Against a backdrop of the Stars and Stripes, General George S. Patton (George C. Scott) addresses his troops on the eve of battle. His uniform is impeccable, his medals uncountable, and his ramrod demeanor unassailable. As he speaks to the men about to embark on their first great adventure, his manner runs the gamut from stern, to jovial, amused, profane and reverent. To Patton, it is obvious that war is the greatest expression of the human condition.
North Africa, 1942: In their first encounter with Rommel's Africa Corps, the Americans are badly beaten. In the post-battle assessment, Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) decides what's needed is the best tank commander they've got. Patton answers the call and arrives amid wailing sirens and a cloud of dust. He's also early and catches most of the soldiers off guard, a mistake they quickly learn not to make again. Believing the casual attitude displayed by the troops to be the primary source of their defeat, he quickly begins to set things to rights. Patton's belief in himself is unshakable, and there's only one way to get things done-his way. Quickly establishing discipline and routine, he commands his men with an iron fist. He also has great respect for the Germans he's up against, and has studied the tactics of Rommel in the field.
In Berlin, the Germans are also assessing Patton. His reputation is considerable, and they study his idiosyncracies looking for a clue to the man's character. They note he is a romantic, reads the Bible daily, swears like a stableboy, and believes in reincarnation. Rommel, when asked what he intends to do about Patton, simply replies "I will attack and annihilate him.....before he does the same to me."
Soon the Germans move against the American positions in Tunisia, and Patton watches in fascination from his command post in the hills nearby. Anticipating Rommel's plan, he routs the Germans, and gives the Americans their first victory, further inflating his ego. North Africa now has two prima donnas; Patton, and the equally egotistical British commander, Field Marshal Montgomery (Michael Bates). Naturally, they come to dislike each other intensely, and as the African campaign draws to a close, plans are made for the invasion of Italy. Patton wines and dines the appropriate officals, and pitches his own plan to invade through Sicily. Montgomery has other plans, and when Monty's are adopted over his own, Patton, outraged, vows to outdo the Field Marshal at all costs.
Sicily is invaded, and Montgomery's troops fight their way up the East coast against heavy German resistance. Patton is assigned the support role of guarding Montomery's flank, but soon adopts another plan and begins to push across the island, taking the long way around. First taking Palermo, then pushing East to Messina, he races Montgomery to the finish line, pushing his men to the breaking point and creating dissension among his commanders. They do not wish to sacrifice more American casualties to Patton's ego.
Soon, Montgomery and the British forces march into the liberated city of Messina amid the cheering populace. Flags wave and the pipers play as they march triumphantly into the town square; Monty has done it. He's driven the Germans out of Sicily and beaten Patton to the punch. Abruptly, the pipers falter, and fall silent. Monty quickly marches to the fore to investigate, and finds Patton, his tanks and troops neatly arrayed behind him, standing there silently with an insufferable smile on his lips. He'd arrived hours ago, and was waiting only to greet his old rival.
As the Italian campaign continues, Patton becomes more controversial. During a routine inspection of wounded men in a field hospital, he encounters a shell-shocked soldier crying in a corner and becomes enraged with what he perceives as a display of cowardice. Slapping the soldier, he rages at him and orders him sent back to the front. This outburst gets Patton the first serious setback he's ever experienced. A rebuke from his commander and an order to apologize to all concerned quickly follow, a bitter pill indeed for the general. Forced to swallow his pride, he stands before the assembled troops and tersely gives his explanation, then turns on his heel and marches away.
The war grinds on. Patton is called to England prior to D-Day, and believes he will be commanding the invasion, but finds that his big mouth and bigger ego have gotten him into too much trouble. He's become a liability to the fragile alliance Eisenhower is trying to hold together to fight the Germans, so Patton's orders are to shut up and stay out of trouble. Chafing at what may be his last chance to be in a great battle, he'll do anything to get back in the game. Arriving in France days after the invasion, he meets with General Bradley again, who puts Patton on probation and gives him a chance to redeem himself. Grateful for the opportunity, Patton quickly shows the rest of the world what he can do, chasing the Germans clear across France, and gaining more ground in less time than any other allied outfit.
Christmas approaches, and the Germans mount a final major counter-attack at the Battle of the Bulge. Caught off guard, the American troops are trapped and surrounded, and only a miracle can save them. Patton vows to provide one. Marching his men north at breakneck speed, he amazingly arrives in time and relieves the trapped Americans, grabbing the limelight once more. Now it's on to Germany, and as the war winds down, Patton becomes despondent at the impending cessation of hostilities. All too soon, Patton's mouth gets him in trouble again as he first snubs the Russians, and then compares the defeated Nazis to other political parties in the U.S. Another uproar ensues, and Eisenhower is forced to relieve Patton once again.
Having proved himself one of the greatest military commanders of WWII, he now faces a future and a world that no longer need him. Recalling history, he ruminates: "For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph - a tumultuous parade. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."