A documentary extra brings alive the extraordinary logistics involved in creating this three-hour-long war epic.

By Bill Wyman
September 14, 2000 11:56PM (UTC)
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Directed By Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring George C. Scott, Karl Malden and Karl Michael Vogler
20th Century Fox; widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Making-of documentary, historian commentary, trailers, more

"Patton," the best-picture winner of 1970, is a flawed epic -- part history, part cartoon, with moments of absurdist innovation alternating with clunky exposition. It tells the story of the megalomaniacal but by all accounts tactically brilliant Allied general, George Patton, who grew to prominence in World War II with his battlefield heroics -- and P.R. gaffes.


He sparred with his superiors and managed to nearly ruin his career with a number of bad moves, the most notable of these being the public dressing-down of a pair of hospitalized soldiers whom he accused of cowardice -- and slapped around!

But his scrapping with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in North Africa and mad rush through Europe after the invasion of Normandy are generally considered high military achievements.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner, who'd been best known for "Planet of the Apes," took home the Oscar too. His work is impressive, though it hasn't aged that well; the movie's take on Patton, while honest, is still a bit too cozily romanticized by modern standards. Patton's flamboyance and sweeping grasp of history created a popular perception of a larger-than-life man, born out of time, and Schaffner pretty much goes along with it. But you don't have to be Quentin Tarantino to suspect that perhaps greater depths of profanity and sadism lurked beneath the veneer of the devout perfect soldier.


Still, the movie remains a rare filmic spectacle: A massive, overwhelming tank battle in Africa, for example, has a blunt scale that trivializes most other war movies. And Schaffner's take on Patton's rush through Europe balances strategy sessions with grim, exhausted slogging through rain and snow.

The extras thoroughly illustrate this highly enjoyable movie's underpinnings. There's an unabashedly partisan, slightly loopy biographical commentary by Charles Province, who describes himself as the founder of the George S. Patton Historical Society. It's all a bit over the top, but occasionally powerful, as in his account of the general's unexpected death. (This isn't in the movie: Patton's car was broadsided by a drunken driver on a German road in 1945; he was paralyzed and died a few days later.) Even better is the accompanying hourlong documentary, "'Patton': A Tribute to Franklin J. Schaffner," that details convincingly the rigors of one of the largest movie productions ever undertaken. The three-hour-long "Patton" would eventually require 73 different locations, many of them involving armies -- literally -- of crew and cast that needed to be transported, housed and fed before being choreographed on sets that were sometimes miles square. And tech buffs will enjoy the descriptions of the unusual film the production used -- Dimension 150, a rare nonanamorphic widescreen process.

There's also a good account of composer Jerry Goldsmith's riveting score, most notably the trumpet fanfare that accompanies Patton's reveries on reincarnation. For some reason, a lot of time is devoted to director Oliver Stone, spinning a theory that seeing "Patton" put Richard Nixon into the warlike frame of mind to invade Cambodia in 1970. Stone may be right -- he just doesn't offer any actual evidence to back up the claim.

Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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