BEST PICTURE REVISITED: PATTON (1970)

Two hours into Patton, George C. Scott surveys the wounded, with the smoke of battle rolling by. “I love it,” he says as George Patton. “God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life.” War is all there is for this General Patton, the merciless commander of the Third Army in World War II. As the Best Picture winner of 1970, Patton struck the American consciousness halfway between the majesty of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish Apocalypse Now. Like Lawrence, Patton lives and breathes battle; the Germans mockingly call him Don Quixote, knowing how irrationally romantic his bloodlust is. Director Franklin J. Schaffner pays homage to Lean’s sweeping panoramas, especially in the Tunisian and Algerian deserts. Few movies photograph war this lushly.

But there’s also Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote a draft screenplay (originally rejected) that later was used heavily in the final script. His writing on Patton ushers in the cynical seventies epic. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II charted the spiritual downfall of Michael Corleone in his rise to power; Apocalypse Now would end the decade in a haze of disillusion, the journey leading nowhere. Where does warmongering lead Patton? Even Coppola’s opening was provocative by the standards of 1970, lifted from an actual Patton speech before Normandy but partly censored on the screen:

George C. Scott scorches as Patton. He starts on top of the world, a fearless if reckless leader, but after his aggressive tactics invading Sicily, he becomes a man sidelined, humiliated. Scott is a disciplined performer; there’s a twinkle of gentlemanly charm to balance Patton’s outward crudeness. He’s wry and irascible, with that gruff voice of his, but we know from Dr. Strangelove that he’s funny, and that helps.

Why It Won

The top four grossing movies of the year were Love Story, Airport, MASH, and Patton… and they all received Best Picture nominations! Imagine if that happened today. (“Best Picture nominee Iron Man 3!”) We were a few years into the American New Wave, when directors became chief authors and movies aimed for a more European sensibility. Movies became more violent, more closely tied to real events and the spreading national paranoia. In the midst of all this came Airport, which kicked off the ‘70s disaster film. If you’ve never seen it, don’t waste your time. Tastes have changed, to be fair; The Avengers could seem just as over-hyped in forty years. Did Airport know it was camp then? Or did Love Story?

Love does not preclude apologizing, for the record. Even What’s Up, Doc? in 1972 would have Ryan O’Neal parody this line, the very core of Love Story’s schmaltzy immaturity. The public might have embraced Love Story the way they did The Graduate; but when the zeitgeist ended, we still quote “Plastics” constantly. The cinema was growing too wise for a sapfest masquerading as a work of realism. (It also spawned a sequel with the tagline “It takes someone very special to help you forget someone very special.”)

If Airport and Love Story are two of the worst nominees ever, MASH (and you may love it) hasn’t aged any better. Robert Altman’s comedy is a wiseass rebuke to Patton and its like. Who could marvel at the glory of war in the midst of Vietnam? If MASH pretends to be about the Korean War, it’s irrelevant. I think most of the humor is sitcom-level at best, but maybe that’s all Altman intended: MASH continued the war for eleven years on TV!

Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces best matched the aimlessness so many young Americans felt by 1970. For those who didn’t go to war, or didn’t die of a sudden tragic disease like Ali MacGraw, Jack Nicholson’s wandering blue-collar worker from a white-collar family captured their discontent. He’s defined by running away: from his family, from his girlfriend, from his prodigy-like piano talent. More than most counterculture movies, Five Easy Pieces resonates now. But the race was probably between Love Story and Patton, and enough critics resented Love Story’s schlock to give Patton the edge. Cinema was splintering in many directions. There’s desperation in the Oscars promoting the year’s highest-grossing movies, like they’re piggybacking on anything successful and hoping it’ll stick.

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