Patton: The 1970 Best Picture — Some Things Do Not Change . . . Even For Film

George S. Patton was an American general and a hero of the second world war. General Patton was given to gruff, colorful and direct overstatement. He was not one to mince words.

George C. Scott plays Patton in the 1970 Oscar-winning Best Picture, for which he was voted the Best Actor of that year. George C. Scott is an American acting legend and a hero to many. At the awards ceremony, Actor Scott refused his Oscar with the addition of some colorful phraseology of his own. He was not one to mince words.

General and Actor in their ways were it seems much the same.

This is a war picture. It starts with Patton in North Africa, where the General pins on his third star and brilliantly maneuvers the American tanks to chase the Nazi General Rommel onto an airplane to Berlin with a head cold. The fighting moves to Sicily, where General Patton bests the British in the race to Messina. At which point, the General’s words in the Actor’s mouth effectively remove him from favor. He retires to England to waive speeches to British ladies in a ruse to confuse the Germans. Patton does not enjoy this domestic, if salutary, role; and the General’s words in the Actor’s mouth again get him into trouble and relegate the able warrior to the back seat and away from the action. After the Allied invasion of France, General Patton receives his fourth star and is allowed to return to his beloved tanks and their able soldiers. Patton drives the Third Army across France toward the German homeland. At this point and to the north, the Germans rally and counterattack in force, bulging the Allied lines into the freezing winter and surrounding the Americans in the pivotal Belgium town of Bastogne. This is where we and the world see the true Patton. The General rallies his men to do the impossible. The Third Army pivots and turns, fights through the frozen slush and numbing cold, breaks the German stranglehold, and rescues their stranded comrades — all of this as the newsreels turn and the world watches in wide-eyed amazement. The General has secured his place in history and the Actor his place in film. There is some more, some not unexpected verbal mishaps, but the war is soon over. Our General and Actor walk slowly off into the quiet evening as the show ends. This is a war film and the war is over.

EhtnoFamilyMovieOgraphy (EFMO) does not end with that final scene. There is a survey to fill out and the resulting data to manipulate.

One of the questions on the EFMO survey is this: “If this movie were a branch of the federal government (Executive, Legislative, Judicial), which branch do you feel describes this film?” For this film, no one circled Legislative or Judicial. Everyone circled Executive. This has happened just once before for another war film, Lawrence of Arabia.

Surprisingly, as many people rated the film 1 and 2 (at the low end) as rated the film 9 and 10 (at the high end). Why? What’s going on here?

Let’s look at the summary sentence that reflects the audience comments:

“Some viewers liked the movie as a war movie and some disliked the movie because it is a war movie; George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton was generally applauded; Patton was appreciated for his honesty, determination, strength and patriotism, which were countered by his big mouth, politics, the press and the sad realities of war; overall, this is a war movie and for that reason its overall rating is low — somewhat of a surprise that war has such a polarizing effect on otherwise thoughtful and objective viewers of cinema, but then again in the fine realm of entertainment is there ever truly detachment?”

The one word for the show: “War.” The average rating for Patton: 7.15. That moves the film down to #33 of the 43 Best Pictures viewed to date. Not since the third Best Picture in 1930, All Quiet On the Western Front, have we had a similar result. The word for that movie was also “War” and the average rating of 7.30 for that film is not much different than for Patton. Even among the great war films, there is not that much different.

Perhaps we should not be surprised by the result.

There is in war that which separates and is not well received.

This is just a movie, but it is nonetheless the depiction of war; and in that the film and the reality appear to share in the same result.

Some things it seems do not change, and war it seems is one of those things that does not — for itself, for its audience and for the film.

Even for a great film, it is still a war show.

And war is war.


Grandpa Jim