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Attack (1956)


Morale in Fox Company is bad. The commanding officer, Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), is widely considered to be incompetent. 14 men were killed in a recent engagement with the enemy, and Cooney is blamed, especially by Lieutenant Costa (Jack Palance). Morale is so poor that one of the officers, Lieutenant Woodruff (William Smithers), goes to see his superior Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin), asking him to pack Cooney off with a staff job to get him away from the front line. Bartlett understands the situation, but his hopes for a post-war political career rest on Cooney's, and especially his father's, patronage. Besides, he doesn't have any staff jobs, and he has it on good authority that they will see no more action anyway, for them the war is virtually over.

While Woodruff is slightly mollified by this, news soon comes through of an unexpected German counter-offensive, a massive breakthrough into the Allied lines. Although the film doesn't spell this out, it's clear that this is the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge of December 1944 to January 1945. Captain Cooney orders Costa and his men to capture and hold a position at the end of wide open ground. The mission is iffy, but on paper it seems plausible. Costa, however, doesn't trust Cooney. Will Cooney's nerve crack under pressure? If the Germans counter-attack, will Costa and his men end up cut off behind enemy lines? And will Cooney simply abandon them to their fate as he has before?

Jack Palance holding machine gun
Lieutenant Costa (Jack Palance) leads Fox Company into action

Robert Aldrich was one of American cinema's muscular film makers of the 1950s, like an 'A' picture version of Samuel Fuller. He is mainly remembered for his horror melodrama Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and for his macho and cynical war film, The Dirty Dozen (1967). But the latter wasn't his only film to cast a jaundiced eye over WWII. Ten years before, Aldrich had directed and produced Attack. Attack (also sometimes known as Attack!, the exclamation mark seems to be optional) is a tough and uncompromising WWII drama, perhaps not quite as cynical as The Dirty Dozen, but it's close. Its the kind of film that could only have been made several years after the war had ended. It suggests not only that there were cowards and incompetents among American officers and soldiers, but that the wrong people were sometimes put in charge, and kept in charge, solely because they knew the right people. Its principal villains are not the enemy, but corrupt and cowardly officers on the soldiers' own side, who are careless with their mens' lives and are unfit to command.

The film was intended as a riposte to Hollywood’s more simplistic war actioners of the 1950s. Aldrich had originally attempted to buy the rights to Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, but had been unsuccessful both times. Instead he turned to a more obscure work, the play Fragile Fox, by Norman Brooks. The film was scripted by James Poe, screenwriter of Aldrich's previous film The Big Knife (1955) and used several of Aldrich's regular collaborators, including cinematographer Joseph Biroc, editor Michael Luciano, art director William Glasgow and composer Frank De Vol.


Eddie Albert shaking hands with Lee Marvin
Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert) and his superior Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin)

The cast also includes several actors who would become Aldrich regulars, Lee Marvin, Richard Jaeckel and Eddie Albert, while Jack Palance was also the star of Aldrich's The Big Knife (1955) and Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). The film boasts strong performances from its principals. Palance tends to get a lot of the acting plaudits but, while it's one of his best and most incisive performances, it's not so nuanced as some of the others. Palance starts at a fairly high pitch that makes the most of his hard bastard bad guy persona, and then builds to an explosion of anger and rage. But Eddie Albert is arguably even better as the cowardly and incompetent Captain Cooney, a man completely out of his depth in the front line. Less showy, but equally good, is Lee Marvin as the cynical and pragmatic Colonel Bartlett. This is one of Marvin's less well known roles, but it's also one of his best performances, as a commander who knows that his subordinate is a danger to his men, but who keeps him in place for his own ends. Marvin was originally up to play one of the enlisted men, but lobbied for the role of the Colonel, supposedly basing him on officers he knew in the US Marine Corps in WWII. The film ends with a particularly strong scene that exposes Bartlett's Machiavellianism to the full.

Robert Aldrich had steadily built a name for himself in the early 1950s, working with Hecht-Lancaster productions on Apache and Vera Cruz (both 1954), and then making the noirs Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife (both 1955). Attack was produced by his company Associates and Aldrich, only its second production after The Big Knife. Aldrich took the project to United Artists which had released both his films for Hecht-Lancaster, as well as The Big Knife and Kiss Me Deadly. After several difficult years, UA was about to prosper in the new production environment of the 1950s and '60s that saw the old studios turn into financing-distribution entities, servicing independent and semi-independent production companies. Budgeted at around $750,000, lower than most contemporary Hollywood war films, Aldrich financed the film with an advance from UA and borrowed the rest of the money from banks.


Jack Palance pointing a gun at German officer Peter van Eyck
Costa with a captured German officer (Peter van Eyck)

Inevitably, the US Army and Department of Defense turned down the opportunity to provide equipment and assistance to the production, given that it focuses on one US Army officer who is cowardly and incompetent and another who keeps him in place anyway for his own reasons. So the company had to buy or rent all the military equipment needed for the film. According to Aldrich, this included buying a tank for $1000 and renting another from Twentieth Century Fox.

The film was shot in just over a month, mostly on the RKO and Universal back lots. The story is largely set in a partially bombed out town in Belgium and the settings are fairly realistic looking, although I doubt if many Belgians would be fooled. The battle scenes are well staged but, inevitably, the film doesn't quite hack it for visual authenticity, despite work all round. Its two undersized German tank mock-ups look and sound a little peculiar, almost comically so in some scenes. The high contrast black and white photography of Joseph Biroc, however, does help to invest the film with a stark sense of realism.

On its release, the U.S. Army and the Defense Department came under attack for their refusal to assist the production, with a congressman calling it a "shameful attempt to impose censorship", and the American Veterans Committee also came out in support of the film. UA made the most of the kerfuffle, with a series of sensationalised posters and ads asking "Is this the most controversial picture of the year?" The reviews were mixed but many praised the film and it did reasonable box office.


Eddie Albert and Jack Palance
Cooney (Eddie Albert) and Costa (Jack Palance)

Attack is a very tough, cynical war film and it's a very masculine one, even by the  standards of its genre. It's well acted, tightly constructed and at times claustrophobic. Like Aldrich's later WWII actioner Too Late the Hero (1969), it explores and contrasts cowardice, heroism and incompetence. It also focuses on antagonism between officers and men and between officers, a feature of all of Aldrich’s war films. Its origins as a stage play are generally well concealed until the final scenes, when it becomes highly charged and theatrical, building to a powerful, if melodramatic, conclusion.  It's not a subtle film, and nor is it totally convincing in its psychology or characterisations. Cooney's breakdown is just a little too obvious and hysterical, and while Palace is dominant, he's also a little one note in his characterisation. I tend to think that Aldrich's later war films are more successful, because they sneak their messages in under the wire, whereas Attack is, as its title suggests, more of an all-out assault. But it's a powerful and effective film, an exploration not only of war, but of masculinity, fraternity, corruption, nepotism, courage, cowardice and morality, and it makes for a forceful and memorable piece of cinema.

Attack

Year: 1956
Genre: War, Drama
Country: USA
Director: Robert Aldrich

Cast  Jack Palance (Lieutenant Joe Costa), Eddie Albert (Captain Erskine Cooney), Lee Marvin (Colonel Bartlett), Robert Strauss (Private Bernstein), Richard Jaeckel (Private Snowden), Buddy Ebsen (Sergeant Tolliver), Jon Shepodd (Corporal Jackson), Peter van Eyck (German Officer), Strother Martin (Sergeant Ingersol).

Screenplay James Poe, based on the play Fragile Fox by Norman Brooks  Producer Robert Aldrich  Cinematography Joseph Biroc  Art director William Glasgow  Editor Michael Luciano  Music Frank De Vol

Running time 107 mins (black & white)
Production company Associates and Aldrich  Distributor United Artists

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