Director Franklin Schaffner’s 1970 film, Patton, is a film that falls just shy of overall greatness, unlike his previous film, Planet Of The Apes, even though both had excellent scripts, were unconventionally shot, had great acting performances, and were films that fundamentally altered their subgenres, biopics and science fiction. It is a film that, while it’s clearly not a great film, does not offer up an obvious reason. It starts off brilliantly, with Patton’s famous address to the film audience, and then, well, becomes, in many ways, a routine biopic- at least when it’s not about Patton directly, for George C. Scott owns the screen like few actors ever before him had. No, it’s when we see other characters, or the big battle scenes, that the film becomes pedestrian. And that 20% or so of pedestrian film lowers the rest of the film’s inarguable greatness to merely near-great status.
Of course, the film was a smash at the box office and also did well at that season’s Oscars, snagging seven of the ten nominations that it was up for. The film’s screenplay was written by Francis Ford Coppola, with later additions by Edmund North, and adapted source material from a handful of works; most notably Ladislas Farago’s Patton: Ordeal And Triumph and Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story. The pair won an Oscar even though they never met, according to Coppola, who does the commentary for the film on the latest two disk version of the film released by 20th Century Fox. There are many incidents that were well known from the real Patton’s exploits, as well as those brought to light by the research Coppola did, Patton, as written by Coppola, and acted by Scott, is certainly egoistic and driven, but he’s not the monster Leftists portrayed him as, especially after an infamous incident where he slapped a soldier suffering from shell-shock; nor is he the ceaseless martinet that worshipped all things American, that Right Wingers have hagiographized. Scott always strikes the right balance in his portrayal, yet it is so grand that all other actors and characters become interchangeable. Karl Malden is actually quite good as Patton’s sidekick, then boss, General Omar Bradley. But, it’s such an efficiently low key ‘good’ performance that, had a bum off the street portrayed Bradley, few critics would have noticed, since Scott’s supernova is so intense.
And, while the battle scenes are rather run of the mill, in comparison to such scenes from films made in earlier years, there is an impressiveness when compared against the obviously phony CGI battle scenes of today. In those days, real vehicles, real extras, and real coordination was needed. And, another plus is that we only see Patton in his World War Two days. We do not get any of the well worn pap that dominates most biopics- the cradle to grave story of someone, replete with semi-important moments. Coppola did well to invent a fictive Nazi officer who was charged with informing his superiors on the life and mind of Patton- a stroke of expository expedience that prevents the 170 minute film from nearing the five hour mark. The fact that the film is also lacking any real secondary plots also makes the film move more quickly in the viewer’s mind. Other than the slapping incident, the scenes that the film made indelible are almost too numerous to name. My favorites include Patton, in North Africa, shooting at Nazi war planes that strafe an American outpost after being assured that it was safe by an English general who assures him of British Air Supremacy, Patton’s charge across France, where he tells soldiers he’s personally going to shoot Hitler, and, after he defeats his nemesis, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (Karl Michael Vogler), he rages, ‘Rommel, you magnificent bastard. I read your book!’ But, Scott always reigns the role in- it never veers off into caricature.
The film has some other virtues, most notably the scoring done by Jerry Goldsmith, who reteamed with Schaffner after his landmark score for Schaffner’s Planet Of The Apes. On the downside, Fred Koenkamp’s cinematography is lackluster. Many of the scenes, while earlier noted as impressive feats of coordination, simply never crackle. There is a generic flavor to most of the battle scenes, which could have easily been culled from a John Wayne film, or the film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, just a couple of years later. While justly celebrated for its audacious opening, the film is also noteworthy for its very small ending. It’s almost as if this film on Patton, the greatest general in the European theater of the Second World War, was echoing the famed line by the greatest American General in the Pacific theater, Douglas MacArthur, that old soldiers just fade away. It is a strikingly appropriate antichoros to the films choral opening. Interestingly, Francis Ford Coppola states that the opening of the film, which initially got him removed from the project, is now celebrated in film history, and urges young filmmakers to heed the lesson. He also notes how the Oscar success of Patton saved his job as director on The Godfather.
The two disk DVD is a marked improvement over the earlier single disk version of the film. The first disk has the film, along with an introduction to the film by screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola, and his commentary. Coppola is one of the best commentarians around. He is always informed, humorous, detailed, and mindful that the listener is likely a fan of the film, so tries to enlighten and entertain. He does a good job here, although, as he states, he is a bit out of sorts since he wrote the first draft of the script, while co-writer Edmund North and director Schaffner never dealt with him. Coppola does detail his role, and gives credit where due to the other members of the film’s crew. But, one can hear that he just does not have the typical insights he would have had it been a film he directed. The second disk has some nice featurettes, including a making of documentary, a film on the historical Patton, a film on Patton’s Ghost Corps, an audio essay on the real man, and several minor features, including the film’s original trailer.
Patton is not a great film, but in its flaws it delineates much of what a great film can be, and just how little of that needs to stem from the idea of a visionary or an auteur. As such, and along with Casablanca, it stands as one of the great arguments against the notion that films of quality must be wrought from the power and inspiration of a singular source. Franklin Schaffner, in fact, is proof that great art can come from people who are not gifted with innate greatness, just as the real General George S. Patton proved the opposite can also be true, and the two ideas not mutually opposing. As for the film, watch it for Scott’s performance, watch it for a sense of American history (pro and con), and watch it because it’s great entertainment, if not great art. Not all art need core into one’s soul, sometimes pricking the flesh is enough. As such, Patton’s a great prick.