Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970) is at once a story of seemingly indestructible leadership inspiring fearless admiration from both enemy and friend on the battlefield and a poignant tale of that tyrannical underdog unable to regain his wartime supremacy as the world around him became increasingly dedicated to peace. The film’s brilliance remains its ability to assess, without critically judging, the fascinating complexities of George S. Patton’s Achilles’ heel – his failure to perceive the repercussions from his actions at precisely the moment when his more decisive engagement in military strategies was so desperately needed.
Indeed, when asked to pen the screenplay, co-writer Francis Ford Coppola willingly confessed that he found Patton an unlikeable character and felt that audiences too would be unsympathetic to the legend as well as the legacy of “old blood and guts”. Coppola and Edmund H. North would rely heavily on Ladislas Farago’s Ordeal and Triumph and Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story to flesh out their treatment and eventual screenplay. But in George S. Patton’s alter ego - George C. Scott - the writers were gifted an extraordinary talent to play this equally astonishing enigma, the parallels between both men extending far beyond their same first names.
Like Patton, Scott – one of the finest actors of his generation – had become persona non grata during his own time. Both men were highly intelligent, often impatient and short tempered, with more than a slight affliction of egotism that had worked to their own detriment in their professional lives. Patton had begun his military career with a brilliant streak of victories and notoriety that made him an enviable adversary and rising star in the theater of war. But Patton’s decisive attack strategies would eventually prove too aggressive for his contemporaries.
Patton’s reputation as a military strategist par excellence was to suffer following an incident involving his physical assault on a solider suffering from traumatic stress disorder inside an army hospital. The episode made front page news, sending shockwaves of grave concern that resonated all the way back to the White House and all but stifling Patton’s dreams of attaining even more glorious victories in Europe during WWII.
Deprived of his one great ability, to achieve the impossible on the battlefield, Patton quietly slipped from view, relegated to substandard attacks that had very little influence on the outcome of the war. His mysterious ‘accidental’ death not long after war’s end aroused barely minor suspicion in the press. But his reputation as an accomplished general of impeccable merit and ability seemed unwilling to die with him.
Patton, the movie, is imbued with this greater sense of tragedy – the loss of self poignantly depicted throughout the latter half of the screenplay and memorably executed with inner defeatism by George C. Scott, who clearly felt the essence of his alter ego in his heart, soul and bones. Few films as grand or as lengthy are derived from the guiding principle of just one star. But Scott’s performance is a towering tour de force; bigger than life, though arguably no bigger than Patton himself.
Like the man of the hour, Scott commands an intensity of focus from the audience undiluted by the larger cataclysms occurring all around him. For Scott, the film would be his crowning moment as an actor, and such a shame too that he seemed incapable of fully appreciating it at the time, but instead chose to unceremoniously thumb his nose at the slew of accolades that came his way; even refusing to consider the Best Actor Oscar he so richly deserved as no greater an honor than a wreath of garlands at the end of a very shameless horserace.
Filmed in Fox’s patented Dimension 150 – an impressively expansive 70mm wide gauge format befitting the immensity of its subject matter – Schaffner’s Patton opens with an ever so slightly watered down rendition of one of the old general’s most justly famous speeches, given to an audience of Third Army American troops (whom we never see, but hear as they rise en masse from their chairs). Alterations to the speech were necessary to avoid an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA. Patton, for all his various strengths and vices, was a very colorful speaker who used profanity to punctuate his points. These were made even more graphic by his disregard for the niceties. But even without Patton’s more lurid contributions the speech packs an impassioned wallop. Scott’s performance is charged with electricity that only one befallen angry man could understand of another.
There is an eerie synergy at play herein, perhaps more prominently symbiotic than anywhere else in the entire film with Scott all but calling out the specter of Patton as he rails about the enemy and America’s commitment to win at all costs. As Scott bitterly espouses that “No soldier ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country!” one can sense the venom of self-destruction teeming in both men; as though the spirit of Patton is on display and grasping through Scott as a medium for a last ditch effort to reinstate his passion and command over America’s military might. The rest of the speech is so rousing one immediately forgets that when it was given America had yet to strike a decisive blow in the North African conflict, and in fact, had badly bungled their operations there thus far.
But Schaeffer, Coppola and North have struck a genuine note of genius in contrasting this grandiose moment of extreme pomp and circumstance, with Patton in all his military finery flanked by a towering sheath of the Stars and Stripes, to the more demoralizing reality of North Africa circa 1943; a battlefield strewn with American casualties overrun at the Kasserine Pass. We are given a most unflattering portrait of military defeat: locals stripping the half charred corpses of even their most menial possessions, that, as Patton’s speech has already whetted our appetite, is a hateful prospect to even contemplate, much less observe.
Instilling a sense of discipline in his men by elevating their fear of him, Patton reforms his troops and leads them onto victory at El Guettar – a battle Patton assumes he was directly fighting with Germany’s ‘Desert Fox’ Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler). Patton is bitterly disappointed after being informed by Lt. Colonel Charles Codman (Paul Stevens) that although Rommel did in fact plan the battle he did not execute it.
With the arrival of Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), Patton’s achievements on the battlefield take on greater legitimacy. Although Bradley respects Patton’s abilities as a military strategist he also regards him as “a pain in the ass!” adding “George, you just don’t know when to quit!” Indeed, this snap assessment seems to clearly identify Patton’s tragic personal flaw, one that will ultimately dismantle his ambitions and career. Despite the friction between these two men, Patton confides his sense of wonderment and mysticism about war – his devout belief that he is the reincarnation of a great warrior who is destine for even greater glories this time around.
After securing North Africa to great acclaim and notoriety, Patton takes part in the Allied invasion of Sicily. But his aggressive plan for the Seventh Army to take the northwest corner of the island is rather callously rejected in favor of the more circumspect strategy put forth by Britain’s Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery (Michael Bates). To Patton, the plan of having British and American forces land together in the southeast completely lacks the grandeur and wily cunning of his alternative execution. Determined to prove his superiors wrong, Patton defies his orders and races with blinding speed northwest to Palermo, narrowly beating Montgomery and recapturing the port of Messina. But Patton’s expectation that the end will justify his means and absolve him of any wrong doing is blunted by Bradley and Maj. Gen. Lucien Truscott’s (John Doucette) mounting disquiet. After verbally assaulting, then slapping and finally threatening to shoot a shell shocked soldier (Tim Considine) for cowardice, Patton is relieved of his command; the media image of an unhinged lone wolf, incapable of working within the confines of the military hierarchy toward a common good slowly beginning to overshadow Patton’s genius and impeccable career.
Deliberately sidelined during the planned D-Day invasion, a move that infuriates and thoroughly frustrates Patton to wild distraction, the U.S. military assign him to a fictional army corp. instead in England as a decoy that causes German Gen. Alfred Jodl (Richard Munch) to suspect Patton will indeed lead the invasion of Europe. For Patton, this delayed commission represents much more of a loss of faith in him that wounds his pride. Begging Bradley for another chance, Patton is assigned the Third Army and under his command they triumphantly drive their tanks into France, liberate Bastogne and ultimately break through the impregnable Siegfried Line into the heart of Germany.
With the war now obviously leaning in favor of the Allies, Patton goes on record in his belief that America and Britain will come to dominate post war Europe. Seen as a direct insult to the Russians, Patton adds fuel to the fire by insulting a Russian officer during a celebration. But his quip backfires when the Russian insults him back. Making an offhanded comparison between the Nazi party and politics in the United States, Patton’s words are leaked to the press and stand at the forefront of his accomplishments. He is stripped of his command and ordered to remain behind to assist in the rebuilding of Germany.
In the final few moments we see a defeated Patton in peace time, a warrior without his armor, a brigade to command or even a worthy cause to champion. He is a solitary figure out for a walk with his beloved bull terrier – Willie. We are spared Patton’s demise (being struck down by an automobile on a quiet street in Germany). But Scott’s voiceover foreshadows the imminent, his quiet description of a returning Roman conqueror with golden laurels overhead being lauded as a hero today but told that “all glory is fleeting” becomes a very sobering epitaph that at once humanizes the historical figure of Patton for the audience even as it thoroughly robs the real Patton of his grander designs.
Patton is perhaps the finest cinematic portrait of a military figure ever put on film. Director Franklin J. Schaffner deconstructs a tragic tableau; that of a 17th century man doomed to personal and professional dissatisfaction in his own 20th century world. The classical Hollywood narrative is played herein in reverse. The film begins on a singular high note in Patton’s career. We see the great man at the peak of his powers – feisty but unable to control his own mythology that will ultimately whittle down the military zeitgeist to just another forgotten cog in the great wheel.
As Patton, George C. Scott is enigmatic, inspiring; a genuine force to be reckoned with. Scott does not merely inhabit the part; he assimilates into it. Every fiber of his being is wrapped up in the performance, contributing to a very haunting verisimilitude. Scott does not merely look the part. He is the real deal and is mesmerizing to behold. In retrospect, Patton and Scott shared much more than an inner channeling of each other’s character traits. After Scott's snub of AMPAS the actor found it increasingly difficult to get roles. Never again would he scale such artistic heights. Like his alter ego, Scott’s last act finale in life became mired in public failures and personal regrets. As a man of war Patton had no place in peace time. As a man at war with himself, Scott's garrulous brand of self-determination eventually fell out of favor with the industry, though arguably never with his fans.
Patton gets reissued on Blu-ray yet again. Just to be clear, Fox has muddied the waters with multiple reissues of their flawed 1080p presentation under a variety of cover art. Everything from sepia tone head shots of Scott against an uninspired background to a cleverly marketed rip off 40th anniversary edition in booklet form that still contained the same digitally scrubbed hi-def transfer that belied Dimension 150’s superior clarity and presentation value.
Ah, but now we get Patton again – with new cover art that fails to recognize the fact that Fox has gone back to the well for a new 1080p scan that is practically void of all that obtrusive DNR compression. The results? Well, quite frankly – astounding. Color fidelity and contrast were never issues on the aforementioned transfer so it’s no surprise to find that they remain very strong and perfectly mastered on this latest outing. Where this new transfer of Patton excels is in the details. Flesh and background information that was waxy and severely blurred has been relieved of these shortcomings herein. We get a razor sharp image with gorgeous detailing from corner to corner – superior resolution that reveals imperfections in skin and sumptuous clarity in foliage and uniforms. Really, truly good stuff. Wow!
The DTS audio appears to be identical to the aforementioned Blu-ray incarnation and that – to paraphrase Martha Stewart – is a good thing. We get a robust 5.1 with solid separation and Jerry Goldsmith’s score superbly preserved for posterity. On the Blu-ray we also have a very comprehensive audio commentary track that is well worth the price of admission. Additionally, and as before, Fox has also included a separate DVD that includes a host of memorable extras: documentaries on the making of the film, on the real Patton and on Jerry Goldsmith’s illustrious career. We also get all of Goldsmith’s original music cues and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: accept no substitutes and keep this cover art in mind. This is the version of Patton that you want. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)