Thrawn and Patton

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films that inspired George Lucas’ iconic universe. In this edition: Patton.)

General George S. Patton once said, “Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack.” And one thing I’m not cynical about is movies, particularly the old classics. The movie about the American general’s life, Patton, is one such classic.

Released in 1970 and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, Patton came from a script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North that won them both Oscars. It won Best Picture that year as well, on top of five other awards. For his portrayal of the anything-but-cynical general, George C. Scott was awarded an Oscar that he refused to accept, stating that he didn’t feel like he was in competition with other actors. Patton tells the story of the general’s service during World War II, skipping over his early life and previous military career entirely. The film gets into the head of one of the most brilliant tactical minds who ever lived, but also examines the troubles that same mind had in the realm of the political. The film takes great pains to show the struggles of war and the toxicity required to construct ideas like “courage” and “cowardice” in the face of battle.

Talking to Lucasfilm Animation Supervising Director Dave Filoni over the years, he has revealed that Patton has been a big influence on his treatment of characters that feature prominently in Star Wars Rebels.

Grand Admiral Thrawn and Patton

The character in Star Wars that takes the most inspiration from the filmic version of the Patton character is Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is a character that has a mind as brilliant as Patton’s, but also as flawed. In Patton, you watch as Patton continues delivering victories for the allies, but he’s continually punished for not paying attention to the political ramifications of his actions among his allies. He’s always bringing the hurt to the enemy, but it’s backfiring among those who should be fighting alongside him.

This is reflected in sharp focus in Timothy Zahn’s book Thrawn as the blue-skinned alien struggles to understand the intricacies of Imperial bureaucracy while he excels at combat. He needs those around him to help him understand the situation, but even then he’s often clueless. Even during the events of Star Wars Rebels, he’s caught in bureaucratic in-fighting between Director Orson Krennic and Grand Moff Tarkin as they try to settle on a path for victory for the Empire. Like Patton with his tanks, Thrawn believes in the supremacy of his TIE Defender.

Thrawn and Patton are two characters cursed with being brilliant, and they operate in similar manners. Both study everything they can about their opponents. For Patton, it’s reading the books of the enemy commanders he’s facing off against. There’s one moment in the film where he has his first engagement with Erwin Rommel’s troops and he routes them completely before exclaiming, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

This is where Thrawn works on a more galactic scale. Instead of understanding individuals (though he does some of that with Sabine Wren), Thrawn looks to understand whole civilizations through their art and literature.

This was a direct inspiration from Patton according to Dave Filoni, who once told Entertainment Weekly, “[Thrawn’s] love of art, his study of that was something that really stuck with me. That’s really smart because he is getting to the root and tendencies of people, and I never heard of anybody attacking it that way. He starts to remind you of people like Patton, very into history and poetry.”

Other Flourishes

Thrawn matches many of Patton’s mannerisms, even to the point of losing his cool at one point against a subordinate, just like Patton does repeatedly in the film. While subordinates seem to get the better of them, as well as political bureaucracy, the one thing they both share is an absolute grace under pressure. At one point in the film, German aircraft bear down on Patton and he stands in the street cooly, firing up at the plane with his own sidearm.

In the third season of Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn does this exact thing in an episode called Flight of the Defender. Ezra and Sabine steal the prototype TIE Defender from an airfield where Thrawn is present. They shoot at him, but he stands upright, firing back with his sidearm in the same way Patton had, the ground exploding around them.

The other fascinating thing about both Patton and Thrawn is that their tactical logic is flawless. It’s the human errors of their subordinates they can’t control. If their orders and plans were followed to the letter, they would have never lost a single engagement.

General Veers and the Battle of Hoth

Another Patton-like character in Star Wars is General Veers. Veers was the Imperial commander at the battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back and commands the AT-ATs, much the same way Patton commanded tanks from Africa to Europe. In fact, most shots of Veers inside of his AT-AT show him peering at the battle through his space-age binoculars and they mirror shots in Patton where he’s overseeing battles in the same way.

Though Veers had much less screen time than Thrawn (or Patton), it’s clear that he runs his battles the same way. Where Patton was to drive into the heart of Germany with tanks at lightning speed to end the battle, so too was Veers’ mission in The Empire Strikes Back. Instead of the heart of German territory, though, he was sent to destroy the power generators holding up the Rebel shields.

Like Patton, he makes his strike and ends the engagement quickly, but the enemy rolls on, retreating even further.

Patton

Patton believed in reincarnation and, throughout the film (and his life) he felt he’d been at many of the great battles through history. It’s fun to imagine that, since Star Wars takes place “a long time ago,” that maybe Thrawn and Patton are really the same person.

It’s easy to see how Patton, both the person and the film, might have inspired Star Wars films and it’s a breathtaking motion picture in its own right. Perhaps at the time of its release it was a film full of machismo that glorified war, but looking back on it now after almost 50 years, it is a horrifying document of toxic masculinity and brilliance competing for dominance in one soul.

Films and history teach me so much about the world, especially when I cross them through the lens of Star Wars. With that in mind, I come back to that quote of Pattons, about the things people are cynical about. I’ve thought long and hard about it and for people who approach Star Wars with cynicism, I think the thing they lack is their inner child.

I wonder how Patton would have approached it.

Patton is widely available on streaming services, DVD, and Blu-ray.

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