Plastic Patton

July 09, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

There is a controversy swirling about the recently released Blu-Ray disc of Patton. Robert Harris writes about it in his June 24 column for the Digital Bits. I wanted to wait until I had an opportunity to watch the Patton Blu-Ray on a 52" monitor before commenting about Mr. Harris' observations. I read his article before watching the film, so I went in prepared for the worst… and didn't get it.

In short, Mr. Harris writes about his concern that Digital Noise Reduction, or "DNR" for short, is ruining some Blu-Ray discs. It seems that grain, a natural element in all film, is viewed as "undesirable" by many who purchase Blu-Ray discs. So some older films going through the HD conversion process are being "overprocessed." DNR is not just cleaning and sharpening the image, it's changing it. Mr. Harris specifically mentions that, in Patton, "Faces were waxy, background detail was gone, clothing, walls, dirt on Jeeps was all missing high frequency information, and the image appeared dead, much like a video game." Great - just what I always wanted: Patton looking like a video game.

But the thing is, it doesn't. The grain has definitely been removed from the picture, and I think that's an issue. There's not that much grain in it to begin with, so I'm not sure where the compulsion to remove it came from. Having said that, however, Patton has not been ruined. In fact, it looks very good. Not "great," but far better than merely acceptable and certainly not the calamity Mr. Harris led me to expect. I studied the Blu-Ray version in some detail, pausing on many occasions and re-watching several scenes more than once. I didn't see any hint of waxiness in George C. Scott's features nor was there a noticeable reduction in background detail. I know this film very well and I was not offended by what I saw. Is this the best I have ever seen Patton look? Without question, but I have never seen a pristine print projected in its full Dimension 150 glory.

My goal in writing this is not to dispute Mr. Harris' concern that the digital overprocessing of older films to create clean, grain-free images can result in problematic transfers. In particular, I'm thinking of film noir, where the grain is an integral part of the visual elements. However, while there's merit in Mr. Harris' thesis, I disagree with him as it applies to Patton. Yes, the image has gone through processing and, because grain has been removed, it does not match its theatrically projected cousin. But I did not observe the flaws attributed to the disc that Mr. Harris cited. So I guess it comes down to the eye of the beholder.

The reality is that we have been living with crappy DVD transfers of great films for a long time. Raise the Red Lantern comes to mind immediately, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. What I ask from DVDs and Blu-Ray discs is not a replication of the theatrical experience but a facsimile. I want to be able to enjoy the sweep and passion of a movie in the privacy of my home. Maybe this version of Patton looks substandard on a 100" screen, but that's not how I'm watching it.

So, from my perspective with my equipment, the Blu-Ray disc of Patton, while perhaps not ideal in every way, is more than adequate. It's neither "problematic" nor an abomination. It has not been colorized. The DNR has not washed out the image to the point where it appears sterile and lifeless. I have read and considered Mr. Harris' concerns but, insofar as this movie is concerned, I reject them on the basis of the evidence of my eyes. Patton in Blu-Ray is still Patton, not some plastic clone.