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Patton: Cinema Classics Collection

Fox Home Video

Starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden

Written by Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"It wasn't a conventional war film," Francis Ford Coppola understates early in the new commentary track on this two-disc edition, the third and best DVD release of Patton (1970). At around age 27, he tells us, he was this Fox biopic's original screenwriter. His goal: to portray the essence of an unconventional, controversial World War II general as a model for those "who chose to see that kind of hawkish military man as a kind of hero." But that was only half of it. Simultaneously, for moviegoers on the left side of the aisle, he aimed to depict Patton as a "complex, tragic" figure, a "Don Quixote tilting at windmills at a time when warriors and warriors' values were no longer quite treasured."

But Coppola's audacious opening scene with pistol-packing, rough-talking General George S. Patton addressing the audience as though they were troops, backdropped by a vast American flag, was deemed so strange that, Coppola says, he was fired from the project. The film itself was to all appearances abandoned. Years later, in 1971, Coppola was close to getting fired again, this time as The Godfather's director. However, as chance would have it, Patton, which had been restarted and shot without him, had just taken seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Although years had passed since he turned in his initial, rejected script, there on that year's Oscar-sweeper glowed his byline (shared with Edmund H. North, who worked directly with the production). After that, what studio could fire him and not look foolish in Variety? It's a resurrection story that he credits for saving his professional bacon and, we infer, The Godfather as we know it.

Now, his commentary track here won't go on anyone's list of great audio exegeses. It's intermittent and repetitive, and his assumed audience seems to be "all you young people" in a Film 101 class. But after 40 years, this five-time Oscar-winning director, producer, and screenwriter is parent-proud that so many of his early contributions, most famously the opening scene, survived in Patton. That byline story sparks a theme he returns to occasionally — his hindsight, at 67, into how much we are shaped by serendipity and happenstance. It's a prescient theme the younger Coppola wove into this epic-sized portrait of a man who believed himself fated to shape battlefields and therefore history.

Of course what's most memorable about Patton is George C. Scott's career-defining performance. More eagle-faced and gravel-voiced that the real Patton, Scott finds all the balancing points in a paradoxical character, one too easily caricatured as either a right-wing brute or a romanticized warrior hero. A poet, historian, and devoutly religious, Patton could be goddamn arrogant and abrasive, then moved profoundly by the death of a common soldier near him. He was pious and profane all at once, and a theatrical megalomaniac. Above all, he was a magnificent military tactician that the film suggests almost spiritually was the right man at exactly the right time. Patton's belief in his own reincarnation — his confidence that he was destiny's eternal soldier born repeatedly throughout time for the grandeur of war, which he lauded as mankind's noblest endeavor — is so hauntingly realized in the film that we have little cause to doubt his memories of "the age-old strife" in ancient Carthage, Greece, and Napoleon's Moscow campaign. Those battle horn triplets we hear punctuating Jerry Goldsmith's stirring score echo not just across battlegrounds, but down the centuries. Early on, a German intelligence officer, created by Coppola as a rather obvious conveyor of exposition, tells German Field Marshal Rommel that Patton is a man displaced in time, a 16th-century romantic out of his natural element in the modern world. Patton himself says that he loves war "more than my life." But oh his disdain for the 20th century, where mechanized infantry and wholesale destruction made it increasingly difficult for combat soldiers to prove their valor in combat.

Patton bridges both sides of this partisan chasm. We understand, even if reluctantly, how Americans can reverentially glorify war in its pageantry and world-changing achievement. Yet this movie from the Vietnam era doesn't shirk the comprehension that so much of what Patton represented was fading in 1944 and is gone forever now. Its position is that WWII's reputation as "the last good war" was, and likely shall remain, secure. (Reflecting the nation's growing war-weariness, Patton's box office success in 1970 was bested by few films, but M*A*S*H was one of them.) Rather than minimize them, Patton illuminates its subject's built-in and irresolvable ambiguities.

Fittingly, director Franklin J. Schaffner (plus a Hannibal's army of second-unit directors, cast, and crew) strategoed all this across the scope and scale of 73 European and North African locations, on sets measured in terrain geography rather than in board feet. A massive battle against Rommel's tank forces in Africa arrives blasting across every widescreen inch of the film's spectacular cinematography. And that's only a warm-up for the U.S. Third Army's exhausted drive through mud and snow across Europe, climaxing in the Battle of the Bulge. The three hours of screen time (this DVD restores the intermission) are episodic, but they give the battle sequences room they need alongside Patton's rise from two- to four-star status, his strategy sessions, and his relationships with his fellow officers, particularly "simple soldier" General Omar Bradley, played by dogface Karl Malden. Threaded throughout the choppy narrative are his personal, political, and professional missteps and controversies that embarrassed his superiors and nearly cost him full participation in history's largest war. There's an impressive amount of research and authenticity on display for what could have been just another Nazi-bustin' action-drama. Much of Scott's dialogue is lifted from Patton's actual words. Still, the film required some noticeable historical omissions. The real Patton's reputation as a vocal anti-Semite is, understandably, left out entirely. Likewise, Patton conforms to 1970's idea of PG-rated entertainment, so the general's famous foul mouth is by modern standards positively avuncular rather than shocking.

While Patton avoided the genre's traditional easy jingoism, often the people and events surrounding Scott exist chiefly to place him into unnecessarily greater relief. For instance, Patton's Allied competitor across Europe, Britain's Field Marshal Montgomery, is portrayed one step away from any of Monty Python's adenoidal twits. Wherever Patton is arguably flawed, it's typically any scene where everything that isn't George C. Scott flattens into the background of his 3-D presence. His is the only notable performance, and offhand we think back to Orson Welles' Charles Foster Kane for another example of an actor so dominating a Hollywood film.

So be it. George Patton was born (at least once) for these big-screen dimensions. By the end of the movie you may hate the half-crazed son of a bitch, but you can't not admire him. And in Scott we get a rare example of a Best Actor Oscar win that's unassailable. (Well, unassailable except to Scott himself. Because he considered actors competing against one another unseemly, he refused the Oscar. During the ceremony he stayed home and watched a hockey game.) If Fox had not fired that audacious young Coppola and back-burnered Patton for a while, it's likely that the role would have gone to the studio's original choice, Burt Lancaster. Serendipity and happenstance.

*          *          *

Fox's two-disc Cinema Classics Collection edition (2006) improves upon Patton's earlier out-of-print R1 DVD editions in both style and content. It's a new transfer (2.20:1, anamorphic) from a 70mm print that's considerably cleaner than the previous edition. Hawkeyed viewers looking for nits will spot places where this image is softer than before. On the other hand, it comes without the previous disc's noticeable edge enhancement. To these eyes it appears that this edition strikes a balance between a softer image and sharpening the picture too much. Colors look a bit stronger and better defined than before.

Audio is strong in DD 5.1 Surround and DD 2.0 Surround. Also here are DD monaural tracks in Spanish and French. (The film's odd perennial tendency toward glaringly obvious overdubbing — including Paul Frees conspicuously voicing at least three characters — remains forever stuck in the master print.)

Besides Coppola's middling yet nonetheless welcome commentary track, he opens the film with an informative video introduction (5 mins.).

New and carried-over supplements go a long way toward chronicling the film's grand-scale production history as well as distinguishing between the raw facts and the myths, and filling in those spots where dramatic necessities trumped fine-resolution adherence to historical detail. Disc Two's three expansive and well-produced retrospective documentaries kick off with an exemplary acquisition from A&E and The History Channel, History Through the Lens - Patton: A Rebel Revisited (90 mins.). Narrated by Burt Reynolds, it's a WWII backgrounder, production bio (attempts to film Patton's life date back to '53), and thorough "making of" documentary.

For a sobering splash of non-Hollywood, warts-and-all reality, Patton's Ghost Corps (46 mins.) brings us personal reminiscences from 64 veterans of Patton's Third Army. It's both a striking first-person history and a tribute to the common soldiers on the field.

A 1997 doc, The Making of Patton (50 mins.) adds camera tests, on-set footage, interviews with Scott (who died in 1999), and Oliver Stone's assertion that the bombing of Cambodia and its fall to Pol Pot are a direct consequence of this being Ricard Nixon's favorite film. (If so, it proves that Nixon always missed the point.)

Criminally, the Academy handed that year's Oscar for Best Original Score to, choke, Love Story. The good news is that here we get a video gallery of production stills accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith's complete score in stereo (36 mins.).

A behind-the-scenes stills gallery gets its soundtrack from an audio essay (53 mins.) on the historical Patton by affable and worshipful Charles Province of the General George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society.

The lengthy original theatrical trailer rounds out this fine edition of an essential movie.

(Regrettably, Fox's loud, face-punching anti-piracy nanny-ad tries very hard to spoil the viewing pleasure right at the start. We will be so grateful when they retire that useless and off-putting thing.)

—Mark Bourne

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