“Patton” the film is one of those generational touchstones that, like many similar artifacts, is fast vanishing into the event horizon of seldom watched and hardly remembered Black Holes.
Mostly due to the systemic enforced amnesia of a system that requires convincing its addicts that each new thing is not in fact a thrice reheated serving of leftovers cobbled together from the spare parts of still other leftovers, the film has faded away except for people of a certain age and those who find both the character and the story fascinating.
With George C. Scott in the title role, chewing the scenery and the ersatz Germans, supporting roles filled by (among others) Karl Malden, as “Omar Bradley” and a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, the film is stealthily subversive and in places, truly brilliant.
Released during the Vietnam war it seems on the surface to be more John Wayne Green Beret propaganda than not – so long as the viewer isn’t very bright.
The film is decidedly about the inherent moral dilemmas of war, the corruptions of violence, the dangers of the cult of violence, and the power of the warlord.
Self aware of itself as a fiction and as an archetypal mirror of a self aware archetype, “Patton” holds a mirror up to “Patton” and to the actual man and the nation and history.
The famous opening with Scott in front of an enormous flag, is of course every general in Vietnam who said in one way or another, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
“America loves a winner” says Scott’s “Patton” because that’s true but also because it’s ironic and tragic because of course “Vietnam” as narrative is all about losing.
Coppola has Scott/Patton say at one point, god help me I love it (war) a line later more (in)famous as it becomes Robert Duval, in Apocalypse Now saying, I love the smell of napalm in the morning…
But crucially, “Patton” is about the continuity of violence; of war and uses Patton as a fulcrum to balance the existential nightmare idea that history repeats.
The hauntingly brilliant musical score – essentially another character in the film – acts to calibrate the dilemma as it moves from inspirational to dirge but always operates as a conveyor of the (Nietzschen) idea of a tragic eternal return.
Thus “Patton” refers to Patton’s belief in reincarnation which, splits off from the biographical fact of the man’s faith to become a work of artistic gesture that reflects the theme of the film – the eternal return of a historical theme.
Told by a British general that he would have made an excellent marshal for Bounaparte, “Patton” says (to ensuing nervous laughter) “But, I was…” and in a sense, that is true.
The uniform changes but the bloody details, like a beast or a victim in a Goya painting, remains the same.
Consider the scene towards the beginning in which “Bradley” and “Patton” are being driven to survey the post defeat carnage of Kasserine Pass where Rommel had given the then green US army a bloody nose and a kick in the ass.
“Patton” orders the driver to turn off the route and “Bradley” says the driver knows where the battlefield is.
“Patton” says, it was here – don’t tell me where the battlefield is, I know.
What follows is a scene set amid ancient ruins (filmed in North Africa amid the actual ruins) of Carthage (or a reasonable facsimile equally old).
“Patton” recounts the basic details for “Bradley” (who was a graduate of West Point and would have known ancient history but why let pesky truths get in the way of good art) and explains how the Romans defeated the Carthaginians.
“Patton” again explains that he was “there” – Carthaginian, Roman, American.
Described by a German officer as a lost/last romantic warrior out of Don Quixote, and the “last pure warrior” “Patton” becomes elastic; a cartoon figure but not silly rather tragic in the manner of all large scale historical figures.
Memory by definition requires a kind of cannibalism.
No one is born knowing about Hannibal crossing the alps or Operation Cobra.
As a result there is no escaping the inherent fictional nature of memory or “History” and that’s fictional in the sense that the ordering of the facts and the extent to which the facts are given meaning and depth is no different than the process by which a work of fiction is created.
With the passage of time, as an integral part of this process, the real (i.e., Patton) becomes entwined with the false (i.e., “Patton”) and the events around which the figures move become both fiction and fact.
“Patton” surveying a graveyard in North Africa, says to “Bradley” we wont be forgotten and orders guards posted to protect the graves.
But of course time, which is history, which is memory, must erase itself in order to recreate itself.
In the end, walking towards windmills like Quixote, “Patton” in the voice of Scott, recounts the Roman tradition of the victory parade in which the conquering general, led a triumphant procession and standing behind him in the chariot, holding a laurel wreath over his head, was a servant (or slave) who whispered in the hero’s ear: all glory is fleeting.
The past is another country into which everything enters in order to write the future which forgets itself so that it can, paradoxically recreate itself.