Patton (Cinema Reserve) Review

“I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country”

Patton is in some ways an admirable film but it has one particular peculiarity, embodied in the fact that the best scene in this occurs in the first five minutes. At the beginning of the film, backed by a huge American flag, General George Patton stands up in front of a group of anonymous soldiers and, having been introduced by shots of his hand at attention, his medals, his riding crop and his pearl-handled pistol, proceeds to harangue them into a state of feverish anticipation with a mixture of patriotism, sentimentality and tyranny.

It’s a magnificent opening and it provides an ideal showcase for the one undisputedly great thing about this film – George C. Scott. His performance not only dominates the film, it transcends it to a point where you can remember the actor as clear as day but you can’t quite remember what surrounded him. And that’s the peculiarity – it’s a huge, multi-character, global-extravaganza war epic which has virtually nothing and no-one in it to speak of except George C. Scott as Patton. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this would be a disaster. But on this occasion it just about works because Patton (like, I would suggest, Churchill) transcended his surroundings in much the same way that Scott does.

The problem associated with this is that there are consequently stretches of the film which are very visually busy – and very expensive – to no particular effect. The director Franklin J. Schaffner recreates battles such as El Guettar with remarkable verisimilitude and they are lucidly staged and reasonably exciting to watch but they seem weirdly disconnected because we don’t see them from Patton’s point of view – we don’t see them from anyone’s point of view in particular whereas the rest of the film is generally either brief gestures in the direction of historical accuracy – scenes in Rommel’s command post for example – or focused entirely around the character o Patton. You feel the battles are there because someone felt they should be to make this an Dimension-150 epic. But, essentially, this is an interior epic about the spectacularly complicated, not entirely likeable personality of one very strange man and not your standard war epic at all. George C. Scott manages, in one of the greatest performances of American film history, to give us the full Dimension-150 tour round Patton’s mind and that’s enough. I don’t think we need epic battle sequences, churlish as that might be.

Pauline Kael’s review of the film upon its release criticised the complete focalisation on Patton and the fact that no-one seemed to have formulated a position to take on him – the studio initially called the film “Salute to a Rebel” to which Kael wrote, “What was Patton a rebel against except humanitarianism?” Typically, I think she’s both right and wrong. She’s right to criticise the supporting players as undercast. Karl Malden does his considerable best with the role of Omar Bradley but it’s a poorly written role, suggesting that neither Francis Ford Coppola nor Edmund H. North was particularly interested in the character. He does an awful lot of skulking in the background and telling Patton off in a prissy sort of way but his importance is diminished as if to play up Patton. Malden is also a much different, more self-effacing actor than Scott and their acting styles don’t gel. As for the other major players in the war, they don’t get much of a look-in. Ike is absent, Monty is played as a silly-ass by Michael Bates (giving much the same performance as he gave as Truscott in Loot) and Rommel is an also-ran.

However, I think she’s wrong to criticise the position the film takes on Patton. What I think the film does very successfully is present Patton in a warts-and-all manner while refusing to judge him. If we like him, I think it’s more for his sheer brazen charisma. In the opening speech, what he’s actually saying may strike some of us as a load of militaristic bullshit but it’s easy to get caught up in it because it’s so damned effective, as perhaps only well-delivered bullshit can be. His egotism and pig-headed nature are both displayed quite clearly and the sequence where he slaps the shell-shocked soldier is fascinating for being very dispassionate. We don’t know how to take this and the film doesn’t cue us in. Some people have called the film anti-war. But I think that, overall, what the film suggests is double-edged; that wars are bloody awful things if we need men like this to win them for us but that given war is a fact of life, we do need them and there’s no point expecting them to be sweethearts. Scott captures this perfectly – look at the maniacal gleam in his eye when he screams that the shell-shocked man is a yellow bastard and the morbid self-pity when forced to apologise. He doesn’t care if we dislike Patton; he simply wants us to be fascinated by him – and we are. There’s a lack of vanity in Scott’s acting here, he gives himself completely over to the character.

There are some serious flaws to the film. It is overlong and, as I stated earlier, the battle scenes don’t quite fit in to the overall tone of the film. But the look of the movie is often quite stunning. Fred J. Konenkamp was never a particularly distinguished cinematographer but as he shows here – and in The Towering Inferno - he’s a great organiser of chaotic images and he knows when to tone things down into browns and greys and when to blast us with primary colours. These visuals are perfectly complemented by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, heavy on the brass and providing us with one of his best main themes. Yet the main achievement of the film, for which I also credit the screenwriters and the director, is the way it presents us with a fully realised and brilliantly well acted central character and allows George C. Scott space and time to do some of his very best screen work. Considering the disappointments of his later career, trapped in mediocre and underachieving films, that’s something for fans of this wonderful actor to very grateful for.

The Disc
Fox’s Cinema Reserve release of Patton is a 2-disc affair which, disappointingly, lacks the Coppola commentary which will reportedly be featured on the upcoming Region 1 disc.

The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is pretty good and very clean. It looks identical, to these eyes, to the previous Region 2 release. However, there are striking colours, a reasonable level of detail and no serious problems with excessive grain or artifacting. A certain level of grain is present but it’s natural and attractive. Occasionally, the picture is stunning – the opening scene in particular – and generally its very pleasant to watch although there is also a certain softness present at times which, while not a major flaw, is noticeable.

The soundtracks offered are Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 Surround. Both are excellent, replicating the surround sound theatrical experience offered by the film. The DTS is a new track and has the edge for clarity and volume, especially during the battle scenes. Both tracks cope well with the rich music score and Scott’s growling delivery. Much of the dialogue is centre-channel oriented but elsewhere, the surround channels and sub-woofer get quite a workout.

The special features are, all bar one, carried over from the previous release. We get the fifty minute “Making of Patton” which, along with well researched interviews and photos, is notable for Oliver Stone making a fool of himself by blaming the film for the bombing of Cambodia. There’s also a good historical analysis of the real Patton by president of the Patton Historical Society, Charles M. Provance, which is audio only and well worth listening to if you’re interested in the events behind the film. This is accompanied by a production stills gallery and runs about 53 minutes - which is cut down from the 81 minutes on the original disc. Another stills gallery is accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s complete music score which sounds marvellous and is more extensive than the isolated track on the earlier release.

The new features is “History Through The Lens: Patton” which is a ninety minute mixture of information on the real Patton and the making of the film. It’s quite interesting but more about Patton himself would have interesting considering that the making-of stuff tends to repeat what is featured in the other documentary. This is presented in fullscreen with film extracts letterboxed at 2.35:1.

The film and both documentaries are accompanied by optional subtitles.

If you own the current 2-disc release of Patton then there’s no real need to upgrade to this new edition, although the attractions of the new documentary, DTS sound and the complete music score may be enough to tempt fans to double-dip.

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