Patton (Best Picture, 1970)
PATTON is not what I expected. A war movie released in 1970, a biopic of one of the most famous and brilliant military minds in American history, makes it impossible
to ignore the context of its release. In the US in 1970, the nation was divided over the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. And that’s putting it mildly.
So I expected PATTON to take a stand on the subject of war. But instead of promoting or condemning war, creating a film tone of blind jingoism or jaded cynicism, PATTON struggles with ambivalence and contradiction. Patton himself, portrayed in a masterful performance by George C. Scott, is a bundle of eccentric contradictions. He clearly cares for his troops and is deeply upset by the deaths and injuries of the young men, but he also has no patience for “battle fatigue” (either combat stress or PTSD) or soldiers who just can’t take it anymore. He has those with self-inflicted injuries or emotional breakdowns removed from the official infirmaries because they aren’t worthy of sharing space with those wounded in battle, and he actually slaps and threatens to shoot one such soldier.
One of the German officers assigned to research Patton for Rommel describes Patton as a sixteenth-century man, a military historian who will base his strategic decisions on what was successful for past campaigns. The German officer says that Patton will invade Sicily because that’s what the Athenians did. He compares Patton to Don Quixote, though I’m not really sure how fair that is – he is certainly not what one expects from a twentieth-century general, but he is not stuck in a dream to the extent that Quixote is.
Biopics, like war movies, usually want to make the audience feel strongly, one way or the other, about their subjects. Patton is fascinating, enigmatic, and volatile. But I neither like nor dislike him. Perhaps that was intentional, perhaps not, but it sure seems to reflect the back-and-forth within general American culture at the time. The film swings between making Patton a war hero and making him a complete jerk. Maybe that’s the point – a man can fight a war and be a hero, and still not be quite admirable.
The French Connection (Best Picture, 1971)
There have been several movies in this project so far that I haven’t loved, and even more that I don’t really feel the need to watch again. THE FRENCH CONNECTION is the first one I’ve truly felt was wasted on me. Billed as a dramatic thriller about a pair of New York cops trying to bring down a narcotics ring, to me it was neither dramatic nor thrilling. Apparently it’s based on a true story, but I suspect reading the book would be more interesting.
It’s one of those movies in which every character is aggressively stressed and angry, and this is somehow supposed to make it an intense, gripping movie-watching experience. About 75% of the film is wordless shots of the cops tailing their marks in grimy, frigid New York City, and the rest of it is full of quick, jerky cuts and that shrill, almost-off-key music that’s so distinctive of 1970s dramas. I know this is supposed to be a classic, but it just didn’t do it for me. Honestly, I had trouble following it. It’s an hour and forty-five minutes long and I don’t know any of the characters’ names, and I can’t explain the plot, other than that there are cops tailing French narcotics dealers and the commanding officer doesn’t think the cops are using their time well. At some point there’s a car accident where random teenagers die, and then there’s a sniper who misses his target and kills a mother pushing a baby carriage instead.
Maybe I’m not deep enough. I just don’t get it. I don’t get modern art, either.
Doesn’t bode well for the 1970s. Hopefully the other movies in this decade will have more intelligible plotlines. Also, can I just say – two movies entirely based around men. Where are the women?
Up Next: The Godfather (Best Picture, 1972) and The Sting (Best Picture, 1973)