This essay comes as an unexpected interruption in my two-part analysis of the theological implications of the current Paris theater. Why the interruption? Simply because this new film is of far-reaching consequence. The New York Times critic—hardly addicted to excessive laudation—regarded it as the classic American war film. President Nixon, who presumably finds his entertainment time at a premium, saw it twice—despite its extraordinary length (about three hours). There is little doubt that Patton will stand as one of the truly great American motion pictures.
On the face of it, the subject matter would not seem to lend itself to such possibilities. I can remember, though I was a child during the Second World War, the reputation General Patton acquired—that of a foul-mouthed, ruthlessly efficient, professional militarist, a twentieth-century Sherman. How could the career of such a man attain the status of a major film event? The answer is twofold: first, Patton’s life can be viewed (and is brilliantly so treated in the film) as a classical tragedy; second, Patton is an archetype of the American character in confrontation with the modern world.
Aristotle, in his Art of Poetry, set forth the fundamental criterion of the tragic art form: the plot, its most vital element, must arouse, through its construction and unity, the twin emotions of pity and fear, and lead to their purgation. How is this achieved? In the drama of the Golden Age (Sophocles offering perhaps the best example), the hero’s fall is the result of a combination of personal characteristics and external circumstances, the effects of which are clear to the audience though only dimly if at all evident to the hero himself. The hero—a man “like ourselves” (homoios), yet of such nobility as to attract our admiration—possesses a hamartia, a “tragic flaw,” which brings about his ruin. This flaw relates, as the great Aristotelian scholar S. H. Butcher put it, to “the necessary blindness and infirmity of human nature”; and it frequently connects with “fate”—with the destiny decreed for the hero by the gods whose laws he may well have trampled underfoot.
Yet, at the same time, the classical tragedy presents the hero, not as an automaton, but as a creature of like passions with us, whose volitional decisions are genuine, and who lives out the mystery of free will and destiny in his own person. Seeing his fall, we experience pity for him and fear for ourselves, and ultimately a catharsis—a purgation of these emotions, since the dénouement occurs as we knew it must.
Patton, as played with consummate artistry by George C. Scott, stands as a modern tragic hero, not unlike an Oedipus or a Macbeth. The comparison is rendered particularly easy because of the historic Patton’s remarkable classical scholarship (he steeped himself in the accounts of all classical battles related to those he himself engaged in—reading Caesar’s Commentaries as another military man would read detective stories).
Patton’s worst enemy was himself. Brilliant as a tactician, he could not help blasting the sloppy generalship of others. Perfectionistic and cruelly hard on himself, he was incapable of tolerating error and weakness in others (e.g., the famous incident of his striking a soldier whose nerves gave out in a key battle of great ferocity). Instinctively right in judging situations and people, he spoke his mind and was cut to pieces by the press and ultimately removed from his command of the Third Army because of the politically ruinous character of his statements (he was convinced that the Russians would create impossible problems after the war and he wanted to put them in their place during it). His strengths were at the same time his weaknesses, and they ultimately brought him down. Like de Gaulle (a not dissimilar personality), he developed a messianic complex, and though he was doubtless right that he was playing a not insignificant role in the cosmic plan, his accomplishments were minimized and in part vitiated by his own inability to control his ego. The termination of the film with Plutarchian lines describing the rapid passing of military glory could not have been better chosen.
The pity and fear elicited by Patton should arise from even more profound considerations, however—at least for Americans. Patton is archetypical of that peculiar combination of good and evil that represents the American character. (Thus the film will offer equal opportunity for rightist America-firsters to praise Patton, and for leftist America-lasters to denounce him; and both evaluations will be equally superficial.)
On the plus side, Patton is the frontiersman who singlemindedly conquered the wilderness (note his fetish: ivory-handled sidearms), built the strongest nation on earth virtually from scratch, won all its wars, first reached the moon, and has for some time been engaged in the aggressive promotion of industry, commerce, and the American way of life in every comer of the globe. On the minus side, Patton is the lover of success and conquest above all other values (“God, how I love it!” he cries on the battlefield), one who can pray for and even kiss the individual soldier who is wounded, but who can be almost utterly indifferent to the fate of thousands (his use of his troops inevitably brings to mind America’s treatment of Indians and blacks—coupled with a touching love for dogs and individual children); the chauvinist (his constant references to “killing Germans and Japs” parallel traditional American superiority feelings and the tendency to isolationistically dehumanize other peoples); and, finally and most reprehensibly, the prophet of national religion who sees God as necessarily “on our side” and his own endeavors as hardly less than expressions of the divine will.
In Patton we have a mirror of America, an amazing mixture of the religious and the profane (“Do you read that Bible at your bedside, General?” asks a chaplain. “Every goddamn day” comes the reply). But volatile inconsistency of this kind could not survive the complexities of the modern world—even under conditions “ideal” for such a personality: the goal-directed, depersonalized conditions of total war. Thus the inevitable tragic fall.
Patton appropriately thought of himself as a Roman general reincarnated, and preachers commonly remind us of the example of Rome’s destruction—arising as much from within as from without. Purgation of pity and fear at such a spectacle requires more, however, than Aristotle thought. The spectacle itself is not enough. The moral cancer of egocentrism must be cut out by the Divine Physician. Varying the imagery, we must behold another tragedy—that which our egotism brought about at Golgotha—and allow the One who was indeed “like us in all points, yet without sin” to make us new creatures through his victory over tragedy.
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