Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (George C. Scott), Best Director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola, Edmund H. North), Best Art Direction (Urie McCleary, Gil Parrondo, Antonio Mateos, Pierre-Louis Thévenet), Best Sound (Douglas O. Williams, Don J. Bassman), Best Editing (Hugh S. Fowler)
Other Nominees: Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, MASH
Patton is the first bona fide masterpiece to find itself on this blog. After the bombast that was Braveheart and the quiet uneasiness that was Gentleman’s Agreement, I felt it time to tackle a film that is truly among the best in its class, and Patton is that. A long, difficult, and meticulously staged WWII epic, Patton represents career highs for director Franklin J. Schaffner and actor George C. Scott, as well as the first major success for one of its screenwriters, Francis Ford Coppola (whose mark on the film is immediately noticeable to those familiar with his work). Much about this film has already been said, and said better than I could hope to say, so I’ll keep my remarks on this film distant and appreciative: Patton is utterly unique.
Though a hit at its time, (7 Oscars, $61M box office), Patton would likely bore most modern audiences. Though it does have a fair amount of action (this is WWII, mind you), the film moves slowly, and is, at heart, a long and careful character study. The film is so long, and so episodic, that it is hard to focus on the war’s progress throughout, mostly because your thoughts are so focused on the man sitting at the eye of this storm. For a film that tells such a colorful story, it is strangely stark. It is also strictly unemotional, and I couldn’t quite tell if this was purposeful or not. Why do we care so much about this abrasive, violent man, when we aren’t allowed into his brain? We observe him throughout, but we are never to see through his eyes.
I am then brought to wonder, what new does this film impart? Perhaps because I could never find a way into the film’s central character, as I so wanted to, I drifted towards his softer friend, Bradley, a somewhat thankless role played by the king of thankless roles, Karl Malden. But even so, Bradley comes into the film late and is never active enough to fully steal the camera’s attention. Perhaps because this film is over 40 years old, and because my movie-watching sensitivities have been so treated by highly emotional war films full of sentiment and compassion for all affected, my attention cannot be held by solely Patton’s sense of duty and hard work. Thus, this film was, for me, an exercise in vacillation between wishing it had a deeper emotional fabric while calmly appreciating its cool, ordered storytelling.
Scott is, of course, incredible in the film. He is in nearly every scene (though there are some questionable scenes of his Nazi foes plotting in underground bunkers, which are reminiscent of Bond supervillain lairs) and has a firm sense of character. Frankly, shamefully, I am unfamiliar with his other work so his entire presence in this film was a delight to me. He exudes strength and impermeability as Patton and generosity as an actor. And I have a harder time asking anything more of a leading player.
To today’s audiences, equally as notable as the film is Scott’s reaction to his Academy Award win. As with previous nominations, he refused the nomination and the eventual win for Patton. He did not care for the competition that such awards created between actors, thinking that art could not be compared. For what it’s worth, I completely agree with him. How can one performance, or film, be judged higher than another, when their end goals are completely different? I am working on this blog to explore the history of film, but I do not wish to claim that any film is “better” than another, or that any is “best”. We all have different opinions about what defines merit, and that is wonderful. I hope through this blog to further celebrate some of what one organization has anointed to be our most compelling films, and I certainly feel that Patton is one of them. It’s on Netflix. Go watch it, and treat yourself to an entirely different mode of storytelling.