits on capitalism.” Patton is a skillful tank commander, but he, like corporate America in general, is given to excess. He slaps a soldier suffering from “shell shock.” The stuffed suits in Washington and London put him on probation. We agree with General Eisenhower, who wrote Patton and labeled his action as “despicable,” but we also understand why the Germans are so confused that the American government would relieve one of its best generals of his command for slapping a nobody. Wasn’t Steve Jobs more important than any one of the low level Apple employees his subjected to his abuse? Proles are proles, after all, and job creators are job creators. It’s a trade off, the movie tells us, between a brilliant, if abusive and eccentric man, and the company (the nation) as a whole. Thank God, it concludes, the United States government back then knew how to strike the right balance.
But like all good propaganda, the devil is in the details. More importantly, it’s in what’s not mentioned at all. Karl Malden portrays Omar Bradley as a good democrat who cares about his rank and file troops and resents Patton’s showboating. The real Omar Bradley was nothing of the sort. While it’s true that his style was more self-effacing than Patton’s, he was also one of the most powerful military men in American history, a master at bureaucratic infighting who was deeply involved in some of the dirtiest covert operations of the Cold War. He would have undoubtedly laughed at, yet appreciated Malden’s “aw shucks” caricature. Then there’s the Russians, or, to be more accurate, the Soviet Union. On the surface, the film appears to tackle the issue head on. Patton is a reactionary and a Russophobe. He’s rebuked by the Allied high command. But it’s a clever slight of hand. The film portrays the landing at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as key events rather than the sideshow they really were. “We can still lose this war,” Patton observes when the Germans make their last great counteroffensive in the Ardennes. He forgets to mention who they’d lose it to, not to Hitler, but to Stalin. The Soviet Union had won the war in 1943.
The Russians make a brief, and comical appearance at the end of Patton. In reality, the invasion of Normandy was a small time affair compared to the Battle of Stalingrad, and, compared to the Battle of Kursk, the Battle of the Bulge was a mere skirmish. The United States wasn’t in the war to beat Hitler. They were in the war to keep Stalin from marching all the way to the English Channel and to keep Algeria from declaring its independence. But it really doesn’t matter. As Patton, correctly, observes, the traditional all out war is a thing of the past. The Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, not to Patton the tank commander but to Patton the neoliberal corporate executive, the very thing he seems so afraid of becoming. Coppola’s script purports to be a fictionalized biography of a colorful misfit, of a man profoundly out of touch with the march of history. He was anything but. Just like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, George C. Scott’s George S. Patton was the future, and, just like that shell shocked soldier in Sicily, we were all about to get slapped.