Appellate Judge Erick Harper says that this movie is guaranteed to hold on to you by the nose and kick you in the ass—and that's a good thing.
God help me, I do love it so. I love it more than my life.
Tough-talking General George S. Patton, Jr. stands as one of the larger-than-life legends of the Second World War. For most of us, however, our ideas and images of General Patton are more the product of Hollywood than history. Few of us are familiar with the real Patton so much as George C. Scott's portrayal of him. For once, Hollywood has served us particularly well in this case, creating an indelible portrait that manages simultaneously to be grand entertainment and pretty good history.
Facts of the Case
General George S. Patton, Jr.'s (George C. Scott, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) genius for war carries him to dizzying heights of glory; his volatile personality and reckless outbursts threaten to destroy his career. The film follows Patton from his arrival in North Africa in 1942 through his brilliant successes during the invasion of Sicily, his period of disgrace that sidelined him for the Normandy Invasion, his eventual return to action in France, and ultimately into Germany itself.
Despite what you may think you know about this film, Patton is not a war movie—at least not any more than it has to be to tell the story of the man. Sure, there are definitely action sequences with Americans and Germans fighting fiercely and blowing each other up. Yes, it takes place in the years 1942-1945 in some of the most crucial battles of the European Theater, but it is not, strictly speaking, a war movie. This is a film about one person; all the usual "big picture" fanfare about great causes and saving democracy and fighting evil is nowhere to be found. Patton gives a more complete portrait of one man than probably any other movie before or since. It is only a war movie to the extent that war is the necessary backdrop to illuminate Patton's unique character and personality. To paraphrase an old saying: it's his world; other people just fight in it. The film can get away with this because Patton the man was just that fascinating and compelling a character. Had George Patton not been in the army, had he been a stockbroker or a janitor or a football coach, we would still be talking about what a great film Patton was, because he was the sort of man who is simply destined by God or fate to have movies made about him.
And what a movie! It is stirring, haunting, and infuriating, much like the man himself. Fueled by George C. Scott's incomparable performance, it transports us into the life, into the very skin of this legendary warrior. Objectively, there was a lot to dislike about the man, and one may not approve of all his methods. But the magic of this film is that for its nearly three-hour running time, such objections are swept away as we are mesmerized by the sheer power of Patton and Scott. For those 171 minutes, it is impossible not to adore the man. It is important to remember that the film does not accomplish this by ignoring Patton's many faults. This is no mere hagiography. We see Patton as his petulant, obnoxious, self-serving worst, but even his lowest moments, such as striking a "malingering" soldier in a hospital tent, simply enhance the portrait and make the character that much more compelling.
What the Francis Coppola/Edmund North screenplay does so well is capture the separate, contradictory threads of Patton's personality and make them vividly real and believable. In addition to his almost fanatical devotion to duty and true love of combat and conquest, the general wrote poetry. Despite a deep devotion to the Christian God, he was a mystic who believed he had been reincarnated countless times, living previously as a Roman legionnaire, a Carthaginian warrior under Hannibal, and a field marshal in Napoleon's army, just to name a few. The film uses these facets of his personality—Patton the indomitable warrior, Patton the mystical poet, and Patton the devout believer—as recurring motifs to complete the portrait of the man. This is further reinforced by Jerry Goldmith's musical score, with its competing, seemingly discordant recurring cues—a march for the soldier, an organ chorale for the believer, and distant echoes of ancient fanfares for the old-souled mystic. When the threads of Patton's character in the screenplay come together with the music and Scott's performance, the result is simply electrifying. How good is Scott's performance? As someone once said, I can't explain it for you, any more than I could explain what an orange tastes like to someone who has never eaten one before. All I can tell you, to borrow a line from Scott/Patton's opening speech, is that this film will hold on to you by the nose and kick you in the ass.
Of course, the film is not perfect. Some of the early scenes between Scott's Patton and Karl Malden's (The Streets of San Francisco, Birdman of Alcatraz) Omar Bradley seem stagey and inelegant. One of the conceits that Francis Ford Coppola wrote into his screenplay was a German intelligence office who advises his superiors, including Field Marshal Rommel, about the nature of their adversary Patton. These scenes are ham-handed exposition of the very worst kind, even more so because they reveal nothing new or interesting. Patton's background and character is revealed in other scenes, in far more effective ways, by simply exposing us to the man himself. Furthermore, these cuts to German headquarters detract from film by throwing off the pacing and unnecessarily diverting our attention from the real story, Patton's story. These are mere quibbles, however. Patton's sheer greatness outweighs the few flaws that one may find in it.
Fox has double-dipped Patton in a two-disc edition as part of its "Cinema Classics" line, which includes other momentous war pictures like Tora, Tora, Tora! and The Longest Day. Of special note among the extra features on Disc Two is the "Patton: A Rebel Revisited" episode of The History Channel's History vs. Hollywood (retitled History Through the Lens for syndication or DVD special features usage). It runs about an hour and a half and has its own chapter selection menu with 24 stops. This doc tries to strike a balance between telling the story of the historical Patton and the making of the film. It maybe leans a bit heavily in favor of the filmmaking side, detailing the long road to the screen from the time such a project was proposed back in 1952. It does reveal the difficulties involved in making such a film in the late 1960s/early 1970s, when antiwar sentiment was running high and there seemed to be little market for a film glorifying the most hardass general in American history. However, by focusing on Patton as a rebel and a maverick, a man who fought with his superiors as much as the enemy, producer Richard Zanuck and director Franklin Schaffner (Papillon, Planet of the Apes) were able to tell a story that would appeal to hawks and doves alike. This documentary is also noteworthy for the inclusion of Robert Patton, the general's grandson, giving the family's side of the story, both as regards the man and the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Patton is a highly-respected, noteworthy film in Fox's library. This new "Cinema Classics" edition is designed to show it at its best, with a boatload of special features to highlight just how important this film is. Or at least that is what you might expect, anyway—but you would be wrong.
Let's start with the audiovisual presentation. What is, hands down, the iconic image from Patton? That's right, George C. Scott in full dress uniform in front of a ginormous U.S. flag giving an adaptation of one of the general's best-known speeches. This is one of the most memorable openings in the history of cinema, and you would think that the people in Fox's DVD department would want to get it right. They didn't. Edge enhancement infests the frame, making Patton look like more of a saint than he really deserves. Reds (fairly prominent in this scene, due to the aforementioned big honkin' flag) are solid and full, but bleed terribly. The flag bleeds onto Scott; individual decorations and ribbons bleed onto his uniform. After this scene the image quality improves noticeably, with colors solid and true and the image as sharp as a 36-year-old film is likely to look, but there are still noticeable problems. Worst of these is in Chapter 10, just after Patton tours an American cemetery in North Africa. In this scene, as Patton fantasizes about challenging Rommel to single combat to determine the outcome of the war, the entire left one-third of the screen is discolored and takes on a purplish hue. This might be a problem with the source print rather than the transfer process, but that hardly absolves Fox of responsibility; certainly a better print of the offending scene must have been available somewhere. I suppose there is a slight chance that it is the result of a shockingly inept use of a gradient filter, but given the quality of the direction and cinematography elsewhere in the film, this seems unlikely.
If the problems with the video transfer are only occasional, the problems with the audio are much more pervasive and irritating. There is a constant hiss under the audio at all times; as with the video problems, it is most pronounced during Scott's opening speech. It improves slightly after that opening scene, but still remains very pronounced (loud enough to seriously distract from the enjoyment of watching the film) until the intermission or thereabouts, after which the audio improves noticeably. In addition to the hiss, the sound does crackle and distort once in a while, often in simple dialogue scenes. Apart from these glaring flaws the audio mix does a decent job with some of the action scenes; the rumble of Panzers across the North African desert manages to be quite menacing. Overall, however, it is an extremely unimpressive audio presentation.
Even the special features, while impressive at first blush, are a disappointment, mostly just rehashed from the previous DVD release. The making-of documentary is even older, originally appearing on the 1997 laserdisc release. This means that for at least the third time Fox has seen fit to allow Oliver Stone, Hollywood's High Priest of Paranoid Delusions, to climb onto the soapbox with his screed about the effects of Patton on the outcome of the war in Southeast Asia. If you don't see the connection, you're not alone, but do bear in mind that to Oliver Stone everything has a connection to the Vietnam War. In essence, Stone claims, with a straight face (or what passes for one when you're Wacky Ollie Stone), that Richard Nixon's love of this film led him to bomb Cambodia, which increased anti-American sentiment there, ultimately bringing the Khmer Rouge to power and spawning the killing fields. That's right, this piece of film, this piece of entertainment, is, in Ollieworld, directly responsible for the deaths of around two million people. This should be enough to dispel any remaining doubts as to whether or not Stone belongs in a well-padded room, but its utility in regard to either the film Patton or the man Patton is nonexistent. That he goes on to transform this lunacy into a personal attack on George C. Scott is inexcusable. (The fact of the matter is that Stone, at the time he made these outlandish, asinine statements, was still in a fit of pique over Scott's refusal to allow him to use Patton footage in Nixon.) On the other hand, claiming that a movie—any movie—is or could possibly be responsible for events of such magnitude is an indictment of Hollywood's astounding overestimation of its importance. In any case, continuing to include Stone's ravings on this DVD (and, presumably, future releases of Patton as well) is irresponsible on the part of Fox, and a serious blemish on what is otherwise an interesting and informative documentary.
The audio essay by Charles M. Province is interesting, and was used as an alternative audio track on the film's previous DVD release. Using it again here is fine, but couldn't someone at Fox have done something about the film audio playing in the background? I guess not; it was easier to just pull it off the old DVD and slap it over a lame montage of still photos. Jerry Goldsmith's complete score was also an audio option on the previous DVD, allowing fans to watch the film with an isolated music-only track. It's nice to see it here as well, but like Province's essay it has been wedded to that most useless of all special features, a still image gallery. The documentary about Patton's ghost division is interesting and that's all very well, but for the most part it is only tangentially related to the man himself; heck, an episode of A&E's Biography would probably be a better use of disc space.
Even the commentary track, featuring none other than Francis Ford Coppola, misfires. Coppola wrote the initial screenplay for the film, and he shares some good insights into the historical research he did, what he was trying to accomplish with this portrait of the general, how many of his lines were historically accurate, and so forth. The problem is that Coppola was eventually fired from the project and the script was handed over to Edmund H. North (The Day the Earth Stood Still). As a result, Coppola had no contact with the actual production of the film. He did earn an Oscar for Best Screenplay, which in turn saved him from getting fired as the director of The Godfather, but his knowledge of what went on behind the scenes as Patton was being made is minimal. In addition to that, he freely admits in his commentary that the recording session for his track is the first time he has seen the movie in years. It seems to me that anyone—even a Hollywood deity like Coppola—should take a couple of hours to do their homework (i.e. watch the film again) before stepping into the booth to record a commentary track. Coppola's comments are fairly interesting for a while, but he runs out of steam pretty quickly. He was really not the right choice to do the commentary on this disc, or not a solo commentary, at any rate.
I get the sense, based on the words of different historians on the subject, that many feel that in some respects Patton was fortunate not to live too far beyond the end of the war. If his brief tenure as military governor of Bavaria is any indication, the man would probably have been more a liability than an asset to his country as it entered the Cold War era. His comments (prescient in retrospect) about the coming break with the USSR and the dangers of leaving half of Europe under the control of "a tyrant worse than Hitler" won him no friends in Washington or among the war-weary western Allies. Patton's extremely aggressive positions were out of step at the time, and one can easily imagine post-war political tides reducing him to first an irrelevancy and later a joke, much as happened later on to the equally outspoken and brash Curtis LeMay. Fairly or not, a post-war Patton would likely have been derided as a caricature of himself, sort of a living, breathing version of George C. Scott's second most famous role: General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. That Patton did not live long enough past the end of the war to embarrass himself too badly can be seen as something of a blessing in disguise; certainly, his legacy and heroic image have been left untarnished to a far greater degree than those of many of his contemporaries.
Patton the film, the actors, and all those involved in making it are free to go with the thanks of this court. Fox, on the other hand, is guilty of presenting us with a double-dip that looks shiny and new but is, in reality, mostly a recycling job that actually brings very little new to the table.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Introduction by Screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola
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