Though it’s a rare occurrence, there have been some good pro-war films in years past. For example, though everyone remembers the Bogie/Bergmann romance, Casablanca was an important piece of anti-isolationist propaganda to help spur the war efforts back home. The number of legendary anti-war movies seems comparatively infinite, and why not? Taking even a glance at the casualty figures of any war past or present makes the anti-war stance an easy one to take if you’re a filmmaker. But what about films that depict war realistically, yet still resist the temptation to align themselves with either side of the spectrum? Well, there are movies like Flags of Our Fathers, The Hurt Locker and the iconic Patton.
Exactly as you might think, Patton, whose title character is played by George C. Scott, depicts notorious hard-ass General George Patton throughout various decisive moments during American involvement in the Second World War. And considering its release in 1970, its not being either pro or anti-war seems that much more significant. With public opinion about Vietnam so divided in the late ‘60s, it was vital there be a film that both sides could find an ideological agreement with, and the Academy Award-winning screenplay from Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North deftly balances between those sentiments – appropriate considering Patton vehemently rejected the notion of being a political figure.
Aided by an immense performance from Scott, Coppola and North pay effective reverence to Patton and parts of his legacy. His larger than life stature – just watch this film’s opening scene – is matched by an emphasis on his romantic personality. Patton was a bona fide history nerd, idolizing masters of war and their strategic philosophies, and such a persona is a refreshing, though minor step away from the classic, tough as nails approach to portraying similar characters and historical figures.
In fact, it’s often times difficult not to be struck with awe witnessing Patton assert himself as a conductor of carnage on the battlefield. But at that same token, the film’s depiction of war violence is wholly indicative of a then-modern era realism that isn’t too flattering for its practice. Quick editing and a camera with a knack for finding bloodied, ripped apart bodies honestly tell of battle’s brutality and were sure to satisfy those protesting Vietnam in present day. Not to mention Patton was certainly flawed, with the narrative revealing him as less than compassionate and unabashedly old school in key moments. But then, it could never feel completely anti-war as some set pieces are punctuated in the dialogue by archetypal Hollywood one-liners.
Along with an ambitious scope and scale, its intentional dichotomy of modernized violence with traditional artificiality in staging, cinematography, score and actor chemistry speaks to a skillful balance between newer and older filmmaking styles. Just like not all filmgoers would have been actively protesting against the war and the establishment supporting it, not everyone would have been accepting of New Hollywood, particularly films like Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch that feature bloodier, more chaotic and generally more excessive violence compared to all films you will find from the Hays Code era. So, Patton introduces itself as a more digestible offering for those not quite used to more contemporary filmmaking.
To be so even-keeled philosophically and contextually in an era of American history defined by turbulent politics, and in a period of transition for Hollywood speaks to Coppola and North’s skill as writers, as well as Franklin J. Schaffner’s skill as a director. In spite of an approach geared more toward mass appeal – something that can’t be said about quite a few of the decade’s classic films – Patton can hardly be categorized as agreeable. Its 170-minute runtime is often blunted by the astounding attention to detail not just to the setting, but also the General’s life – the episodic narrative and consistent pacing help, too.
In the film, Scott’s Patton laments the growing modernism of the 20th century, and considering the nature of the real life Patton’s demise and how quickly American film in the ‘70s would change, perhaps there’s a dark parallel to make in retrospect that’s a little on the nose. For a decade ready to leave the theatrical pretension of cinema’s past behind, Patton sure as hell made sure it began with a bombastic bang.