Monday, June 19, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Last Days of Patton" (1986)

This is a movie website, though I do occasionally wander into personal musings, politics and even television. I feel comfortable including the made-for-TV "The Last Days of Patton" here, since it is the largely unknown sequel to 1970's seminal "Patton."

General George S. Patton was surely the signature role of George C. Scott's long film career, and that's saying something. He won a Best Actor Oscar for the 1970 film (which he declined) and no doubt relished the chance to revisit the character, who died shortly following the end of World War II after being paralyzed in a freak auto accident.

It's the classic "lion in winter" sort of tale, with the grizzled old warrior facing his own mortality, his reputation tarnished as wartime gives way to peace and celebrated fighters like Patton quickly turned into anachronisms. Literally until his dying breath, Patton yearned for the chance to take on the "mongrel" Russians, allies of necessity whom he predicted would become America's greatest global foe.

Interestingly, despite the 16-year gap between the film and its made-for-TV followup, Scott was actually about the same age as the character during the second go-round. He was barely into his 40s when he first played Patton, who turned 60 shortly before his death.

Director Delbert Mann started and ended his career in television, though he helmed a bunch of seminal feature films in the 1950s and '60s, including winning an Academy Award for "Marty." Teleplay writer William Luce was a TV guy through and through, and co-script man Ladislas Farago wrote the historical book about Patton upon which the movie was based.

The movie is anchored by Scott's formidable presence as Patton. He's a mountain of a man, always seeming too large for whatever space he's occupying. Scott plays the character as an egotistical, hard-wound but genuinely audacious person, the sort that the study of history is made more interesting for having him.

It suffers a bit from the technical confines of television, especially the nearly square aspect ratio and tendency toward camera work that is slightly fuzzy and dominated by saturated colors. I would love to see the exact same story shot in widescreen with high-end equipment.

The first half of the movie is much more compelling to me than the second, which is entirely comprised of Patton laid up in his hospital bed, making gruff pronouncements to anyone who visits while experiencing wistful (read: out of focus) flashbacks to his youth and childhood.

As the story opens, Patton has been declared military governor of Bavaria, overseeing a stretch of Germany devastated during the war. It's an ironic twist of fate: the very men responsible for turning an area to rubble are now given the responsibility for feeding the people and rebuilding the infrastructure.

Ensconced in a magnificent German castle, Patton would much rather be fighting the Russians but still attacks his assignment with gusto. Soon the shipping canals are open, the German POWs are whipped into shape (Patton dreamed of using them to bolster his own troops against the Rooskies) and the threat of mass starvation during the winter of 1945-46 is averted.

Unfortunately, Patton largely accomplishes this by keeping the wartime civilian leaders in place, in defiance of General Dwight D. Eisenhower's edict to expel all Nazi party members from positions of authority. He (correctly) argues that most of them only paid the Nazis lip service in order to remain in power, and turning things over to a bunch of inept novices would devastate the populace.

Eventually, Ike (Richard Dysart) and Patton have a confrontation in which the war dog is dressed down and relieved of his command. It's clear that this also marks the end of their long, troubled friendship. Like his conflict with Omar Bradley in "Patton," it's another example of how filmmakers portrayed Patton as a man who knew he was destined for greatness, only to be continually confounded by lesser military minds who were more adept at the political maneuvering necessary to reach the highest levels of command.

Patton is placed in charge of Fifteenth Army, a literal "paper army" that consisted of a few clerks who were tasked with writing the official history of the war. He is despondent and writes to his wife, Beatrice (Eva Marie Saint), that he intends not to return to Europe following his Christmas leave beginning Dec. 10.

In the film's oddest sequence, Patton is given a surprise birthday party by a bunch of his old troops. Initially seeming perturbed, he soon warms to the occasion, even leading a bawdy sing-a-long about a British prostitute who's the ugliest girl in England, but still does brisk business owing to the darkness of the constant blackouts from German air raids.

Then she appears. Jean Gordon (Kathryn Leigh Scott, no relation to George) is Patton's niece, with whom he reputedly carried on a long affair during the war. She was a nurse who sometimes followed Patton in his postings.

Historians have argued about whether the affair really happened, noting that a bedridden Patton may have been boasting about his sexual prowess because he was facing the prospect of death or invalidism. Given that she committed suicide shortly after his death, and was found surrounded by his photographs and letters, I'd say there was plenty of merit to the charge.

Weirdly, Patton introduces Jean as his "half-niece." I'm not sure whether this was the filmmakers' appellation or a term Patton actually used to mitigate his horrid behavior. Either way, it's ridiculous. You can become someone's uncle by marriage -- as did I, picking up two nephews, a niece and now a grand-niece by saying "I do" -- but that does not make them your "half niece" or "niece-in-law."

(It is possible to have a half-niece, but only if your half-sibling has a daughter.)

The affair has a strange effect on how we regard Patton. Here is this huge, bombastic figure who helped crush Hitler's regime. And the scenes between him and Beatrice in the film's second half, as well as the many flashbacks to their younger life, make clear the love between them was strong and true. Yet he was having sex with his niece. That is 9th-circle-of-Hell sinfulness, folks.

Not to be judgemental of actual people from antiquity, but I'm not surprised things ended with a suicide.

Patton's accident is presented as it actually happened: a freak occurrence that should have resulted in, at most, a few bruises. (Indeed, none of the five other people involved were seriously hurt.) Patton's  limousine, which was carrying him and longtime chief-of-staff/pal Lt. Gen. Hobart "Hap" Gay (Murray Hamilton) to go pheasant hunting, collided with an Army truck at a railroad crossing. Patton struck the window partition and suffered a severe scalp laceration and spinal compression fracture.

I'm afraid I pretty well lost interest in the film after this point. There's some slightly interesting stuff about how the famous general's injury was described in the press, who in typical form are depicted as nameless, scurrying rodents nipping at the heels of truly important VIPs. One female journalist is shown complaining that she was thrown out after inquiring after the general's very personal hygiene.

Ed Lauter plays Paul Hill, the Army doctor in charge of Patton's recovery. At first they attach an anchor to the top of his skull to get traction to relieve pressure on the broken spine. Later this is exchanged for "fishhooks under the cheekbones," to use the non-medical colorful phrase. Ol' Blood and Guts literally smiles through the pain.

In the end Ike orders the doctors to transport the patient back to the U.S. because American authorities do not want to have one of their most famous generals die on German soil. But Patton succumbs to an embolism before this can happen. His final scenes have Patton declaring his devotion to Beatrice, then closing his eyes for the last time to the sound of Christmas carolers walking through the hospital.

I am glad they made a sequel to "Patton," though I wish it were a superior one not cramped by the limits of 1980s television. It's not a bad film, but two great men -- George S. Patton and George C. Scott -- deserved better.

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