|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 01 August 2008|
The movie was shot in 70mm, giving the scenes great clarity and sharpness of detail, carried over nearly intact to this Blu-ray high definition disc. Few movies will look this good on your home screen, even fewer will sound this good. The production team was painstaking in the recreation of wartime sounds, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score is one of the best by this master composer. That little trumpet trill we first hear when Patton gazes over some Roman ruins has become emblematic, almost a joke; we often hear it when someone’s ambitions as a warrior outstrip his abilities. General George S. Patton Jr., however, achieved his goals as a general. He may have been a bastard—the movie strongly displays that side of him—but he was a genius at warfare, and knew his calling. As he watches a battle unfold, Scott’s Patton murmurs, almost to himself, “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life.”
The studio had a hard time finding an actor to play General Patton. They approached all the usual suspects—Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum. But Mitchum, and probably others, kept pointing at George C. Scott. And he was the guy. Careful but not overdone makeup turns Scott into a reasonable replica of the real Patton. But it’s Scott himself who delivers the goods, and turns Patton into someone we both adore and detest—just the way his troops are known to have regarded him. He may have been Old Blood and Guts, they admitted, but it was our blood and his guts.
This has one of the greatest opening scenes in movie history, reduced now just a bit from the initial roadshow presentations of this epic film. It opens with the American flag, filling the whole damned screen. Initially, it held—and held—and held. Remember, this was released at the height of the Vietnam war. Pretty soon, the audience divided itself into hawks (cheers) and doves (hisses). But just before they could start attacking one another, Patton, a tiny figure against the immensity of the flag, marches up to the stage. This was very intelligently staged by director Franklin J. Schaffner: Scott was exactly the size he would be if he had been on the stage in front of the movie audience. The auditorium fell silent.
And then Scott gives a blistering, brilliant speech derived from real speeches by Patton. “All Americans love the sting of battle,” he ringingly declares. We realize he is speaking to a bunch of freshly-minted soldiers, about to go into battle for the first time. He tells them—us—we’ll be fine in battle, and we won’t have to tell our grandchildren that we spent the big war shoveling shit in Louisiana…
The movie opens with Patton in Morocco, doing mostly public-relations stuff, talking to dignitaries, appearing at processions of soldiers. But he’s itching to get into battle. We see the aftermath of an awful Allied defeat at Kasserine, and learn that General Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler) has been winning battles all over North Africa. Patton is eager to join the fray, to pit his war knowledge against that of Rommel, whom he greatly admires. (He’s even read Rommel’s book on tank warfare, and keeps it with him.)
The movie follows Patton across Africa as he (and British general Montgomery) force Rommel to retreat. We see that Patton and Montgomery consider each other rivals, even competitors, eager to show the other up. If anything, the movie overplays this side of things just a bit; in Sicily, the movie shows Patton deliberately forcing his troops into a key city ahead of Montgomery, but evidently in real life, this had previously been agreed upon by both generals. Nonetheless, it’s a great, showy, theatrical moment, and Scott makes the most of it.
Karl Malden plays Omar Bradley, an old friend and West Point classmate of Patton’s. Eisenhower (never seen) first appoints Bradley Patton’s second in command. But later, when Patton’s eagerness and heedless speed lead him into trouble, Bradley is appointed Patton’s superior. Patton becomes notorious—when an Italian’s mules temporarily block the advance across a narrow bridge of Patton’s forces, the general shoots both mules dead and has them tossed off the bridge. When he visits a field hospital to comfort the wounded, he’s outraged to learn one of them is suffering from battle fatigue. We already know Patton thinks “battle fatigue is the yellow belly’s ticket out of” combat, so it’s not surprising when he slaps the frightened soldier (Tim Considine). In real life, Patton slapped TWO soldiers. This was disgraceful behavior on the part of a general who’s supposed to be an example to his men, to support them. He’s relieved of command, and sent to England to give speeches to little old ladies.
But he still wants back into the war. Eisenhower uses him as a kind of decoy. It’s well known that the Germans think that Patton is the greatest combat general the Allies have (and we see a junior German officer researching Patton, but being unable to convince his commanders of what he thinks is really going on), and would of course lead the landings for D-Day. But instead, Eisenhower arranges things so the Nazis think the Allies are landing at Calais, not Normandy.
But Patton does get over there, and begins sweeping across Europe, outrunning his own lines of supply, so that sometimes his war machines are left stranded, without fuel. (The same thing happened to the Germans.)
“Patton” has relatively few battle scenes. The North Africa confrontation between Patton’s forces and those of Rommel is shown in some detail—and in this high-definition presentation, “detail” is the word all right. From miles away, we can see individual tanks, individual troops, as they advance across the sandy landscape. We see little or no battle scenes of Patton’s Sicily campaign, and in Europe, even the Battle of the Bulge is seen in brisk, short almost surrealistic scenes of nighttime combat. But this handling these scenes is a strength, not a weakness.
In a sense, the movie has only two characters—Patton and Bradley. All other characters are in and in briskly and efficiently. A few generals here (John Doucette and Lawrence Dobkin among them), a few dogfaces on the sidelines making wisecracks, a couple of Patton’s aides, the only people he can confide in. But again, these are far from weaknesses; the script and director Schaffner keep the focus tightly on George S. Patton himself, and the General is so interesting, so colorful and yet so realistic in George C. Scott’s hands he never, ever wears out his welcome. He never becomes a strutting caricature of a man, but always this specific man, completely believable, unforgettable, riveting. Patton believed in reincarnation—he tells Bradley about a Roman vs. Carthaginian battle from having been there himself. And he illuminates it with poetry he wrote. (He also competed in the Olympics—really, he did.) He’s incapable of showing a softer side—even when he kneels at the cot of a wounded soldier, he does so in tough, even rigid, military form. Scott gives nothing less than one of the greatest performances in movie history. He won the Oscar (but declined to accept it).
The screenplay also won the Oscar, but Francis Ford Coppola, who provides a highly listenable commentary track, wasn’t in Hollywood to accept it. He was on location shooting another movie that turned out to be a masterpiece: “The Godfather.”
The extras are worthy of the great movie. “History through the Lens: Patton—A Rebel Revisited” is the overall story of George S. Patton, Jr., and of the movie about him. Patton didn’t see much action in World War I, which greatly frustrated him. Military historian Paul Fussell provides information; West Point historian Col. Cole Kingseed does, too; Bradley’s aide Chet Hanson provides insight from his in-person perspective. The accuracy of the film—high, but not perfect—is discussed.
Another featurette is about the making of the movie, and is largely a tribute to Franklin J. Schaffner (1920-1989). He made a few good, if unexceptional movies—“The Best Man” (1964), “The War Lord” (1965), and then made “Planet of the Apes” (1968), which led to his “Patton” assignment. After that, though his films seemed strained, as if he were trying for significance the material didn’t contain: “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971), “Papillon” (1973), “Islands in the Stream” (1976), which reunited him with George C. Scott. Schaffner’s last notable movie was “The Boys from Brazil” (1978).
But this is not a standard making-of documentary. It explains that making a war-based film during the Vietnam War was a very risky venture on the part of 20th Century-Fox. There would undoubtedly be those who saw the film as a glorification of Patton (Oliver Stone, for one, did—he has his own section of the featurette in which he claims the movie gave Nixon the resolve to invade Cambodia, an iffy proposition at best).
The movie has no process shots, no blue screen; all that you see on screen happened at that scale. There are no, or very few, miniatures. As it turned out, the movie was a major success and dominated its year’s Oscars. It doesn’t glorify war; it doesn’t even glorify Patton—it presents him as he was, a brilliant general, a difficult man—and makes no apologies for him. This was directed by Michael M Arick.
Another featurette is haunting. “Patton’s Ghost Corps” are tales of the soldiers who were left behind as Patton advanced beyond his supply lines. These are real veterans, interviewed one at a time; their stories are gripping and unnerving, and illustrated with some excellent drawings by one of them. It’s hypnotic, gripping and simple. The artist was William A. Foley, Jr. The director of this fine documentary was Zachary Weintraub.
This is a great movie, and this high definition Blu-ray disc is a great way to see it. It’s a huge yet intimate spectacle, both illuminating and entertaining. A masterful film.