By the mid 1950's, many of the men who had fought on the front lines in World War II had reached an age where they could look back on their service in the war and honestly discuss some of the very un-heroic things they had experienced. This new maturity manifested first in literature like Herman Wouk's THE CAINE MUTINY and James Jones's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, both made into excellent movies. ATTACK, which came out in 1956, is based on a stage play and it dealt with the enormously corrupting effect the brutality of war has on the men who fight it; the movie turned out to be tough stuff for its time and more than holds up after all these decades.
The main reason ATTACK still resonates is because it was directed by the great Robert Aldrich, a master film maker who knew how to make great entertainments while never pulling his punches when it came to the brutal aspects of his stories and was equally at home directing war movies like ATTACK, melodramas like THE BIG KNIFE, westerns like VERA CRUZ and ULZANA'S RAID, or psychological horror films such as WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and HUSH
HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE. The man knew what he wanted and how to get it all up there on the movie screen.
ATTACK is not an epic on the same level as BATTLEGROUND or the much later SAVING PRIVATE RYAN; its scope is small, mainly because Aldrich's production company could not procure cooperation from the Pentagon because they had understandable problems with the script. But this ground level view of the war in Europe perfectly suit's the story of an infantry unit saddled with a cowardly commander whose incompetence is as much a threat to the men he leads as the German Whermacht. When orders compel the badly fatigued soldiers to advance into an enemy held town, the ensuing carnage causes long held back tensions to explode as one Lieutenant turns upon his Captain with murderous fury. It all ends in a gripping final scene, set in a basement as the GI's hide from the advancing Germans, where men pushed to their limits, do what they have to do.
ATTACK is filled with some to the finest tough guys and character stars of its time, starting with Jack Palance as Lt. Costa, a brave soldier on the battlefield who is tired of suffering the ineptitude of his immediate superior and Lee Marvin as Colonel Clyde Bartlett, an officer with his eyes already fixed on a post war political career. In between them is Eddie Albert's Captain Cooney, the useless son of an important Kentucky politician, a man so utterly unfit for the responsibility placed upon him that he curls up on his bed when the German's attack. This is one of Palance's finest performances, worthy of an Oscar nomination; it is notable in that Palance, one of the great scenery chewers, really underplays it here until his final, agonized confrontation with Albert in the cellar. Eddie Albert had a long, very versatile career, often playing nice guys and sidekicks to bigger stars, but he had a knack for portraying unsympathetic characters as well, and his Erskine Cooney was one of his best examples of the latter-a man who won't even try to over come his weaknesses, who would rather surrender to the Germans than face the risk of combat. Palance, Albert and Marvin were decorated veterans, Albert winning a Bronze Star for bravery at Tarawa. It's obvious their wartime experiences infuse their work here.
The supporting cast include a lot of familiar faces such as Buddy Ebsen as a capable Sergeant; gravelly voiced Robert Strauss playing a variation of the character he played in STALAG 17; Richard Jaeckel playing essentially the same soldier he played in at least a half dozen other war films. Strother Martin turns up briefly and German born Peter Van Eyck, playing an SS officer, was a naturalized American citizen who served in the US Army during the war. William Smithers plays Palance's fellow Lieutenant, who ultimately faces a difficult choice in the end between doing what is expedient or doing what is right.
The B&W cinematography by Joseph Biroc, who worked often with Aldrich, is superb; there is also some terrific dialog that hits with effect of a bullet: "Captain, down around where I come from, we dearly love our whiskey. But we don't drink with another man unless we respect him."
A few years later Ebsen and Albert would be starring in "The Beverly Hilbillies" and "Green Acres," two of CBS's top rated rural comedies, material about as far from ATTACK as they could get. Marvin would go on to work with Aldrich several times, most notably in THE DIRTY DOZEN; interestingly his Colonel Bartlett, swaggering in his spotless uniform, gives us the only hint what his PATTON might have looked like-he was the producers first choice for the role, but Marvin passed on the part. Smithers would go on to do a lot of work on TV, most memorably a decade later on a classic episode of "Star Trek" where he played a Star Fleet officer who, unlike his officer in ATTACK, does not do his duty. Albert and Aldrich would reunite when he played the Warden in THE LONGEST YARD.
Many of the reviewers for ATTACK on IMDb mention how they first saw this movie as a kid on TV and how it made a strong impression on them. It has some of the strongest scenes in any war movie of its time, especially the part where a German tank roles over a screaming Palance's arm and pins him there. I can attest that this stuff, not BAMBI, was what we wanted to watch when we were young boys. It has been called a forgotten film, but not by anybody who has seen it.
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