Having never seen the 1970 war epic Patton, I assumed that it would be the kind of rah-rah hagiography that brings out the worst in the war movie.  I mean, it was the big winner at the 1971 Academy Awards Ceremony (it garnered seven Oscars, including ones for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture), and it was a big winner for Twentieth Century Fox.

That last point is the scary part.  Fox was the Harvey Weinstein of the sixties and seventies, blustering movies into Oscar competition that didn’t deserve the credit, except Fox operated under the benefit of Hollywood Studio Capital, which meant they could pay top dollar to get the worst of the worst recognized.  Want proof?  Under Fox’s watch, the 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle – one of the worst musicals ever made, and I say that as objective fact (star Rex Harrison essentially did the movie at gunpoint) – won two Academy Awards and received seven additional nominations (including one for Best Picture), while 1963’s Cleopatra, which is still a one-of-a-kind screen fiasco, won four Oscars and also scored a Best Picture nomination.  If it was big, if it was gaudy, if it was an event, Fox could get it noticed.  Being good didn’t factor into the equation.

On the surface, Patton fit all those characteristics, except that unlike Doctor Dolittle and Cleopatra, its subject was one of the most genuinely reprehensible fellows to ever walk the planet.  General George S. Patton Jr. might have won a lot of battles for the Allied forces in World War II, but he was also as hawkish as they get and an egomaniac of grand proportions – this wackjob legitimately believed he served important roles in the great military skirmishes of centuries past (Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Roman attack on Carthage).  His grandstanding crippled our relationship with Russia; it also got a lot of young soldiers killed.  It’d take a miracle to make this monster a hero, but by 1970, Fox was well versed in the language of unearned accolades.

Instead, we cinephiles got another miracle: Patton is one of the great American films, a military drama that derives its impact less from bullet wounds and battle scenes but from a relentless, uncompromised look into the mind of George Patton (a driving, heroically unsympathetic performance from George C. Scott).  The film doesn’t take the shape of your standard biopic – it eschews the “I was born, I grew up” crap in favor of Patton’s service during WWII, and this limited focus proves more revealing of Patton’s character than any large-scope character study could have been.

For one – and I really wasn’t expecting this – this style is a little weird.  Patton participated in some of the war’s most brutal campaigns (a run on Rommel in North Africa, a trek through the Ardennes forest in Europe), but we get very little fighting.  Director Franklin J. Schaffner shoots what little combat we see in wide tableaus and breezy montages (as opposed to the down-and-dirty intimacy of a Saving Private Ryan) and spends the rest of the time in the moments between battles.  We get the king of Morocco honoring Patton, or Patton scheming against his British counterpart General Montgomery, or – in the film’s highpoint – Patton visiting a group of wounded soldiers and going ballistic at the one soldier complaining of battle fatigue.

To Patton, fighting and dying wasn’t as important as how the world perceived his role in the fighting and dying, and the movie reflects this obsession.  It’s a strange, fascinating choice on Schaffner’s part.  Along with DP Fred J. Koenekamp, Schaffner films Patton in ultra-wide 65mm – the same film stock David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia on – yet most of the photography captures interiors as Patton frets and rages against the military bureaucracy.  I was reminded of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, baffling The Master, which likewise uses 65mm to scrutinize all-too human landscapes.

Ultimately, we only get Patton in combat because that’s the only time he really mattered.  As the German intelligence officer in charge of studying Patton remarks shortly before V-E Day, defeating Hitler is the same as defeating Patton; without a war, he’s nothing.  As such, the final half hour of the film acquires a profound sense of melancholy.  We see Patton try to pick a fight with the Russian premier, we see him crow about all the work that’s left to do in Europe (one of the film’s great tragic-comic moments has Patton giving a press conference while riding a white steed and insinuating that he could rally the defeated German soldiers against Russia), but it’s all for naught.

Diplomacy has taken over, and it’s no accident that the end of the film finds him walking his dog at the outskirts of civilization, a distant, small figure on the screen.  For a man so convinced of his own greatness, the greatest punishment is not death, but slow, inevitable obsolescence.

With this Blu-ray release, Twentieth Century Fox finally rectifies one of the HD world’s biggest blunders.  When the studio first released Patton on Blu-ray in 2008, the results were awful; the “restoration” applied so much DNR to the picture that it virtually eradicated all textures and fine details.  Surfaces were oddly smooth and feature-less, a condition that made George C. Scott look like a Ken Doll.  This new transfer corrects the old Blu-ray’s flaws, and the results are stunning.  Details are robust and crisp, and the 65mm photography looks better than it did in 1970 – the level of focus and depth of field are stunning.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t quite as revelatory, but it’s sufficient booming and robust.

Features are, as befitting this classic, extensive and interesting.  On disc one, we get a five-minute introduction and audio commentary from screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola, while disc two (a standard DVD) has three feature-length documentaries about the making of the film and the history that inspired it (“History Through the Lens: ‘Patton: A Rebel Revisited,’” “Patton’s Ghost Corps,” and “The Making of Patton”); two photo galleries showcasing production and behind-the-scenes stills (one has musical accompaniment from Jerry Goldsmith, and the other has running commentary from the George S. Patton, Jr. Historical Society’s president Charles M. Provence; and the theatrical trailer.

Patton is one of the good ones.  Whereas some Best Picture winners begin to age as soon as they’ve won the statuette (The Greatest Show on Earth, anyone?), Patton feels deeper and richer when viewed today.  It’s a strange, tough, and complex tale about an equally strange, tough, and complex guy, and Fox’s Blu-ray does the film justice.

Patton is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: The Strange, Sublime Charms of PATTON