“Patton” earned 10 Academy Award nominations, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Art/Set Decoration, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound. There was no nomination for Best Actress, though, because the only women in this 1970 film are lineless nurses scuttling about and a correspondent briefly doing her job. Yet, if there’s a war film aside from a romantic affair like “From Here to Eternity” that will appeal to women as well as men, it’s this one. That’s because the focus is on the man himself, rather than war, and Patton’s determination to win comes across in much the same way as it might in a sports biopic or one of the old biographies of musicians or scientists. In every case, the underlying question that hooks us is the same: What is it that makes a flawed but great person the stuff of history, rather than an ordinary wayfarer in life like the rest of us? That question is so much a part of “Patton” that even at 172 minutes the film never seems to drag.
It all starts with the script, the first draft of which was penned by none other than Francis Ford Coppola, who did extensive research but could not secure the cooperation of the Patton family. That’s why this epic portrait doesn’t include a single scene depicting Patton’s personal life. But we still learn a lot about this flamboyant character. He not only studied ancient military history, he believed in reincarnation and felt that he’d participated in many of those early battles. He was a brilliant but traditional military tactician who was also a showboater. Like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his American counterpart in the Pacific, he had the kind of gigantic ego that drove him to seek headlines and newsreel cameras as much as victory.
In one of the roles that he seemed born to play, George C. Scott turns in a bravura performance as the pearl-handled revolver-carrying general who came into prominence when he was given command of the U.S. II Corps and, with British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, drove the Germans out of North Africa. Then came the campaign in Sicily and a subsequent slapping incident that almost ended his career. But his value to the Allies was such that an apology was all that came of it. Patton would go on to lead the U.S. Third Army during the late stages of Operation Cobra in Normandy, then race to fight the Battle of the Bulge against German forces under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. According to some historians, Patton’s U.S. Third Army was responsible for more than 50 percent of all German casualties from Normandy through the Battle of the Bulge, and Coppola’s initial script and Scott’s performance both capture the complexities of Patton’s personality. Patton was not a popular man, and this is no whitewash. As many of Patton’s flaws are depicted as the traits that made him so successful.
There’s one scene where Patton meets with the British to complain about the lack of air support for his troops, and is basically told that the air space has been secured. The next breath, a Messerschmitt shows up and drops a bomb on the building. When it returns to strafe the village, Patton had hopped out the window and was standing in the middle of the dirt road, pistol out, shouting and shooting at the pilot. On one of the bonus features, we see Gen. Omar Bradley’s aide on-camera talking about that scene, which, he says, was completely fabricated. But, he adds, even though it all happened so quickly that no one had time to react, it was something Patton would have done. Bradley himself was brought onboard as the film’s technical advisor, and as the film establishes, Bradley was as close to Patton as anyone.
This Blu-ray version of the film comes with an introduction by Coppola, who tells how he was fired from the picture because of the now-famous opening scene that has Patton walking onstage in front of an enormous American flag and addressing the audience as if they were his troops. Coppola patched together snippets of Patton’s speeches and sayings to construct that opening, which even Scott hated, because he felt that if it came at the beginning it might be difficult for him to create a character that could live up to this patchwork credo of Patton’s. But ironically the scene stayed, and it’s one of the distinctive things that set “Patton” apart from other war films and indeed put the focus squarely on the man. Aside from Scott and Karl Malden as Gen. Bradley, few others get much air time or focus. Mostly, this is a limited star vehicle with an ensemble cast. Faces come and go, but it’s Scott’s we see in almost every frame, and it’s to Scott’s credit that we don’t tire of him.
That’s not to say that this war movie is devoid of action. There’s plenty, but because it’s not the focus, we get the feeling that it’s largely atmospheric and situational, a way to remind us of Patton’s role. Almost as much attention is paid to non-battle skirmishes–the arguments that can make or break a proposed campaign. Filmed largely in Spain, “Patton” offers convincing locations and special effects to go with a make-up job that turned Scott into a virtual look-alike. His performance of the ultra-competitive general really carries this film, and so it’s ironic that Scott refused to accept the award because he thought that awards created a competition among actors that turned them into a “meat parade.” In retrospect, though John Wayne campaigned for the part and was turned down, and Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster all reportedly were offered the part but said no, it’s impossible to think of anyone but Scott as the tempestuous leader, and “Patton” remains one of the best war movies of all time.
“Patton” looks very good in 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4 codec@23mbps) and is presented in 2.20:1 widescreen. For a catalog title filmed on location there’s bound to be some atmospheric graininess, but here it’s fairly minimal. As with most HD releases, the checkpoints for clarity are interior close-ups, and “Patton” passes muster with a high level of detail under such circumstances and sufficient black levels. Though much of the film is olive drab or dessert dull, there’s still a sense of colors being appropriately saturated as well. Some frames are a little washed out, but for the most part even the exteriors jump to live visually. Case in point? A Moroccan military parade outdoors that looks especially grand in Hi-Def. Now, there was a single point in the film where I noticed a vertical line of pixellation, but that moment was so brief that it didn’t change the way I felt about the overall picture.
The featured audio is an English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless, which does a good job of handling the explosions and rumblings of tanks and spreads the sound across the speakers fairly well. In air-raid scenes especially the room fills with chaotic sound, but you can still pick out specific elements–it’s not just a jumble. Additional options are an English Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround and Spanish and French Mono. Subtitles are in English (CC), Mandarin, and Cantonese.
As with “The Longest Day,” another recent Fox release, “Patton” is a two-disc set that presents the film in HD on a 50-gig disc and the bonus features on a standard definition second disc. Coppola’s introduction is a surprising combination of subdued bitterness and honest reflection, and that tone carries over onto the full-length commentary as well. If you’ve heard Coppola before, you know he’s not exactly an exuberant fellow to listen to. He’s methodical and matter-of-fact in his presentation and delivery, and covers a number of bases while never straying too far from the irony that he was fired from a film that used mostly his script in order to win a screenwriting Oscar. There’s a lot here about location filming and a lot about the research that he did–which is one of the pleasant bonuses you get when the screenwriter and director are one and the same. It’s a low-energy but info-packed commentary.
Disc two features a TV show on “History Through the Lens: Patton-A Rebel Revisited,” which uses the occasion of the film to take another look at the famous WWII general. It’s a substantial feature that combines clips of the film with plenty of vintage newsreel footage of the man himself. “The Making of Patton” is a more straightforward documentary that covers some of the same ground but is still fascinating. Finally, while all attention was on Patton and the army he took to the Battle of the Bulge, there was a corps of soldiers he left behind with a different task. “Patton’s Ghost Corps” tells a tale that has almost as much bitterness as Coppola’s obvious resentment. The men make no bones about voicing their distrust and disdain for some of the things that Patton did, while also obviously still respecting their leader’s accomplishments. Was he too reckless with human life? You’ll have to decide for yourself after watching this film and this engaging feature, which shows real veterans reminiscing.
I’m no fan of still galleries, usually, but this one is accompanied by an audio essay on the real Gen. Patton, and that makes all the difference in the world. It turns what’s usually a throwaway feature or bit of ephemera into yet another legitimate bonus feature. Rounding out the extras is the original theatrical trailer, which, for a mega-Academy Award-winner, is always fun to see.
Here’s another catalog title that looks surprisingly good in Hi-Def, and a film that’s so wonderful it will probably end up in quite a few home video collections. Scott really deserved that Best Actor award, and director Franklin J. Schaffner managed to maintain the balance between the man and the legend that screenwriter Coppola had carefully crafted.