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Patton Blu-ray Review

“Now 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.”

— Opening lines from “Patton” (1970)

General George S. Patton Jr. was a brilliant general, one of the greatest to serve in the United States. He studied the campaigns of his adversaries in World War II, as well as the military greats from centuries past and even believed himself to have been a part of those long-ago events. He read poetry and was deeply religious, but was also as rough and profane as one could get. He loved his troops and his country, but was also an arrogant son-of-a-bitch who expressed how he felt and did things his own way, be it slapping around a shell-shocked soldier, ranting on about going to war with an ally, or charging straight into an enemy-held city when he was instructed otherwise. Controversial, paradoxical and egomaniacal, if there was one thing the general was not, it was routine.

Franklin J. Schaffner’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Patton covers the 2.5-year time span during World War II in which “Ol’ Blood and Guts” (George C. Scott) commanded the Third Army in Europe. Beginning right after the Battle of Kasserine Pass and concluding just after the War’s end, Patton is a character examination of the man and his actions, and how a person who was so adept at fighting the enemy found himself at greater odds when dealing with himself.

There are many aspects of the production that made Patton a classic: the superb staging of battle scenes, a solid supporting cast headlined by Karl Malden’s terrific turn as General Omar Bradley, the brilliant cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable music score among them. These all helped make Patton become a Great War picture, but what really set it apart were the directing, the screenplay, and of course George C. Scott’s performance.

Released at possibly the worst time imaginable (at the height of the Vietnam War), Schaffner pulled off a remarkable: he made a military film that both Pro and Anti-War opponents (or as they were called back then, Hawks and Doves) could find common ground on. Schaffner, working from a Oscar-winning screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund North, created a war film that manage to honor the American solider while also showing the true horrors that faced them in combat.

Scott’s performance proved to be an even greater balancing act than Schaffner’s. In real life, Scott was staunchly anti-war, and only took the role because he found Patton to be a “fascinating character.” The cinematic equivalent to a hurricane, Scott’s performance dominated the movie by showing Patton at his best and worst during wartime, never allowing one to outweigh the other thanks. Scott’s carefully nuanced performance made many of Patton’s more controversial actions, such as the soldier slapping incident, more understandable and allows the viewer to empathize with the larger-than-life general in rather unexpected ways.

Patton is a remarkable character study and a surprisingly evenhanded look at World War II and how it brought out both the best — and worst — of one of the most brilliant and controversial men ever to serve in the United States military, with one of the great performances of the 20th Century at its center. Love him or hate him when the movie is done, you certainly won’t forget Patton, both the man and the movie, anytime soon.

When I first heard that Patton would be hitting the Blu-ray format, only one thing came to mind: it would be a bare bones release. Given the generous amount of extras found on a recent two-disc DVD Special Edition, my anticipation level was muted to say the least. After all, Master and Commander had a great two-disc DVD release as well and only a selection of deleted scenes was ported over to Blu-ray.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when I discovered that the BD of Patton was a two-disc release, and how it was done was a move that made me wonder why the hell Fox didn’t do this before (*cough* Master and Commander *cough*): the second disc for the bonus material is nothing more than a repackaging of disc two from the standard DVD special edition. One could squawk about the features not being in HD, but then one could-and deservedly should-get slapped around like that shell-shocked solider in the film for bitching too much.

The 172-minute movie is presented on a BD-50 disc, and the picture quality is nothing short of breathtaking, so much so that I would gladly use this title as a PQ demo, given the age of the film. The old SD release used a 2.35:1 35mm print for its transfer, but the recent special edition used a 65mm print (or negative, I’m not sure of which) that offered an improved picture and, with a 2.20:1 ratio, more picture information on all four sides of the image.

It appears that the Blu-ray is also mastered from this 65mm source material. The image, encoded in 1080p/AVC-MPEG 4, is incredibly clean (one or two nicks, scratches and hairs notwithstanding), colors are vibrant, picture details are razor-sharp and contrast, black levels and flesh tones are all first-rate as well. If there is an issue to be had with the picture on this disc, I’m at a loss to find it.

While the film looks spectacular the sound isn’t quite on the same level. Lay the blame on the source material and not Fox. Per the usual with Fox BD releases, we get a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (an additional 5.0 Dolby Digital Stereo track is also included). The dialogue is clear, and the right and left front channels offer a fair amount of activity through sound effects and music. The sound effects (gunshots, planes, tanks, etc) occasionally sound a bit on the scratchy side as if they are recorded a bit too high, and the LFE channel isn’t really all that prominent. Surrounds are sporadically used, mostly for planes flying overhead. I noticed very little difference between the DTS-HD and Dolby Digital tracks. Either one is adequate in getting the job done.

As mentioned before, Fox has ported over the supplemental material that bestowed the recent two-disc special edition to this Blu-ray release. The extras found here are both informative and entertaining, giving viewers additional insight into both Patton the man, and the movie.

On disc one, Francis Ford Coppola provides both a Video Introduction (4:00, 480p), where he tells of his tale of writing the screenplay, then getting fired from the project only to win an Oscar for his efforts. He also provides a Feature-Length Audio Commentary. I sampled about 75 minutes of the commentary in various areas, and found Coppola to be as he normally is on a yack track: full of anecdotes and interesting trivia. Worth listening to if you have the three hours to do so.

Disc two offers up three documentaries, all presented in 480p standard definition. The first being the 90-minute History through the Lens: Patton — A Rebel Revisited. This well-made documentary looks at the production of the film (and repeats some of the material covered on the other docs) as well as the real-life general himself, his family and his upbringing. The doc also examines the differences between the events portrayed in the film and the differences between the film and real-life.

The second doc, the 50-minute The Making of Patton, looks at the making of the film and features recollections with Richard Zanuck, cinematographer Fred Koenekamp, Goldsmith and, via audio interviews conducted back in 1970, director Schaffner, producer Frank McCarthy and George C. Scott. Filmmaker Oliver Stone also shows up to offer his “theory” on how the movie was responsible for the genocide committed in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. While his reasoning does make one think, do keep in mind that it is Oliver Stone we are talking about here. He also finds time to shill his movies “JFK” and “Nixon” in the process. Bravo, Ollie, bravo.

The third, and most involving, doc is the 48-minute Patton’s’ Ghost Corps. This documentary looks at the a group of soldiers that were part of Patton’s Third Army who were basically left on their own to push into Germany while the general went to fight in the Battle of the Bulge. The stories told by the veterans paint a graphic, at times emotionally devastating account of the hell they went through, and their honest depiction of how they felt about Patton (one even calls him an asshole) strengthens the depiction made by Schaffner and company regarding his arrogant side. The doc does go a bit overboard with the theatrics at times, but they do little to dilute the impact of the stories told by these American heroes.

Two still galleries and the theatrical trailer round the material on disc two. The 37-minute Production Still Gallery is accompanied by the film’s music score, while the 50-minute Behind-the-Scenes Gallery contains an audio essay on the real-life Patton. The Theatrical Trailer runs about two minutes and is in decent enough shape.

Patton is one of the best historical epics to have ever been released by Hollywood. The depiction of its controversial subject is even-handed and well-told, brought vibrantly to life by a career-defining turn by the late George C. Scott and an excellent supporting performance by Karl Malden. Fox has given the film an exceptional Blu-ray presentation, with a dynamite picture transfer, a pair of decent audio tracks and excellent supplemental material. This is a Blu-ray Disc set well worth saluting, and a must for any home library.

Check Amazon’s prices on Patton on Blu-ray Disc.

Feeling really war-happy? Check Amazon’s prices on the entire Blu-ray War Classics Bundle (Patton / The Longest Day / Sand Pebbles).

Score: 9.2

— Shawn Fitzgerald

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