George C. Scott’s Patton fights everyone in World War II, allies as well as Axis. Reincarnated from every soldier who ever died properly, Patton juts out his bulldog chin, his silver helmet gleaming, his garish pistols at his side--a tall Napoleon stuck somewhere in the middle of the front, having to gripe his way to victory.
The movie jumps back thirty years to give us a War we can watch with diminished discomfort. But when Patton slaps that soldier, the audience takes sides. Patton was a ferocious man, and the War demanded ferocity. And even Ernie Pyle tacitly forgave Patton his excesses--because the war was on, and Pyle had his mind on countless other soldiers, preoccupied with the misery of it--and the dogged need to keep up unit morale.
But in 1970 our War doesn’t invite forgiveness. Maybe more than MASH, Patton indicts Vietnam by looking not down there in Pyle’s foxholes but up at the top, and seeing contradictions and vanity, cruel unconcern in the midst of unflagging zeal. It’s a snafu, and Patton almost becomes a hero--if only because there’s more eulogy than fanfare here, more a sense of gracious departure than emergence. Scott will not peek from beneath those brows to wink; he aids and abets his General’s ambiguous glory by keeping his eyes averted--after he stares us down at the beginning, the giant flag backing him up, the two of them instructing us. But I’m not sure what we learn; the movie lays a kind of mist--often literal--on the field, one campaign melting into another, until we are uncertain where we are, and what Patton means.