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), ...1
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