Few figures in world history are as colorful as General George S. Patton; a tempestuous embodiment of American know-how and fortitude who, like Genghis Khan before him, captured a popular zeitgeist in his nation’s pride by raising his own furor against a formidable enemy; frequently revered and just as readily despised for his stalwart ‘win at all costs’ mantra that caused him to infamously fly off the handle and strike a shell-shocked soldier recovering in military hospital, earning him the somewhat doubled-edged accolade of ‘ole blood and guts’ – his guts, our blood. There is little to deny Patton his place as an expert military strategist; a somewhat whimsical character in private, who firmly believed he had been reincarnated centuries earlier from the great warriors of the past. Despite being only an average student in school, Patton read incessantly – military books, mostly – plotting his contemporary attack strategies based on time-honored principles from the great strategists gone before him, or, if one chooses to believe Patton’s claim, among whom he lived many lives in many lands before this one. In hindsight, Patton ought to have been the greatest five-star General in U.S. history. But his increasing disregard for following the chain of command, particularly when he believed he knew better than his contemporaries (and probably did!), steadily earned him a reputation for being unmanageable and therefore dangerous, if only to the global reputation of the U.S. military as benevolent liberators. At intervals, Eisenhower considered Patton his MVP, and yet, an uncontrollable embarrassment, running to his own likes and passions first – occasionally, with disastrous results – but always with an attitude of ‘political pundits in Washington be damned’.
To some extent, the real Patton fancied himself as much an ephemeral, as formidable opponent, passing through time and righting the wrongs in this centuries-old tapestry of warfare. It is difficult, though not impossible to imagine Patton being adrift in peace time had not a curious car wreck put a definite period to his earthly reign on December 8, 1945. There are more than a few cavities to erode our admiration for the man; virtually none of them explored in Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970), largely a deification, advancing an exceedingly bizarre hypothesis; that Patton’s greatest foe during WWII was neither Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler) nor Adolf Hitler, but rather Patton’s own ancient rivalry with Britain’s Field Marshal, Sir Bernard Montgomery (played with diminutive poise by Michael Bates). The contrast between this noble knight, engaged by the mark of Queensbury Rules, vs. America’s steamroller, running over anyone and everything to suit his own agenda, is potently achieved via George C. Scott’s performance, perhaps because his own bellicoseness rivals that of his alter-ego; each, sharing a mutual scorn for authority figures. As such, Patton – the movie – realizes an uncanny presence of mind while straddling two chairs in the critical debate. At once, it remains the story of a conservative rebel, possibly the very antithesis of what American decorum in battle ought to be, and yet, Scott’s Patton emerges as an impassioned and compelling enigma from the war years. We develop an ever so slightly empathetic embrace toward his conflicted views regarding valor and victory; at intervals Scott declaring, “How I hate the twentieth century” while commenting about the battle itself, “By God, I love it!”
George C. Scott is an intriguing figure in latter 20th century Hollywood folklore; a caustic, exciting, troublesome and yet persuasive man of his own convictions – in short, Patton reincarnated for the arts. He absolutely refused to partake in the Oscar ‘horse race’ and never accepted his Best Actor statuette till the day he died. At the time of its premiere, Variety gave Patton a celebrated review, claiming “If war is hell then Patton is one hell of a war picture, perhaps one of the most remarkable of its type in years!” But the picture’s success is even more acutely impressive when considering Patton was made and released at the height of America’s polarized anti-war/anti-military marches sweeping the nation. In endeavoring to tell the tale of one of the chief architects responsible for America’s victory in WWII, producers, Frank Caffey and Frank McCarthy assumed a monumental responsibility. And, in truth, 2oth Century-Fox was taking an enormous leap of faith. Although Fox had played host to some of the finest war movies ever made, it was hardly in a financial position to back a movie with the potential to be misconstrued as a war-mongering unadulterated flop with at least half its audience. Basing his first draft on Ladislas Farago’s Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, and, General Omar N. Bradley’s A Soldier's Story, screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola elected to take a very unorthodox approach to opening the picture; Patton, in full military regalia, and, wearing literally every medal one could hope to pin upon the chest of a U.S. General, addressing the audience directly with a riveting six and a half minute speech. The words assembled by Coppola were neither his nor even slightly embellished, but rather an amalgam of Patton’s own rhetoric, stitched together from his famed public addresses to the Third Army just prior to the D-Day invasion of Europe.
At the crux of Patton’s spellbinding dissertation, sanitized by Coppola for the sake of, then, reigning movie censorship, is the essence, not only of Patton himself, but of America’s commitment to the freedom of all peoples of the world; an intriguing compendium of lyrically stated platitudes mixed with an even more bombastic underlay of profanity – most of it excised, or merely implied in Coppola’s revision. “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. Men, all this stuff you've heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle… Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war... because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.’
In part, the speech also illustrates Patton’s simultaneous contempt and admiration for a worthy opponent, this spirit of envy spinning back and forth like a weathervane, directing Patton’s expertly timed and executed military strategies but also increasingly contributing to his inability to maintain a position of authority after war’s end. “Now there's another thing I want you to remember. I don't want to get any messages saying that ‘we are holding our position.’ We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose.”
Interestingly, the beginning of Patton – long since revered as one of the great openers – was considered too avant garde by 2oth Century-Fox when Coppola submitted his first draft. Even after the studio reluctantly elected to shoot this prologue, George C. Scott had his misgivings; at first balking, then claiming it was the best part of the ‘whole damn’ picture. If Patton opened with this, the rest of his performance would surely have nowhere to go but down. Scott really needn’t have worried. But Coppola, who would eventually win an Oscar for his prose, had already been fired from the project; replaced by screenwriter, Edmund H. North, also destined to take home an Oscar as his collaborator. Much later, Coppola would relay how he came to discover all his finely crafted narrative – or rather, much of it – had survived his being ousted from the project. In the intervening year since completing his draft, Fox had rented a piece of editing equipment from Coppola’s fledgling studio, American Zoetrope (AZ) but could not figure out how to operate it. Assuming the machine was broken, someone at Fox telephoned ‘AZ’ to send over a repairman. The man they spoke to was, in fact, Coppola. Hurrying over with his toolbox to ascertain the repairs, Coppola quickly realized there was nothing wrong with the machine, only with the way the film had been improperly threaded. The footage caught in the viewfinder, however, was that of the ‘speech’ scene he had written nearly a year before for Patton. Years later, Coppola would whimsically muse, “So don’t fret if your ideas are considered too progressive, because quite often it’s what gets you fired that you’ll also be remembered.”
Only in retrospect does Patton register as mildly distressing and faintly untrue, perhaps because director, Frank Schaffner and producer, Frank McCarthy (both veterans of the war) have made the executive decision to maintain an enriching, though no less artificial and old-fashioned equilibrium devoted to their character study. George C. Scott’s George S. Patton is undeniably slanted toward being our hero – presented as egotistical with pig-headedly stubbornness to a fault, but also expunged of the real Patton’s anti-Semitic rhetoric. The movie also chooses to ignore Patton’s tactical errors. These resulted in many unwarranted deaths, simply to satisfy his ego and personal agenda. Finally, Patton presents the war as a string of uninterrupted, though occasionally stalemated, victories for the General, his seemingly Teflon-coated reputation tarnished by the infamous ‘slapping incident’. In reality, the war was hard won only after a series of what Patton deemed as ‘hateful setbacks’. Even the ‘slapping incident’ is an amalgam of two high-profile cases; the first, involving Patton striking and verbally abusing, battle-fatigued, Private Charles H. Kuhl at an evacuation hospital in Nicosia; the other, concerning Private Paul G. Bennett under similar circumstances.
But what Patton – the movie – does spectacularly well is to bottle the dynamism in Patton’s own clear-eyed (though arguably, misguided) visions of victory, ambitiously adhered to, though inevitably, distorted by his own egocentricity. Here is a man whose separateness is self-imposed and self-sufficient – arguably, also, self-indulgent; educated, but socially and psychologically stunted, even incapable of relating to the 20th century on its own terms. Frequently, Schaffner isolates our hero against desolate, yet somehow picturesque, landscapes to augment Patton’s exile from the rest of the world. Indeed, at one point, Erwin Rommel refers to Patton as “a sixteenth century man caught in a twentieth century world.” Early on in the movie, Patton suggests that an army is a team; and yet, he himself is not a team player, rather xenophobic; commanding his unit as though they were heartless/mindless chess pieces to be manipulated at his will. It’s really George C. Scott who makes this George S. Patton palpable to a contemporary audience; the philosopher’s creed from within subservient to this livewire’s untrammeled integrity from without. Political tactfulness and ethics are not Patton’s strong suit, nor are they required to seer Scott’s galvanized scowl into our collective consciousness as a reasonable facsimile of the real thing.
If all wars are a supreme test of humanity, seeking out the vainglorious warriors among us to accept the test of endurance as ‘just’, then George C. Scott’s Patton emerges as one of the most mythical unicorns from an already very thin herd; Scott illustrating the interior clash between Patton’s outward war-time ferocity and his tortured susceptibility to a peace-time purgatory without ever succumbing to outlandish parody or wafer-thin romanticism. The swagger, in part, reveals an even more ominous self-awareness. And yet, even at his most tactless, Scott’s soldier registers more deeply than just another nonconformist; Patton, at once, the story of a seemingly indestructible leader inspiring fearless admiration from both friend and foe on the battlefield, but also revealing more about the tyrannical underdog unable to regain his wartime supremacy as the world around him becomes increasingly tame. The sheer brilliance in Coppola’s writing, coupled with George C. Scott’s performance, allows the audience to critically assess, without equally judging the confounding complexities and inconsistencies of George S. Patton’s Achilles’ heel – his personal failure in mistreating underlings as though they were enemies, eventually eclipsing his formidable backlog of professional triumphs. Yet, despite this, the character’s reputation as a tragic figure is neither eroded nor even tarnished.
Patton opens with the General’s mesmeric address to an unseen audience of American troops. From this rebel-rousing opener, director, Schaffner shifts to the disparate chords of Jerry Goldsmith’s impeccably haunted underscore and main titles set against the desolate backdrop of Kasserine, 1943. Enter Gen. Omar Bradley (Karl Malden), unable to contain his dismay while overseeing the aftermath of America’s first confrontation with Erwin Rommel’s military machine in North Africa; a complete annihilation of his troops; their bodies stripped bare by the locals and left to decay in the stifling noonday sun. It is a morbid scene, punctuated by one of Bradley’s officers shooting a pair of vultures already gathered to pick apart the bones of a slaughtered goat. Enter Gen. George S. Patton, accompanied by his devoted aide, Captain Richard N. Jenson (Morgan Paull). Patton is held in very high regard by Bradley, who has been assigned by Eisenhower to ‘observe’ him. Instead, Patton arranges to make Bradley his second in command, thereby placing his authority directly beneath his own. In short order, Patton sets about reinvigorating the command of this sloppy Third Army outpost; carpet-hauling British Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham (John Barrie) for his glib comments made about air cover being a poor substitute for well-trained infantry on the ground. After a particularly embarrassing assault by a pair of Messerschmitt, Patton brings into question Coningham’s claim about his own ‘complete air supremacy’.
Informed by his advisors that Rommel intends to confront the Third Army in a surprise attack, Patton bones up on Rommel’s military strategies instead and sets up a near perfect ambush of his advancing forces; the Battle of El Guettar proving America’s first decisive victory against the Axis. Alas, the one inconsolable casualty from this confrontation is Jenson, blown to bits by a mortar and later given an honor-guard burial by Patton, who laments the tragedy of war itself; that men of Jenson’s caliber must be sacrificed to its hellish caprices. Shortly thereafter, Patton is appointed a new aide; Lieutenant Colonel Charles R. Codman (Paul Stevens). He confirms for Patton that Rommel was nowhere near El Guettar during the battle. However, since the plan to attack was Rommel’s, Patton has, at least in theory, defeated Rommel. The Coppola/North screenplay makes a fascinating detour, Patton instructing his driver to take him and Bradley to the ancient site where the Battle of Zama occurred. There, Patton invokes a lyrical poem presumably composed on the fly, and suggests to Bradley he was present 200 years earlier, having witnessed the deluge in all its resplendent and thought-numbing carnage.
We advance to Patton’s involvement in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Alas, his initial proposal for an amphibious landing in the northwest corner of the island is rejected in favor of British General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s more vigilant plan to have their two armies take the southeast in a parallel invasion. Almost immediately, their forces are embroiled in a stalemate with the Nazis. Frustrated and thoroughly convinced he could do better, Patton defies direct orders. He races northwest, taking Palermo in record time; then, narrowly beats Montgomery to the port of Messina. However, Patton's aggression is regarded with increasing disquiet by Bradley and Major General Lucian K. Truscott (John Doucette). After the infamous ‘slapping’ of a shell-shocked soldier (Tim Considine) whom Patton publicly humiliates as being a coward, Patton is relieved of his command and ordered to publicly apologize. Unwilling to take the humiliation, Patton instead turns it into a half-hearted moment to poke fun at himself, apologizing to his entire command with the glib opener, “I thought I would let you all see and judge for yourselves if you think I’m as big a son of a bitch as some of you think I am.”
Patton naturally assumes his past deeds of daring will buoy him past this sandbar of public notoriety, thus securing him even greater advancement within Eisenhower’s military entourage. Regrettably, Patton’s tendency to speak his mind to the press sidelines him during the long-anticipated D-Day landings. Instead, he is placed in command of the ‘fictional’ First United States Army Group as a decoy in the south of England. The ruse works, even as Patton is increasingly frustrated by his inability to partake in the Normandy invasion. Despite the obviousness of the ruse, German General Alfred Jodl (Richard Münch) remains convinced Patton will be the first to lead the European invasion. Fearing his own destiny will remain unfulfilled, Patton implores Bradley, who has since been promoted over him, for a command befitting his talents. On Bradley’s okay, Patton is given command of the Third Army by Eisenhower. With brisk resolve, he now distinguishes himself yet again, this time sweeping across France with a devastating force and speed that leaves the retreating Nazis decimated. Momentarily halted by a lack of fuel, Patton plows into Bastogne, relieving its entrapped inhabitants and soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. He then smashes through the Siegfried Line into Germany itself.
Nearing war’s end, Patton remarks that a post-war Europe must be dominated jointly by U.S. and British forces; his deliberate exclusion of the Russians perceived as an insult. After Nazi Germany capitulates, Patton openly insults a Russian officer during a festive victory celebration. Auspiciously, the Russian officer quaintly swats the insult right back at Patton, defusing its’ political hand-grenade. Alas, drunk on his own victories, and perhaps faintly conscious that his purpose in Europe is dwindling, Patton bites the proverbial hand that has been feeding him all along by comparing the new diplomacy coming out of Washington to the Nazi Party. In response, Eisenhower demotes Patton yet again. He is reassigned to oversee Germany’s reconstruction. While perusing the streets, Patton narrowly avoids a disconcerting incident with a runaway ox-cart, foreshadowing his ill-fated car accident from which he would ultimately suffer a broken neck, complete paralysis and eventually die on December 1945. Instead, Patton concludes with the man deprived of his purpose; alone and decidedly forlorn, walking his bull terrier, Willie toward a barren countryside with a single desolate windmill off in the distance; George C. Scott’s voiceover relating how ancient victors returning to Rome were honored with a parade, accompanied by a slave holding a golden laurel overhead, while quietly whispering an ominous precursor: “that all glory ... is fleeting.”
Patton is so obviously a valentine to this conflicted figurehead from WWII it is impossible to view these final moments without the pall of history coming to bear on the character’s pang of sadness and regrets. And yet, when initially asked to pen the screenplay, co-writer, Francis Ford Coppola willingly confessed to finding the real George Patton ‘unlikeable’ and sincerely believed audiences too would remain unsympathetic to the legend, as well as the legacy, of “ole blood and guts.” Yet, it is in George C. Scott’s largesse that Coppola’s ambitious undertaking finds its real creative muse. Scott – one of the finest actors of his generation – like Patton himself, was persona non grata in his own time; deemed ‘difficult’ – code, for unemployable. The parallels between Scott and Patton run deeper still: both men - highly intelligent, well-read, yet often impatient and short-tempered, quick to judge and with more than a slight affliction towards egotism, detrimental to their respective professional careers.
The real Patton had begun with a streak of brilliance and notoriety that made him an enviable adversary and rising star in the theater of war. That his unorthodox attack plans, frequently executed without official authority, would eventually prove too aggressive for his contemporaries to stomach, marked the beginning of his undoing. He was to suffer greatly because of this apparent inability to bottle these natural aggressions and/or re-channel them into more persuasive arguments to get the job done. Deprived of his one irrefutable virtue, to achieve impossible results on the battlefield, Patton’s reputation as a military strategist was quietly allowed to slip from public view. His mysterious ‘accidental’ death not long afterward aroused barely minor suspicion in the press. Yet, his largely Teflon-coated reputation never entirely fell out of fashion with war buffs.
Patton, the movie, is imbued with a dual sense of tragedy – the loss of self, poignantly depicted as inner defeatism by George C. Scott, who clearly feels the essence of this alter ego in his bones. Few war movies suffer to extol the heart as well as the virtues (and, in Patton’s case, the vices) as Patton readily does. While Scott’s performance is a tour de force, he miraculously manages to toggle down this ‘bigger than life’ public persona with a counterweight into the smaller, and perhaps, more fearful man lurking beneath this chest of medals. Scott commands with an emotional intensity that adds considerable girth to Patton’s pomposity. In hindsight, Patton is George C. Scott’s crowning achievement. Yet, it is such a shame he grew insular and retractable in his disregard of Hollywood itself; quite unable to parley this supreme moment of an actor’s triumph into another twenty years of good solid work in front of the camera. Yet, Scott does not merely inhabit the role; he assimilates it. Every fiber of his being is wrapped up in this performance, contributing to a very haunting verisimilitude. After Scott's snub of AMPAS on Oscar night, 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 was mired in failure and personal regrets. As a man of war, George S. Patton had no place in peace time. As a man at war with himself, George C. Scott's own brand of self-determination eventually caused him to fall out of favor in the industry, though arguably, never with his fans.
Filmed in Fox’s patented, though rarely used Dimension 150 – a 70mm wide gauge format - Patton is perhaps the finest cinematic portrait of any military figure put on film. Director, Franklin J. Schaffner deconstructs Patton’s military career as a tableau of personal tragedies; that of a 16th century man doomed to professional dissatisfaction in his own 20th century environment. We get the classical Hollywood narrative in reverse, the picture opening on a singular high note with the ‘great man’ at the peak of his powers – feisty, yet unable to steer his legend into its own mythology, instead whittled down in assessment from military zeitgeist to just another forgotten cog in the great wheel of America’s military might.
Patton gets reissued on Blu-ray yet again. Just to be clear, Fox has muddied the waters with multiple reissues on Blu-ray over the years, all of them sporting 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 40th anniversary rip-off in digi-booklet that contained the same digitally scrubbed hi-def transfer belying Dimension 150’s superior clarity. Ah, but here is the real deal: Patton again – with new cover art that fails to recognize Fox has actually gone back to the well for a brand new 1080p scan void of all obtrusive DNR compression. The results? Well, quite frankly – astounding. Color fidelity and contrast were never issues on the aforementioned transfer. So, it’s really no surprise to find that they remain very strong and perfectly mastered on this latest outing too. Where this new hi-def transfer excels – like the devil himself – is in the details. Flesh and background information that was waxy and severely blurred is relieved of these shortcomings herein. We get a razor-sharp image with gorgeous and superior resolution, revealing imperfections in skin and a sumptuously accurate clarity in everything from facial features to foliage and fabrics stitched to make the uniforms.
The DTS audio appears to be identical to the aforementioned Blu-ray incarnations. 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 from Coppola and Schaffner: well worth the price of admission. Additionally, and as before, Fox has included a separate DVD, housing a host of memorable featurettes: separate documentaries on the making of the film, the real Patton, and, Jerry Goldsmith’s illustrious career. We also get all of Goldsmith’s original music cues isolated, and, a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: accept no substitutes and keep this cover art in mind. This is the version of Patton you want and must own. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)