With what I can only call the most admirable clarity, the monumental biopic Patton, Best Picture Oscar winner of 1970, opens with a kind of thesis statement that lays out everything the rest of the film is to contain. I don’t refer to the main body of its legendary opening scene, in which famed World War II hero Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. (George C. Scott) stands in front of an enormous U.S. flag to deliver a rousing message to the unseen troops about the inherent nobility and bravery of the American fighting forces. It’s less a patriotic harangue than a revival meeting centered around the religion of blood and killing. That is a great scene, and it does perfectly set the stage for all that comes after, but it’s not what I’m referring to.

I refer to the short beat that precedes his speech. We see Patton emerge in a long shot, a tiny black blip against the field of red and white, followed by a series of cuts that swiftly bring the camera in closer, after which several seconds are spent cutting metronomically from one visual element of this man’s heavily polished exterior to the next: his ivory-handled pistol, his medals, the insignia on his helmet, his rigid salute, his pristine boots. In this moment, director Franklin J. Schaffner and editor Hugh S. Fowler (both Oscar winners for this film) aren’t merely communicating that these are the elements that go into making this man; they’re arguing that these elements are this man, that he is defined entirely as individual components of perfect military bearing. That matters more, to him and to the viewer, than anything to do with his internal humanity. And only once we’ve quickly absorbed all of that does the film move into its legendary opening monologue, where he clarifies that first impression with his impassioned hymn to being the biggest, toughest sonofabitch you can be. Not, in any sense, to being the finest human being.

Scott, according to at least one story, was nervous about this opening, concerned that it was so potent that it would overwhelm the rest of his performance. That at, least, doesn’t happen, but he was almost right; the opening does tend to overwhelm Patton the movie, which has the somewhat unfortunate characteristic of having told us, in its opening and strongest scene, exactly what it’s going to be about for the rest of the film. And at 172 minutes total, the rest of the film is quite long to feel like it’s only ever providing variations on a single theme that’s never clearer than when we start off. There’s a kind of weirdly academic texture to the screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (who would have much better success directing a three-hour Best Picture winner just two years down the road) and Edmund H. North, which plainly yearns to be a complete and thorough study of an all-time fascinating real-life human, using war less as its plot than as the prism through which its central character is refracted. And it even manages to be that, but Coppola and North are so successful at quickly sketching an outline, and then filling it in with smartly implied and gracefully stated exposition, that we have learned virtually all we will ever learn about Patton before the film is even a third of the way through.

I find much about the film - its expansive length, its focus on psychology during wartime, the central position of a title character who wants above all else to be thought of as a warrior, not a man - to evoke Lawrence of Arabia, then eight years old. That film carefully danced around its protagonist, peeling him like an onion, so that we kept learning new things about him all the way till the end; Patton ends up having to repeat itself, constantly, to hoist itself up to a running time that seems preposterously out-of-place. There is no fact about Patton that we only learn one time. There’s even an entire subthread of scenes taking place in the offices of the Nazi army command dedicated solely to demonstrating that the Germans realise the same things about Patton that the viewers already know. If there had been no other change to Patton but to surgically excise all the scenes involving Germans, it would be infinitely more focused and tight. For not only do the Nazi command scenes serve no meaningful function, they also don’t fit a movie that’s intently concerned on the way that American military men perceive the world.

That all being said, and no matter how reliably Patton leaves me feeling exhausted and, if I must be honest, quite a bit bored, the fact remains that the character it studies is a genuinely fascinating, remarkable figure, one of the most interesting subjects in the history of the biopic. Partially, this is because Patton himself was such a profoundly strange man, colorful and brazen and full of messy self-contradictions. A devout Christian who believed in reincarnation and worshiped the great military minds of the pre-Christian world, a martinet and bully who almost scuttled his entire career for abusing a shell-shocked soldier, an orator who carefully laced blunt profanity into his speeches as a way of making himself seem more erratic and giving his words more memorable tang, and a demented war-hungry genius whose refusal to slow down or play by the rules proved decisive in helping the Allies win the war in Europe. The writers, in pinning this man down on paper, prove to have an immensely ambivalent and confused attitude towards him, which ends up being one of the film’s best strengths - uncertain whether to condemn his bloodlust and my-way-or-the-highway braggadocio, or to cheer for his rebellious instincts, mystified by his adoration of classicism, anxious to praise him as a hero, but alarmed at supporting unchecked American militarism while Vietnam was still burning, Coppola and North never decide on a single approach to the character, which frees Patton from having the simple “you should think this” moralising that tends to make so many biopics so bland and harmless. No doubt, the fact that they were working mostly with the accounts of Gen. Omar Bradley, a bitter rival of Patton’s and eventually his commanding officer, led to this split between hero worship and anti-hero condemnation (it also likely explains why Bradley - played with level warmth by Karl Malden - comes off as so damn humane and reasonable throughout the film, in a way that strikes me as a bit intellectually and ethically questionable).

Its overall ambivalence crops up in many ways: Schaffner’s direction, which keeps the war itself at enough of a remove, and always privileges people talking about strategy rather than executing it, and thus silently reminding us that Patton, great warrior man, was still a general and thus still kept himself back from the heart of fighting; Jerry Goldsmith’s score - one of the few Oscar nominations the film lost, and one of the few it unambiguously deserved to win - which presents rousing military marches that feel like more fully-orchestrated fife and drum tunes from the Revolutionary War, punctuating them with a repeated motif of echoing horn triplets that feel entirely out-of-place and mournful. Though the film was seen as the moderate, middlebrow champion in the year that MASH was a more robustly anti-war Oscar nominee, and Richard Nixon adored it, Patton feels more of a piece with the New Hollywood than its bloat and aesthetic conservatism imply - it has the same lack of clear moral authority and obsession with the ways that men express themselves within a culture where they don’t fit that are typical of more showily radical American films of the same time.

And, like many of those films, it demands a lot of its main actor and relies on him to provide complexity and richness that an only be indicated by the script. So it works out well that George C. Scott came along and gave such an absurdly strong performance. Really, take out the actor, and Patton is much less insightful, and its bloat becomes unforgivable; but put him in, and suddenly even the most logy moments hum with dramatic tension. Scott is a marvel, vanishing completely into the role, and building a rock-solid foundation for Patton’s endless self-confidence and violent certitude that leaves his every action feeling like the inevitable extension of that mind into the wrong time and place, where he is nevertheless able to thrive. Never a small man, Scott towers over everyone and everything in the film, physically and emotionally; he has no little moments, but finds a way to make even quiet reflection the burly explosion of a volatile personality (the famed "2000 years ago... I was here" scene, in particular, is at once spiritual, self-consciously mythic, and presented with an aggressive "fuck you, I dare you to tell me I'm being weird" bullishness). And in his big moments, he exudes crushing, giant emotions with terrifying splendor, as in his wrathful verbal assault against that shell-shocked soldier that Scott turns into Lear-like scream of defiance against a world where things exist that Patton does not approve of.

Scott makes for such an unstoppably watchable Patton that, even though the script offers him little chance in the middle hour to do anything he didn't already do in the first, and only lets him start to project introspection towards the end, he makes every single onscreen moment feels like the most vital thing you have ever seen in a movie. Patton, on the whole is handsome prestige cinema that's executed well enough, looks swell - Fred J. Koenekamp's cinematography, the second and last film shot in the Dimension 150 format, lends a faded beauty that speaks to the subject's mythic stature and his behind-the-times attitudes alike - and has plenty of smart writing (just too damn much of it), but when Scott is added to the equation, it suddenly turns into a genuinely great character study. Not "Best Picture of 1970 or any other year" great, but far better and more involving than it easily might have been.