Saturday, July 1, 2017
Sometimes people don't know when I'm reviewing. It's not important for them to know. It's important for me to know.
In other words, sorry for the hiatus.
In other other words, let's get right into Patton.
Patton functions well as a straight war picture, with some great battle shots and a good general sense of history. But it primarily functions as a character study of General George S. Patton - a man who seemingly lived his life as if he was a character written for a movie. Equal parts bombastic and sentimental, foul-mouthed and strangely delicate about particular matters, if Patton hadn't been a real person, you could probably confuse him with a character who wandered off the set of Catch-22. How can a man who has just given his men a vulgar speech full of fire, brimstone, and curses, then insist on being driven out to an ancient battlefield and quote his own poetry with misty-eyed rapture? Especially poetry that is actually rather good. The Roger Ebert review from 1970 points out that George C. Scott as Patton in the opening scene is wearing perhaps two fewer medals than Groucho Marx would have worn to play the parody of the character. Yet the medals are worn in all seriousness, without even a hint that they might be considered excessive. The whole movie functions on that level. It is undeniably the Patton Show, and when the camera goes off to focus on someone else - whether Americans, British, or German, Patton is still the subject of conversation.
Even many other biopics allow the subject a little more room, maybe some discussion solely of events that we know will affect the subject, but that they have no knowledge about. Yet here, if Patton is not directly involved, he is the subject of conversation. The Germans admire him as a romantic throwback, the British despair of him as a glory hound, and the Americans go between adoring him as a plain-spoken warrior and despising him for being a blunt old bastard. The thing that keeps him being likable as a character is that he is all of these things, and is fully aware of it. The problem comes in that he has to exist in the world with other people. He doesn't understand people who are not like him, and makes no real effort to try.
We've all known people like this, and they are generally exhausting in real life. But on the screen, especially as a central figure in a mesmerizing biopic, they can become irresistible. As a film, this functions as one of the truly great biopics, both by completely centering its subject, and by not attempting to whitewash any flaws. Lawrence of Arabia is another of the great biopics, and is also a Registry film, which I will get to eventually. But the difference between the two is that Lawrence of Arabia makes sure that the viewer never fully forgets that T.E. Lawrence is playing a part between two great dramas: WWI and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. In Patton, WWII might as well have just been fought to give old George something to do in his twilight years. But judging by the characters of the two men, that's precisely how both of them saw themselves in relation to their conflict. And that's what makes Patton memorable as a war epic and as a biopic.