Fox // 1970 // 171 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 3rd, 2008
"There's only one proper way for a professional soldier to die: the last bullet of the last battle of the last war."
"Men, all this stuff you've heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war...because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans." -- Gen. George S. Patton (George C. Scott)
North Africa, 1942. The American military has just faced Rommel's Africa Corps for the first time. The results are not successful. General Omar N. Bradley (Karl Malden, On the Waterfront) and Brig. General Hobart Carver survey the bloody battlefield, littered with scores of American bodies.
Gen. Bradley: What we really need is someone tough enough to pull this
Brig. Gen. Carver: Patton?
Gen. Bradley: Possibly.
Brig. Gen. Carver: God help us.
Patton (George C. Scott, Dr. Strangelove) swaggers in, bringing with him a strict sense of a discipline, a love of history, and a deep hunger for conquest on the battlefield. Patton immediately begins to strictly enforce a new set of rules, and soon leads the American army to their first victory over Rommel in Tunisia. Patton and his forces are riding high on the wings of victory, and soon begin planning a march toward Sicily. However, the relentless personality that makes him such an effective military force is beginning to undercut him. When Patton slaps a shell-shocked soldier and calls him a coward, he shifts from hero to villain in the public eye. Patton might be able to win the war for America...but only if he doesn't destroy himself first.
Has there ever been a greater character study than Patton? Like the man himself, this film is bold and magnificent, capturing the general's fearless bravado, public bluster, and private complexity. It does not attempt to gloss over Patton's many flaws and controversial tactics, but it does not apologize for him. There are few films that have been able to examine their subjects with simultaneous unadultered admiration and unfliching honesty. Patton is immensely easy to like, just as easy to dislike, and undoubtedly a very compelling a figure no matter which way you view him.
Part of the reason Patton is such a sublime character study is that it actually manages to live up to its title. This is a film about General George S. Patton, nothing more, nothing less. Elements of ethics and politics certainly play a huge role in this story, but the film itself does not take a position on these issues. It is not concerned with promoting a liberal or conservative political agenda, nor does it attempt to make profound statements about war. Patton only seeks to let the viewer get to know its subject and attempts to let us view the world and the war through his eyes. It succeeds with flying colors.
The film was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, a reliably capable artist who made such fine films as Planet of the Apes, Papillion, and The Boys From Brazil. However, none of his work before or since Patton approached that film's level of perfection. Under Schaffner's exceptional guidance, every single element of Patton works beautifully. The film is nearly three hours long, and yet there is not a single scene that feels disposable or out-of-place. The movie is beautifully paced and structured, presenting an intimate-yet-epic tale. Visually, the film is gigantic in scope (particularly during the superbly staged battle scenes, which take Patton's god-like view of the action). In terms of narrative, the film is intensely focused. There are no romantic, comic, or dramatic subplots that attempt to make the film appeal to different sets of demographics. Aside from General Bradley, there are no supporting characters that are permitted to step into the spotlight on a regular basis. On the few occasions that the film steps away from Patton, it focuses solely on individuals who are reflecting on (or reacting to) Patton's actions.
The screenplay was written by a young Francis Ford Coppola (whose artistic output during the 1970s may be the strongest decade any writer/director has ever had), and it is masterful on multiple levels. Yes, it manages to focus solely on its core subject. However, for that approach to work, you must have a fascinating core subject. Coppola melds real-life quotations and his own original writing to provide Patton with some of the most memorable dialogue in cinematic history. This is highlighted most effectively by the film's iconic opening scene, featuring Patton offering cinema audiences a fire-and-brimstone speech on the nature of war and battle.
Of course, none of this would work without the right actor. It's impossible to imagine this role being played by anyone other than George C. Scott, but he actually wasn't even the first choice for the role. John Wayne reportedly campaigned for the part, and numerous other major actors turned the role down, but it's doubtful that any of them could have been half as effective in this film. Scott makes us understand why Patton had become almost a mythological subject, bringing a larger-than-life charisma and mad authority to the large moments, while also offering immensely effective small-scale human moments. Patton believes in reincarnation and is convinced that he has been a warrior in each life for thousands of years. He is an old-fashioned warrior that was perhaps born a few centuries too late. Patton confirms this: "God, how I hate the 20th century."
Scott commands the screen like a gravitational force. When he is on the screen, everyone in the film and in the viewing audience automatically gravitates toward him. When he is not on the screen, his presence hangs over the film like an ominous cloud. I suspect that many actors might have been tempted to portray Patton as a man who was all bark and no bite, a blustery jerk who was really just a sad and lonely man inside. Scott's performance suggests that Patton's noisy external personality is merely a logical extension of this man's fiery soul. I don't know quite how he pulls it off, but Scott somehow convinces us that Patton is always holding back a little, no matter how thunderous he becomes. Small portions of the general's truly complex feelings are perpetually leaking out, which keeps journalists happy and government officials irritated.
There are still other artists who contribute to making Patton one of cinema's great achievements. Fred J. Koenekamp supplies superb cinematography that is surprisingly as impressive in small and quiet moments as it is in grand scenes of spectacle. Composer Jerry Goldsmith supplies the original score, which is highlighted by the iconic main theme. Koenekamp and Goldsmith ensure that the look and sound of the film is nothing short of excellent, permitting no technical flaws to distract from Schaffner's direction, Coppola's screenplay, or Scott's performance.
The film has been released for the first time in hi-def, and let me tell you...the results are terrific. Patton hasn't looked this good since it was released in theatres. The previous DVD transfer was frankly somewhat disappointing, and had several noteworthy problems. All of these have been corrected for this Blu-ray transfer, which is honestly as pristine as you could possibly expect for a film that is 38 years old. The dynamic 5.1 sound is just a little too soft during a handful of dialogue scenes (which caused me to adjust the volume on the film more than once), but otherwise everything is nicely distributed, and Goldsmith's score sounds great.
This is really a pretty minor complaint, but I'm going to make it, anyway. There are some big extras here that really should be nothing less than knockouts. Sadly, everything seems to fall just a little bit short. Francis Ford Coppola offers a commentary here, and it's not quite as strong as other commentaries Coppola has done. Sure, there is some informative stuff here and there, but too many quiet spots and an atypical lack of enthusiasm hurt this track just a bit. The second disc demonstrates a certain level of laziness on the part of Fox. Not only is everything presented in standard-definition, but Fox has actually just packaged the 2006 DVD disc from the previous DVD release. Talk about double-dipping...they didn't even manufacture a new bonus disc!
Anyway, the contents of that bonus disc are hit and miss. "History Through the Lens -- Patton: A Rebel Revisited" is a fairly engaging documentary that contrasts the real-life Patton with the cinematic version. It leans towards hyperbole quite a bit, but it's worth checking out. The 45-minute "Patton's Ghost Corps" is a purely historical look at the man. This overlaps a bit with the previous doc, but it's still not bad. Finally, there's a 45-minute documentary called "The Making of Patton," which spends much of its time paying homage to Schaffner. The high point: a witty and charming interview with the late Jerry Goldsmith, who tells some amusing stories and discusses his original themes. The low point: an interview with an exceptionally incoherent Oliver Stone, who attempts to prove that Patton was responsible for the Vietnam War. I'm not joking. I'd typically make little mention of two stills galleries, but the ones here are different. With one, you get to hear Goldsmith's complete original score. With another, you get to hear an audio essay on Patton. Check 'em out. The original theatrical trailer wraps up the disc.
Though I'm a little disappointed at the rather lazy double-dip on the original bonus material, the hi-def transfer is so impressive that all is forgiven. This is not just a great film, it's one of the greatest films and should be seen by everyone who considers themselves any sort of movie fan. Absolutely brilliant.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 171 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary with Francis Ford Coppola
* "History Through the Lens--Patton: A Rebel Revisited"
* "The Making of Patton"
* "Patton's Ghost Corps"
* Stills Galleries
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* DVD Verdict Review - Cinema Classics Edition