By Nils Skudra
As a fan of military history, I always relish the opportunity to watch engaging movies about famous military leaders. Recently I watched the acclaimed 1970 film Patton, starring George C. Scott as the iconic World War II hero George S. Patton. Having studied the life of General Patton and having seen this film multiple times, the thought occurred to me that a case could be made for Patton possibly being on the autism spectrum, due to his pronounced eccentricities and his fixation on the idea of reincarnation. Historically, General Patton was widely renowned for his flamboyance, his incessant profanity, and his belief that he had fought in previous wars dating back to ancient Rome. Since individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have strong fixations on their specific areas of interest, I believe that Patton certainly fit this criteria, and the film’s portrayal thus lends credence to his possible autism in a variety of ways.
The film opens with Patton addressing an assembly of U.S. troops in front of an enormous American flag on the eve of D-Day. Upon his arrival onstage at the reveille bugle call, Patton’s flamboyant style is readily apparent since he is dressed in a full general’s uniform, ostentatiously decorated with numerous medals and ribbons, two ivory-handled pistols on either side, and carrying a riding crop in his hand. He subsequently begins his address by telling his troops that “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the *other* poor dumb bastard die for *his* country.” Patton then elaborates upon his view of American martial spirit, maintaining that “Americans traditionally love to fight” and that “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” The great irony in this remark is that several of Patton’s ancestors served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, a conflict which the South ultimately lost. As the speech progresses, Patton affirms his belief in the importance of aggressive mobile warfare, insisting that “we are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy.” Throwing in his trademark profanity for dramatic effect throughout the address, Patton concludes, “Alright, now, you sons-of-b****es, you know how I feel. I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle, anytime, anywhere.”
This opening scene reveals many details about Patton’s personality and leadership style. Widely considered a prima donna, he actively cultivated this image through his display of ivory-handled pistols and flamboyant uniforms. In addition, he would regularly bring profanity into his conversations with subordinates and addresses to his troops, which served both for comedic purposes and to establish himself as a straightforward, no-nonsense commander whom the troops could relate to. Furthermore, his affirmation of support for aggressive warfare reflected Patton’s outlook on military strategy and tactics, which significantly distinguished him from his peers since he always brought this outlook toward his leadership in the field, although this sometimes placed him at odds with his superiors due to Patton’s determination to have his own way, even to the extent of going against their original strategy. In some ways, this is reflective of the tendencies among autistic individuals to approach situations from a singular, self-centered lens due to their difficulties with seeing other peoples’ perspectives. As the film progresses, this tendency frequently brings Patton into conflict with other commanders, sometimes to the point of endangering his career.
The film then transitions to the aftermath of the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in 1943, in which the American forces suffered a major defeat in their first battle against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. After visiting the battlefield and observing the poor state of discipline among the American troops of the Second Corps, General Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) remarks, “Up against Rommel, what we need is the best tank man we’ve got. Someone tough enough to pull this outfit together.” Patton subsequently arrives in a command car, blaring his siren to announce his arrival. Upon entering headquarters, he observes the quality of the American troops with a cold stare of derision, which perfectly sums up his attitude toward the importance of military discipline. He quickly takes steps to improve discipline by bringing his ruthless authoritarian style to interactions with his troops, as well as a lack of regard for the condition of soldiers suffering from self-inflicted wounds, insisting that they be removed from the field hospital since he believes that cowards should not be housed together with soldiers wounded in battle.
Following his review of the Second Corps, Patton and Bradley take a ride toward the site of the battle, which Patton unexpectedly interrupts by insisting that they turn in another direction. Upon arriving at the ruins of an ancient Carthaginian city, Patton states, “It was here. The battlefield was here.” He then elaborates upon the ancient battle that took place between the Carthaginians and the Romans at this site, describing it in striking detail:
“The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances. The soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two thousand years ago. I was here.”
Patton subsequently recites a poem to the perplexed General Bradley, recounting the times he has “fought and strove and perished countless times upon the star… under many guises, many names, but always me,” before stating that he was the poet. Through this monologue, Patton thus reveals his belief in reincarnation, a unique tendency which his colleagues found both amusing and bizarre. As a passionate student of military history, Patton immersed himself in the study of numerous military commanders, ranging from Julius Caesar to Napoleon, whose legacies he sought to emulate, and it was likely this desire which led him to believe that he had fought in their respective conflicts. Many individuals on the autism spectrum have unique beliefs that set them apart from their neurotypical peers; for example, those who are passionate about history may believe that they have led past lives. While these beliefs may not make any logical sense to neurotypical individuals who have a present-minded outlook, they are held very strongly by some neurodivergent individuals due to their fixation on history.
As the new American commander in Tunisia, Patton also becomes a figure of interest to the German high command, which assigns Captain Oskar Steiger (Siegfried Rauch) to research his life and career. During a meeting with Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler) and Colonel General Alfred Jodl (Richard Muench), Steiger presents a profile of Patton’s personality which sums up his eccentricities and strategic outlook: “He writes poetry and believes in reincarnation. He has one maxim: Always attack. Never stay on the defensive.” Following Patton’s victory over the Afrika Korps at the Battle of El Guettar and the ultimate surrender of the German and Italian forces in Tunisia, Steiger informs Jodl that he believes Patton will invade Sicily by landing at Syracuse, as the Athenians did in the Peloponnesian War. When Jodl dismissively remarks, “This is the twentieth century,” Steiger replies that Patton is “a sixteenth century man.” He further elaborates, “Patton is a romantic warrior lost in contemporary times. The key to Patton is the past. He believes he should land at Syracuse because that’s what the Athenians did.”
Steiger’s observations provide astute insights into Patton’s psyche and the ways in which his study of military history influenced his strategic approach. Due to his fixation on past military leaders, Patton sought to follow their example in designing plans for a decisive victory. In addition, he would frequently cite these historical figures in conversation with his peers and subordinates to drive home the point of his argument. This is reflected in a dinner with British and American commanders in which Patton outlines his strategy for the Allied invasion of Sicily, as he quotes the Athenian general Alcibiades on the topic of landing at Syracuse: “I believe it was Alcibiades in the Peloponnesian War, 415 B.C. He said, ‘If Syracusa falls, all Sicily falls, and then Italy.’ He knew that Syracuse was the jugular of the island, and Alcibiades always went for the throat.” After listening to Patton’s plan for the invasion, British general Harold Alexander remarks, “You know, George, you would have made a great marshal for Napoleon, if you’d lived in the eighteenth century,” to which Patton replies with a grin, “But I did, sir! I did!” This statement prompts outbursts of laughter from the other commanders as they toast the success of the invasion, though they don’t realize that Patton seriously means what he said.
Patton’s tendency to cite quotations from historical military leaders is illustrative of the behavior of many individuals on the autism spectrum since they will often bring up their topic of interest during a conversation, sometimes launching into an extended monologue about it without consideration for other people’s interest. Sometimes this can have the effect of alienating and offending the listener since they may get the impression that the speaker is disrespectful and inattentive to the original topic of conversation. In Patton’s case, he frequently cites famous military figures to support his argument, despite the objections of his subordinates over the effect of his approach on their troops. For example, during the Sicilian campaign, when Patton makes unreasonable demands of his troops to reach Messina, General Bradley and corps commander Lucian Truscott protest that they need only one more day of rest due to heavy casualties, to which Patton replies, “Remember what Frederick the Great said: ‘L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace (Audacity, audacity, always audacity).” This apparent insensitivity toward the plight of his troops alienates General Truscott, who indignantly declines Patton’s suggestion of a drink before storming out.
Insensitivity and lack of empathy for others are also defining challenges that individuals with autism often have since they tend to have a very self-centered perspective. The film makes clear that Patton’s level of empathy varied depending on the circumstances, ranging from display of sympathy for dead or wounded soldiers to outright contempt for those who did not meet his definition of courage. This is exemplified by his visit to a field hospital following the fighting in Sicily, in which he has a friendly interaction with a wounded soldier and is then overcome with grief upon finding a severely disfigured soldier in critical condition under anesthesia, weeping and placing a Purple Heart next to his bedside. However, this is immediately followed by Patton’s encounter with Private Charles H. Kuhl, a soldier shaking and crying due to the aftereffects of shellshock (known today as PTSD). When Kuhl states, “It’s my nerves, sir, I can’t stand the shelling anymore,” Patton immediately accuses him of cowardice, abruptly slapping his helmet and threatening to shoot him as a malingerer. As hospital orderlies escort Kuhl from the hospital tent, Patton screams, “Send him up to the front! YOU HEAR ME?! YOU GODDAMN COWARD?!,” before concluding, “I won’t have cowards in my army.”
Patton’s lack of empathy for soldiers suffering from shellshock reflects the broader lack of understanding among military leaders at the time about its symptoms, which they often mistook for cowardice. However, Patton’s actions prompted an outraged public response, leading to calls for his removal from command. While Patton was removed from command of the Seventh Army, his punishment was limited to a personal reprimand from Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, instructing him to apologize to Private Kuhl, the hospital patients and staff, and the Seventh Army as a whole. Patton greets this news with indignation, strongly defending his motivation: “Don’t they know some men have take a whole lot worse than a little kick in the pants? I ruffled his pride a little bit.
What’s that, compared to war?” Even in his public apology to the Seventh Army, Patton affirms the rightness of his motives, insisting that he merely sought to restore Private Kuhl’s sense of self-respect and “his obligations as a man and as a soldier.” While Patton was highly egotistical and firmly convinced of the rightness of his beliefs and actions, his defensiveness also illustrates the thinking of autistic individuals to a certain extent since they often can see only through their perspective, with the result that they are convinced that their views are right, irrespective of other people’s criticisms. As the film progresses, this tendency, together with Patton’s outspoken lack of tact, is a recurring source of friction, though he never strays from his conviction that he will fulfill his destiny to successfully lead an army in combat and decide the outcome of the war.
In summation, Patton is a highly compelling biopic about one of the most colorful and controversial generals in American military history. George C. Scott delivers a brilliant, Oscar-winning portrayal that superbly captures Patton’s personality and mannerisms, and one comes away with the sense that he truly embodies Patton. Furthermore, his depiction gives a strong plausibility to the likelihood that Patton was on the autism spectrum, capturing both its associated eccentricities and social difficulties with empathy and unreservedly speaking one’s mind. While these qualities made Patton a loose cannon whose statements frequently provoked controversy, his single-minded sense of purpose and direction, together with his charisma and hard-driving tactical approach, made him a vital asset to the Allied war machine, ultimately playing a decisive role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with autism, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.