General George S. Patton addresses an unseen audience of American troops to raise their morale, focusing in particular on the value placed on winning by American society.
Following the humiliating American defeat at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass in 1943, Patton is placed in charge of the American II Corps in North Africa. Upon his arrival, he immediately starts enforcing discipline among his troops. At a meeting with Air Marshal Coningham of the Royal Air Force, he claims that the American defeat was caused by lack of air cover. Coningham promises Patton that he will see no more German aircraft – but seconds later the compound is strafed by them. Patton then defeats a German attack at the Battle of El Guettar; his aide Captain Jenson is killed in the battle, and is replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Codman. Patton is bitterly disappointed to learn that Erwin Rommel, commander of the German-Italian Panzer Army, was on medical leave, but Codman suggests that: “If you’ve defeated Rommel’s plan, you’ve defeated Rommel.”
After success in the North Africa campaign, Patton and Bernard Montgomery come up with competing plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Patton’s proposal to land his Seventh Army in the northwest of the island with Montgomery in the southeast (therefore potentially trapping the German and Italian forces in a pincer movement) initially impresses their superior General Alexander, but General Eisenhower rejects it in favor of Montgomery’s more cautious plan, which places Patton’s army in the southeast, covering Montgomery’s flank. While the landing is successful, the Allied forces become bogged down, causing Patton to defy orders and advance northwest to Palermo, and then to the port of Messina in the northeast, narrowly beating Montgomery to the prize, although several thousand German and Italian troops are able to flee the island. Patton insists that his feud with Montgomery is due to the latter’s determination to monopolize the war glory. However, Patton’s actions do not sit well with his subordinates Bradley and Lucian Truscott.
While on a visit to a field hospital, Patton notices a shell-shocked soldier (Tim Considine) crying. Calling him a coward, Patton slaps the soldier and even threatens to shoot him, before demanding his immediate return to the front line. By Eisenhower’s order, Patton is relieved of command and required to apologize to the soldier, to others present, and to his entire command. As a further punishment, he is also sidelined during the D-Day landings in 1944, being placed in command of the decoy phantom First United States Army Group in southeast England – which also makes the decoy army more convincing, as German General Alfred Jodl is convinced that Patton will lead the invasion of Europe.
After Patton begs his former subordinate Bradley for a command before the war ends, Eisenhower places Patton under Bradley in command of the Third Army. He performs brilliantly by rapidly advancing through France, but his tanks are brought to a standstill when they run out of fuel as, much to his fury, the supplies were allocated to Montgomery’s bold Operation Market Garden. Later, during the Battle of the Bulge, Patton brilliantly relieves the town of Bastogne and then smashes through the Siegfried Line and into Germany.
At a war drive in Knutsford, England, General Patton remarks lightly that the United States and the United Kingdom would dominate the post-war world, but this is viewed as an insult to the Soviet Union. After Germany capitulates, Patton directly insults a Russian general at a dinner; the Russian insults Patton right back, much to Patton’s amusement. Patton then makes an offhand remark comparing the Nazi Party to American political parties. Ultimately, Patton’s outspokenness loses him his command once again, though he is kept on to see to the rebuilding of Germany, where a runaway oxcart narrowly misses him.
Finally, Patton is seen walking Willie, his bull terrier, across the German countryside. Patton’s voice is heard relating that a returning hero of ancient Rome was honored with a triumph, a victory parade in which “a slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory… is fleeting.”