Military films intrigue me, especially those on the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. On holiday weekends such as Memorial Day or Independence Day, I often find myself inadvertently absorbed in commemorative film fests on TCM, A&E or the History Channel.
Sometimes they’re just white noise while I catch up on belated household tasks. Sometimes my viewing is a concentrated respite from the daily headlines. The action sequences need not be viewed, and the sparse dialogue creates picture-radio images in my head. Like them or not, such historic films are insight into people who became leaders and decision-makers in times of strife. They reassure us. We know the outcome: Our nation won independence. Our nation was preserved. Our nation saved the world from evil. That star-spangled banner yet waves!
Today we have less assurance.
I’m aware of history, journalism and film-making enough to recognize literary conceits as historical fiction and dramatic license, so I embrace these films in the spirit in which most are created: entertainment and storytelling. So, I ‘m also skeptical. If a film entertains and intrigues me enough, if the story I hear causes me to stop and watch the screen, invariably there will be a moment or two when I hear myself saying, “Really?” whereupon my latent detective gene emerges. Once the film is done (or paused), I begin my most delicious house-cleaning-avoidance, writer’s block diversion: research. This post-movie research most frequently occurs following biographical films, the so-called biopic. I often find myself scouring my bookshelves and, most handily, the Internet to discern the answer to my latest, “Did that really happen?” quandary.
Many times I’ve discovered poetic license won out, so I’m relieved whenever I find the screenwriter not only trusted the facts, but left enough intrigue that research enhanced the experience.
Which brings us to ” Patton, ” the 1970 film that earned George C. Scott the Best Actor Academy Award he refused, and Francis Ford Coppola a screenplay Oscar he didn’t refuse, and therein launched his directing career as patriarch of “The Godfather” trilogy.
At the Movies
“Patton” is good storytelling and Scott compelling, even though his gruff, sandpaper voice contradicted the actual Patton, whose tone calls to mind voiceover artist Mel Blanc. (It’s been said that Patton’s penchant for profanity was purposeful — to be taken seriously and to offset a voice considered unmanly and un-military.
There are many “Really?” scenes in “Patton,” but the one that stood out on my most recent viewing and propelled this missive was when he summoned the 3rd Army chaplain to write a good-weather prayer to counter the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge in the Christmas season of 1944.
Though I’ve seen the film often, I had to stopped painting my kitchen. What struck me was the chaplain’s perplexed response: “I don’t know how this is going to be received, General, praying for good weather so we can kill our fellow man?”
But the Bible Says…
My immediate thought was that it seemed incongruous for the chaplain to be surprised by such a request, for King David wrote many in Psalms asking God’s guidance in battle. Psalms 20 and 21 are examples. Earlier in the film, Coppola’s script included Psalm 63, David’s embattled prayer fleeing his son Absalom which Scott narrated while “Patton” prepared to apologize for slapping a solider. In light of these passages, I sought the brief clip of the chaplain scene for readers less enamored of the genre to experience here:
VIDEO: Patton’s Weather Prayer
However, before I got to the movie links, I came across two printed stories about the scenario that brought the film, the man and the Bible into new focus. Something to remember when encountering how Scripture is quoted — whether on screen or from the pulpit. In the words of the apostle John:
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)”
Merry Christmas, G.S. Patton
One story is the transcript of the film scene, the anecdote written by Patton’s aide, Col. Paul Harkins, that was no doubt the source of the movie moment above. The other story was written by the clergyman who wrote the prayer, noted in the credits only as “3rd
Army Chaplain.” Indeed, the author was hardly anonymous, but integral in the Third Army’s zeal and morale that holiday season. The chaplain was Monseigneur James Hugh O’Neill, who was hardly unknown to Patton, but a U.S. Army colonel whose served with the general in five campaigns. The prayer itself was a but part of a larger Christmas missive to the troops which O’Neill explained in “The True Story of the Patton Prayer,” an article published as a government document first in 1950, then re-published not long after the movie premiered.
O’Neill’s story outlines the complexity of Patton, a devout believer in scriptures and the power of prayer, whose behavior (temper and tongue-lashings) and beliefs (that he was reincarnated) seemed contradictory. After writing the prayer, along with a ghostwritten Christmas greeting for the commander, O’Neill delivered a draft to Patton not sure how it would be used: by the general himself, or delivered to other chaplains in the unit to be intoned at services among the troops. Patton ordered copies of the Christmas card prayer to be printed and delivered. “See to it that every man in the Third Army gets one,” he said.
There were 250,000 copies made of this:
Patton then said to O’Neill: “Chaplain, sit down for a moment; I want to talk to you about this business of prayer.”
Patton then began a conversation about prayer became the basis of a larger treatise.
“I am a strong believer in prayer,” O’Neill recounted. “There are three ways that men get what they want; by planning, by working, and by praying.
“I wish you would put out a Training Letter on this subject of prayer to all the chaplains; write about nothing else, just the importance of prayer… We’ve got to get not only the chaplains, but every man in the Third Army to pray.”
A Contemporary Translation
Several passages of the O’Neill article are pertinent to America today. Yes, in light of Memorial Day commemorations of military personnel who fell in mortal combat; but they have greater relevance in light of spiritual warfare that threatens our independence and unity from within; forces of evil far more insidious than tanks and rockets. They are evils flourishing on this continent and endangering the liberties for which this nation was established, for which men and women died and stand watch to preserve — freedoms of expression and faith. The evils of racism, sexism, selfish political ambition (add your own hashtag-creating #isms) are not only limiting our pursuit of happiness, they modernize the kind of societal behavior that led to the demise of Old Testament Israel.
The sermon we heard Sunday exhorted the congregation to pray, for prayer is a value of its mission. The pastor, a native Brazilian and naturalized American, invoked God’s word to David:
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” — 2 Chronicles 7:14
Take a Knee
As the pastor spoke, I could not help but think of Colin Kaepernick and the controversy surrounding his kneeling during the national anthem during NFL games. Kaepernick came to mind because a few days earlier the NFL owners imposed a penalty on players who kneel when the anthem is played.
After the church service, our choir stayed to rehearse to sing at our town’s annual Memorial Day ceremony. The director announced that in addition to the tradition songs we’ve song, we were asked to lead singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” My inner bad boy was pricked. After rehearsal I told the director that I was debating kneeling during the song. I never had intentions of doing so, but I couldn’t avoid needling in anticipation of his priceless expressions in the moment of deciding whether or not I was serious.
Not one to let go a good running joke, at Monday’s final rehearsal I assured him that after prayer and meditation I’d decided to not kneel. And he shook when he laughed. So humored, joking ended. Topic done. Time to raise the Banner. But to our surprise, The Kneel soon came back to the floor as the mayor framed his Memorial Day speech around The Kneel. opened his remarks passionately saying how proud he was that no one kneeled during the anthem; then closed his speech with reminders why we shouldn’t.
A gamut emotions swirled. As I was one of four discernible Americans of African descent in the crowd of hundreds, I could not applaud. I was not offended. After “anger,” “dismay” eventually settled. For while I understood the mayor’s endeavor, and though I have relatives interred in Arlington National Cemetery, as part of the 2.9 percent of African-Americans living in the community, I found his statements another illustration of misunderstanding and misinformation. Weariness emerged.
From the outset, Kaepernick’s protest has been misinterpreted as anti-American and anti-military despite his assertions to the contrary. When Kaepernick, who is biracial and whose adoptive parents are white, began his protests during the preseason of 2016, he sat. At a post-game press conference that fall, the once-celebrated quarterback spoke of his disappoint with the response, and explained his protest was a civil rights issue related to increasing police action shootings involving black males.
“I think it’s a misunderstanding. “The media painted this as I’m anti-American, anti men and women of the military, and that’s not the case at all. I realize that men and women of the military put themselves in harm’s way for my freedoms of speech and my freedom in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee. I have the utmost respect for them. I think what I did was taken out of context and spun a different way. “
Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since shortly after that statement appeared in The New York Times in September 2016. Though newsworthy fewer people took note of the initial protests. After all, he started in preseason. To me, having come of age in the 1960s when higher profile black athletes as Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali were more vocal protesting racial injustice, Kaepernick’s sideline bow seemed mellow. This was no John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists in the Black Panther salute during the Mexico City Olympics and getting their medals revoked. It wasn’t until critical Presidential Tweets began that mellow became maelstrom and the issue of injustice was swirled away.
RELATED: “They Didn’t #TakeTheKnee”
Oh, Say, CAN You See?
When I finally caught my attention about the Kaepernick protest was when he literally switched positions. From sitting to kneeling. The pose struck my ironic funny bone. The image of one man or two men kneeling while everyone else was standing during a song that has been more widely disrespected when sung at games, struck me not as angry protest. I viewed it as the free expression of prayer.
Whenever I’ve seen players kneeling at games since, I’ve imagined them praying for the country while others sang…much as I occasionally sit while others sing choruses and hymns during musical worship.
Maybe it’s because Kaepernick kneeling reminds me of the football locker rooms I’d enter after a Friday night game in my reporter days and I’d hear the coach say, “Let’s take a knee,” as the public school players recited The Lord’s Prayer. Maybe it’s because that around the same time that Kaepernick began to take a knee, a high school football coach in Washington state was fired for initiating a post-game prayer.
Maybe it’s because the fourth verse of Francis Scott Key’s poem, a verse never sung, reads as a Psalm of David:
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Maybe it’s because the song that some suggest would be a better national anthem, the song which our choir sang to close the Memorial Day program, the song written by an immigrant composer, Irving Berlin, begins by beseeching God’s blessing on America:
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:
Let US Pray
Whatever the reason, I am less offended by The Kneel than I am by protracted conversations that not only don’t recall the reason for his protest but ignore the debate by imposing an unrelated issue. The Kneel is not about disrespecting the flag. It’s about healing the racial divide in the U.S. — a fissure that seems to widen each day.
Lincoln, paraphrasing Jesus recorded in Mark 3, warned of the dangers of such splits. “And if a house be divided against itself,” the King James says, “that house cannot stand.”
The Apostle John records how Jesus prayed for his sheep to live in unity. If this country, which purports to be a Christian nation, is to overcome the clear and present danger of division, Christ-followers would well embrace the actions of a radical preacher, symbolized by a radical quarterback and spoken by a radical general.
Kaepernick knelt to weather a storm as Patton knelt on stormy weather. Specific prayers for specific battles.
“As chaplains it is our business to pray,” O’Neill wrote to chaplains for Patton in The Training Letter. “We preach its importance. We urge its practice. But the time is now to intensify our faith in prayer, not alone with ourselves, but with every believing man, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, or Christian in the ranks of the Third United States Army.
“Those who pray do more for the world than those who fight; and if the world goes from bad to worse, it is because there are more battles than prayers.”
Think: “If my people will humble themselves and pray…I will heal their land…” from racism, sexism, genderism…#hashtag your own #ism.
Agree or disagree with the analogies. Don’t lose the point. Pray for our nation. Evil engulfs us that mere protests and legislation will not thwart. As Jesus told his disciples unable to cast a demon from a possessed lad, “This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting.”
You may be compelled to respond to these thoughts. You’re welcomed to do so below. There’s one request. In the Spirit of Gen. Patton: I want a prayer…a prayer for the United States.
#SDG #Shalom #TakeAKnee #AndAmen.