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If you're looking for a classic title that showcases Blu-ray quality, Fox Home Video's presentation of Franklin J. Schaffner's Patton is the best-looking BD I've yet seen. Filmed in 65mm Dimension 150, Patton's overall look is unusually sharp and bright; the picture 'pops', even when seen in lesser formats. The opening shot of George C. Scott in front of the American flag is practically a signal test image. The level-straight red & white stripes are pure in color and free of fringing, 'ringing' or other NTSC artifacts. We can count the threads on Patton's uniform, read the inscriptions on his medals and see the highlights reflecting from his fancy pistol.
Clearly, a picture like Patton is a special case. My earlier BD's of A Passage to India and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen also look great, and benefit from more dazzling art direction. But I've seen Patton at least twenty times, and this Blu-ray is the closest I've gotten to that first 70mm experience.
Patton accomplished what no other combat film made during the Vietnam War did: it depicted the inconsistencies of American military glory without alienating either end of the polarized political spectrum. General George S. Patton Jr. was a controversial figure even within the armed forces, a martinet and self-acknowledged prima donna who won battles but infuriated the Allied High Command. His glory-hound tactics generated high casualties and his provocative behavior drew the hostility of the press. Yet the German command feared General Patton more than any other Allied general.
The key factor in the film's success is a screenplay that goes beyond the usual adulation and nostalgia of "how we won the war" movie fare. Francis Coppola presented Patton as a bundle of inconsistencies that adds up to a portrait of a universal soldier, the eternal human warrior. Some of the speeches Francis Coppola puts in General Patton's mouth sound suspiciously like Colonel Kurtz's dialogue from Apocalypse Now. Patton was in love with war and imbued with a mystical sense of the past; he identified with the ancients that fought the Punic and Greek wars. He was an unyielding hard-ass, a demanding officer who drove his men beyond endurance. Once Patton put his divisions in attack mode, he wouldn't stop, even when his actions disturbed Eisenhower's uneasy alliance with the British. Faced with shortfalls of gasoline, he'd run his tanks dry rather than fall back and regroup.
Patton came out in February of 1970, about a month before the Army decided to bring the My Lai Massacre to trial. Nixon's war policy was polarizing the country as never before. As if fearful that America would reject a movie honoring a war hawk, Fox originally released it under the title Patton: A Salute To A Rebel, perhaps to spin him as some kind of dissenter in the military machine. That subtitle was soon dropped but the more critical original UK title stuck: Patton: Lust for Glory. Coppola's screenplay broke with tradition to present the British generals in direct competition with Americans like Patton. England's Field Marshall Montgomery comes off as a chipper little jerk, playing courtly games to curry favor with the High Command.
George C. Scott found his defining role as the French-spouting, history-loving Patton. The general senses historical presences in ancient battlefields and believes that God has imbued him with a shining destiny. We see Patton in ecstasy over his first non-theoretical tank victory: "Rommel you magnificent bastard - I read your book!"
The movie lays out Patton's contradictions without judgment. He breaks with the approved battle plan in Sicily, taking terrible losses but conquering the island in record time. He goes berserk when he finds a physically unharmed victim of "battle fatigue" in the same field hospital tent with gravely wounded soldiers. In an incident as simple as an Aesop's fable, Patton discovers that a Sicilian farmer's mules are holding up a long line of trucks and troops. With the column under fire, he dispenses a lesson in military expediency by personally shooting the animals. To Patton the issue is clear: the mules are jeopardizing his convoy, and must be removed immediately. The obvious question is, at what point does warfare obliterate all other concerns?
Director Schaffner wisely depicts one major battle up front and utilizes impressionistic montages for the rest of the film. He prefers to concentrate on the politics of the matter. The Germans are easily fooled when Eisenhower uses the disgraced Patton to decoy them away from the Normandy invasion site. Patton suffers in exile after making inflammatory remarks to the press, and then gets a post- D-Day command to head a giant tank offensive in France. He restores his military reputation by mounting a spectacular rescue-race to relieve the airborne troops trapped in the Battle of the Bulge. Instead of mounting "exciting" combat scenes, Schaffner shows the aftermath of a bloody nighttime clash between American and German spearheads. In a later montage, one shot of a soldier dropping to the snow, felled by a clean bullet hit, expresses the simple horror of combat without reaching for "entertaining" effects.
The disturbing ending shows General Patton to be a scary militarist when thinking in global terms. With the Nazis defeated, he doesn't mind telling the press that he's ready to take on the Russians. After all his brilliant victories, he's canned and literally put out to pasture. Patton's type would be heard from again, when MacArthur wanted to commence a nuclear war against Red China. Today the showboat general wouldn't be tolerated for a minute by a military run as a PR- conscious corporation. But his aggressive political stance is certainly alive and well.
Giving excellent support and providing a sane alternative to Patton's excesses is Karl Malden as Omar Bradley, "the soldier's general". Standing out in the cast are Paul Stevens and James Edwards as Patton's aides, and John Doucette as the put-upon General Truscott, the "amphibious specialist." Michael Bates is a very proper prig as the red-cheeked General Montgomery, who so far hasn't been given his own biopic to rebut the negative image presented here.
Praise for the beautiful transfer of Patton has already been expressed above. We also notice that the "Master Lossless Audio" DD 5.1 track has not been flattened out for home video. Blu-ray audio is so far aimed at a true home theater experience, retaining a full dynamic contrast between quiet dialogue, Jerry Goldsmith's perfect score and the thundering sound effects.
The disc extras combine docus and other items included on earlier Fox DVD special editions. The feature begins with an introduction from Francis Ford Coppola and bears his lively commentary. The other extras are on a second, standard DVD. History Through The Lens: Patton - A Rebel Revisited is a 2000 Kevin Burns TV production. Zachary Weintraub's Patton's Ghost Corps is an account of Patton's campaigns covered in stills, war footage and interviews with veterans gathering at a 2004 reunion. Michael Arick's 1997 The Making of Patton concentrates on film artists and includes interviews with the director, producer Frank McCarthy, cameraman Koenekamp and composer Jerry Goldsmith. It contains Oliver Stone's assertion that Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia because he was impressed by repeated showings of Patton in his White House screening room. Stone stretches the issue to assert that the movie and everyone involved in its making are guilty of inspiring genocide!
The set contains two production still galleries. One accompanies the entire Jerry Goldsmith score, and another is laid over an audio essay on the historical Patton. A trailer rounds out the program -- almost 5.5 hours of Patton-related programming.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Patton Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: See above
Packaging: Blu-ray thin Keep case
Reviewed: May 31, 2008
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