‘Patton’ Film Review

Terrific biopic of Gen. George S. Patton Jr., gutsy World War II hero. Great exposition of good and bad in war leaders, plus solid action and production.

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

War is hell, and “Patton” is one hell of a war picture, perhaps one of the most remarkable of its type ever made. In depicting the great personal weaknesses, as well as the strengths, of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and other World War II military leaders, the expensive looking Frank McCarthy production forges a daring and very successful path between cliche heroics and more contemporary put-down. Political doves and hawks will view with horror and delight, respectively, but on one point they can agree: the film grabs attention in the gut and won’t let go.

George C. Scott’s title-role performance is outstanding, and the excellent direction of Franklin J. Schaffner lends realism, authenticity, and sensitivity without ever being visually offensive, excessive or overdone in any area. The dialog is salty in the extreme, but it is all appropriate to the time and place. Screenplay is excellent, but the plot treatment of British Field Marshal Montgomery is bound to cause a furore in the British Commonwealth (except perhaps for Australia and Canada), and 20th-Fox might as well brace itself for the storm. But elsewhere, the film should mop up. It is 100% American, in every way: sometimes ennobling, sometimes disgusting, always vital.

This is no souped-up flag-waver, in which cardboard soldiers mouth platitudes of half-truth; nor is it an effete, keyhole-vulgar condemnation of men at war; and, most importantly, it is not a temporizing middle-of-the road film, playing it safe. Actually, “Patton” is an amazingly brilliant depiction of men in war, revealing all facets of their character.

From a commercial standpoint, anti-militarists and pacifists as well as those of opposing viewpoints can be moved to peaks of emotion. A hawk can say, “What we need is more guys like that leading the country.” A dove can say, “See? Didn’t we tell you that soldiers are professional killers?” Such a dual appeal, without compromise, spells boxoffice, providing 20th can sock over the film’s content, even in areas where newspapers won’t print some of the pressbook quotes.

Francis Ford Coppola, some four years ago when he was working on scripts and before “You’re A Big Boy, Now,” wrote the basic script, which Edmund H. North later rounded out, with both now sharing credit. Based on material from Ladislas Farago’s “Patton: Ordeal And Triumph,” and Gen. Omar N. Bradley’s biog, “A Soldier’s Story,” the screen story and screenplay technically are original writing. Unlike many combo writing efforts which sound awkward, this script has a pervading unity of concept, development and dialog which makes a good case for more than one hand at the typewriter.

Film begins in North Africa, just before Patton takes over command in 1943 of an American component of an Anglo-American unit, decimated by German attack. It ends after the surrender of Germany, and Patton’s relief from an occupation command because of embarrassing statements contrary to civiilan and Allied policy. Film does not show Patton’s accidental auto death, though a close call with a runaway cart is a near-curtain accident.

In between, the man is superbly illuminated, both by his own actions and dialog plus those of Karl Malden, playing Gen. Bradley, but also via frequent cuts to German h.q., where Intelligence Captain Steiger (Siegfried Rauch) briefs Richard Muench (as Gen. Alfred Jodl) and Karl Michael Vogler (as Rommel) on Patton’s character. These German scenes are done in that lingo, ‘with English subtitles lending an authenticity to the cross-cutting.

Patton was — arrogant; industrious; dedicated; a prima donna; a believer in reincarnation; an extreme extrovert; vain; crafty; obedient; disobedient; compassionate; brutal; a student of military history; a respector of ability, even in the enemy; contemptuous of weakness; admirable; despicable; blind to some considerations; intuitively perceptive of other matters; a mystic; an anachronism; in other words, a complex human being, outsize in nearly every dimension. It’s all in the film, via script, direction, and Scott’s performance, which is a new high-water mark in his career.

By coincidence, just five years ago, Scott played a related, though far less broad, character in Stanley Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove.” In the latter, the purpose was black satire, and Scott essayed an Air Force general, Buck Turgidson. In some ways, Kubrick’s character was like Patton, but in an important way, not at all. Because in the closing moments of this film, Scott as Patton speaks with distaste of computerized warfare, which Turgidson represented.

To Patton, depersonalization of war meant a loss of heroes, rallying points and restoration of values; and in that Patton wasn’t far off a basic cause of Vietnam unrest in this country-failure to mobilize the civilian population towards a goal. As depicted in this film, a man such as Patton should have everything to do with waging a war, if one should break out, but should have absolutely nothing to do with waging peace. Scott must be seen to be believed.

Producer McCarthy, himself a high-ranking officer familiar with World War II polices and decisions, has done a magnificent job in coordinating the diverse elements in the pic. As a reported final negative cost of about $12,500,000, overhead included, the amount of money showing on the screen is a major chunk of the expenditures; not many big-budget pix these days can make that statement.

The 18-week shooting sked, which ended last May 31, involved lensing in Spain (the Spanish Army again deployed itself admirably), England, Morocco, Greece and Hollywood, where post-production was done. McCarthy enlisted the services of Gen. Bradley as senior military advisor on the project, and even tracked down Lowell Thomas in Africa to tape revised narrative for the many perfectly-interwoven Fox Movietone News Clips, for which Thomas was the longtime voice.

Schaffner, whose “Planet Of The Apes” was a b.o. smash two years ago, again scores a bullseye. There is blood in the film because there is death everywhere. But Schaffner shows what, today is unheard-of restraint in making his point without lingering over either the bursting of flesh or the shedding of blood. But there is a sweep and scope to his direction, as well as an intimacy, that marks a superior film director.

Malden, as Bradley, has wisely chucked many of his usual mannerisms to become a restrained image of quiet power and authority. It works perfectly for the character, and should do equally well for Malden himself. Of the total of 94 speaking parts, particular credit goes to (beyond those already mentioned) Michael Bates, as the (herein) primping Marshal Montgomery; Edward Binns, as Gen. Bedell Smith; Tim Considine, as the soldier whom Patton slapped in 1943, creating a public outcry which embarrassed and sidelined Patton, until Gen. Eisenhower needed him.

About the only sour note in the cast is Paul Stevens as Patton’s aide; Stevens’ voice, or his post-production voice, is flat, mannered, and rather not the type person Patton would seen to have around.

Film was shot in 70m Dimension 150 process, developed by Richard Vetter and Carl Williams, in DeLuxe Color by cameraman Fred Koenekamp, with Clifford Stine and Cecilio Panigua on second unit camera under director Michael Moore. L. B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank did special photo effects. Dan Striepeke supervised the most effective makeup. Stereo sound was the work of James Corcoran, Douglas Williams, Murray Spivack, Don Bassman and Ted Soderberg. All technical credits are outstanding, especially the explosive effects by Alex Weldon.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score (orchestrated by Arthur Morton), is very spare, the recurring riff being a sort of multiple-echoed war-hawk’s cry from the dawn of battle; very effective in light of Patton’s preoccupation with both history and reincarnation. Hugh S. Fowler executed the editing smartly. First portion of pic runs 103 minutes, while final portion takes 70 minutes. In second part, story flattens for a while as Patton vamps in England pre-D-Day; perhaps it is an inevitable fault, though an editing formula becomes apparent. This is a minor qualification, in perspective.

The film’s pre-title “overture” is a bold, gutsy gambit. Sans the 20th logo, the screen is suddenly filled with an American flag. For two solid minutes, there is no sound; during this period, the eve will wander to count 48 (not 50) stars, while vocal expressions from the audience both of pride and criticism of the flag are likely to occur, then die away just before a razzberry begis. Theft a tiny figure walks into frame from the bottom: Patton in all his regalia, shown in a terrific montage of close-ups. Patton addresses, for about six minutes, an unseen audience in the first taste of film’s recurring strong dialog. Many will despise what he says, while others will applaud; but nobody will, or can, ignore him. Or for that matter, this truly first class picture.

‘Patton’ Film Review

  • Production: Twentieth Century Fox release, produced by Frank McCarthy. Stars George C. Scott, Karl Malden. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Screenplay, Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North.
  • With: Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. - George C. Scott Gen. Omar N. Bradley - Karl Malden Field Marshal Montgomery - Michael Bates Field Marshal Rommel - Karl Michael Vogler Gen. Bedell Smith - Edward Binns Col. Bell - Lawrence Dobkin Gen. Truscott - John Doucette Gen. Alfred Jodl - Richard Muench Capt. Steiger - Sigfried Rauch Col. Codman - Paul Stevens Capt. Jensen - Morgan Paull Slapped Soldier - Tim Considine