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Somehow I hadn’t heard much about Patton, even though the film won the a total of eight Academy Awards in 1970, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to watch it for the first time, in its re-release as part of the Fox War Classics series, and discover that it’s a solid, well-crafted, and entertaining film.

While Patton is clearly a war movie, the strength of the film is that it isn’t just a war movie, or even primarily about war. It’s a character portrait: a complex and engrossing examination of an interesting, complex, and controversial figure over the course of his career as a general in World War II. George C. Scott is completely believable in this challenging role as the intense, conflicted man who possessed a genius for strategy and tactics and a wide-ranging and curious intellect, yet who felt out of place in the modern day.

Patton follows in the footsteps of epic films like Ben-Hur, released ten years earlier. The film is nearly three hours long, and features an actual intermission (which is a good moment to get up and take a break, in any case). The pacing is excellent, sustaining interest throughout. Endings are often the weakest point of long, epic movies, so I’m pleased to report that Patton’s conclusion is quite strong. Rather than trying to sum up Patton in a tidy package as a heroic figure, the film leaves us to draw our own conclusions about this conflicted man whose talents were balanced by an aggressive personality and an inability to adapt.

Despite the presence of many secondary characters and the constant movement of the story through the events of the war, it’s always easy to follow the events of the film, due to director Franklin J. Schaffner’s tight focus on the character of Patton. Another director might have felt tempted to follow some of the other events of the war in parallel threads (as exemplified in the confusing and muddled WWII movie A Bridge Too Far), but this would have diluted the effect of the movie. The scope of the war is too great for any one film to capture in its entirety; in the case of this film, the focus on Patton both gives the movie a strong identity and makes it possible to easily follow the story. The audience is drawn along not by wanting to know what happens in the war, but by wanting to see how Patton’s personality affected those around him, and how his choices and his behavior shaped the course of his own life as well as the course of his military campaigns.  

One detail that I felt was handled well was the presentation of the German characters. They’re not simply bad guys; they’re shown to be Patton’s equivalent number on the other side, with respect for their enemy. All the dialogue among German characters is in German with English subtitles, which is a definite point in favor for the film’s believability.

Fox’s edition of Patton offers a transfer that’s of excellent quality, especially considering that the film was made in 1969: more than thirty years ago. The transfer is anamorphic, reproducing the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. I was quite pleased to note that the image is entirely free of noise or print flaws. The colors are good, appearing bright and clean, and the contrast is also quite satisfactory. Unfortunately, some edge enhancement is visible, which detracts from the clarity of the image.

The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack creates a satisfying surround experience, which is particularly important since the film includes a number of battles, with the requisite explosions and other sound effects. Dialogue is always clear, but I did notice a slight but consistent distortion in the sound which detracted from the listening experience.

The “Fox War Classics” edition of Patton is a one-disc version, released at a slightly lower price than the earlier two-disc set. It’s not the bare-bones disc that one would expect from knowing this, though. The one special feature that made it over from the previous edition is an “audio essay” on the life of Patton. This plays as an audio commentary track while the film is playing, but unlike an actual commentary it’s not keyed directly to the film itself. It does mention events that are depicted in the film, but doesn’t reference what’s currently on screen or stick to the sequence of events in the film. The fact that the film plays in the background does make the audio essay more “listener-friendly” than if it were a pure audio track, since the film images in the background make the experience visually interesting.

For comparison’s sake, the additional extras available on the two-disc version of Patton are a making-of documentary, an isolated music score, and a trailer. I would have liked to have seen the documentary rather than the audio essay included on the one-disc version, but considering the length of the feature film, it’s likely that space limitations came into play in this case.

Patton is definitely worth a look, even if you’re not a fan of the typical “war movie.” Yes, it’s about World War II, so it fits nicely in the War Classics series, but its focus on the character of Patton rather than on the events of the war gives the film additional substance and depth.

The only question is whether to get the new Fox War Classics edition or the earlier two-disc version. Since the transfers are the same in both, and the one-disc set includes the audio essay, the two-disc set’s main advantage is the additional documentary, but as I haven’t seen it, I can’t evaluate whether it’s worth paying extra for. In any case, the main attraction is the film itself, so you can't go far wrong with either of the options for adding Patton to your collection.