Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Attack (most often written as Attack! but not on the film itself) shows
in fine relief the strengths and weaknesses of director Robert Aldrich. A tough male action
film with a hard-hitting subject - 'fragging' the C.O. in combat - it comes through with the
male camaraderie, but turns soggy due to overwritten and psychologically explicit speeches
from its stage source. James Poe adapts well, but Aldrich's instinct for gutsy conflict
doesn't extend to sniffing out unnecessary purple prose. The result is a slightly
overboiled melodrama that overstates its case.
Some vivid grue made this a must-see for kids my age on television in the 1960s, when
Jack Palance's traumatic combat dismemberment had the kick of a horror comic. It doesn't play
as well now, and some consider it Camp.
Fox Company, fighting the Germans in WW2 France, is in a critical SNAFU. Its Captain
Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert) is a craven coward who consistently sends other men to their deaths
because he's unable to deal with the pressure of combat. Both Lt. Harry Woodruff (William Smithers)
and tough, hard-fighting Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) despise Cooney but can do nothing about their
situation, as Cooney is protected from above. Corrupt Lt. Colonel Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin)
coddles Cooney because he's counting on political help from his father after the war.
Costa is already near mutiny when Fox Company is sent into another action. Predictably, Cooney
sends in Costa's small patrol, and then abandons it. His men almost wiped out, Costa returns to H.Q.
to make good on his threat - to kill Cooney.
After his big-budget hit with
Vera Cruz, Robert Aldrich spent several
years making much smaller films for United Artists, creative achievements like
Kiss Me Deadly,
The Big Knife and this tough-guy combat
picture. The most notable thing about the production is the obvious denial of official Armed Forces
approval: the tanks in the show are ancient relics that look like converted tractors, the kind
of vehicles productions had to rent when they didn't win Pentagon cooperation.
Attack dares say that incompetence could be tolerated and encouraged in the Army, that
the perks and influence of the system might put an incompetent front-line commander in a position
to allow troops to be massacred. It also offers the idea that murdering the cowardly officer
responsible might be a great idea. By the time Vietnam rolled around, it had to be conceded
that this situation must crop up in any war - an Army is an imperfect bureaucracy, and it's
easy to imagine the battlefield equivalent of Dilbert. I've had my share of crazy
superiors in civilian jobs, and have always been able to take things calmly because, as I
reminded myself, "Lives weren't at stake." What if they were? What if your best friends were being
blown away because of an idiot who wouldn't back them up?
Attack gives us some interesting personalities to chew on. Jack Palance is great as Costa,
first introduced at work in a Frenchman's blacksmith shop. Beloved by his men, he
stands in complete contrast to Eddie Albert's Cooney, an immature drunk who kisses up to superiors
and lords it over the troops. They despise him, as he's not even officer material - he's been advanced
way beyond his level of competency because of political connections (nooo, that never happens in our
tradition-dominated, Southern-born officer class). He's the kind of slimeball who just doesn't
care - in a way that can switch at a moment's notice from craven dereliction of duty, to sniveling
sadism. Albert had played a con-man the year before in Oklahoma!, but this cowardly character
was still a big switch for his fans, who previously knew him as a cheerful second lead in light
Just so the record's straight, in real life Albert was a Marine awarded a medal for valor on
Tarawa. Robert Aldrich must have seen him differently, for he cast him as a venal warden in
The Longest Yard, and as a predatory pornographer and child molester in Hustle.
Costa's platoon is a nice mix of combat film veterans. Fresh from
Davy Crockett is Buddy Ebsen, calm and
fatherly as Palance's main sidekick. The dependable Robert Strauss' character provides comedy
relief but introduces a sober note when we find out his character is a Jew
none-too-eager to be taken alive by the SS troops. Strother Martin has a short bit as one of
Cooney's victims, and poor Richard Jaeckel barely gets any lines to read.
Enemy Germans are played by Steven Geray and Peter van Eyck, of Henri-Georges Clouzot's
The Wages of Fear, and Fritz Lang's
The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse.
Specially introduced is William Smithers, a capable actor who remained obscure playing a lot of
television roles, mostly.
The film's reason for being, what we were all told we couldn't miss on television,
is the shocking scene where Jack Palance is run over by a tank, and lies screaming in the dirt
with his arm pinned by its treads. It's implied that he's completely crushed from the
shoulder down, and Palance re-e-a-a-lly looks stressed when he shows up later, like a walking-dead
zombie too wasted to complete his revenge. Unfortunately, the horrible open-eyed permanent
grimace on Palance's dead face is borderline laughable: it's so disturbing, his buddies would
surely close his eyes or cover him up. Thematically, it works - when placed next to
the dead, calm Cooney, Palance seems to be screaming horror from beyond the grave. But it now gets
laughs from jaded & cynical audiences, who have little patience for the film - as if Costa should have
blown away Cooney at the first provocation. That's what Stallone or Cruise would do.
The cynical but appropriately black conclusion is interrupted by a last-minute
cop-out, where the Smithers character decides to throw away his career and report all that has
happened to the high brass. This smacks of the kind of whitewash seen in
From Here to Eternity, that film
companies did to get Pentagon cooperation, not after they'd been snubbed. Perhaps the
Production Code censors insisted upon it (under Pentagon lobbying?). The really honest ending
would have Smithers put the facts in front of the Generals, only to be chastized and
threatened (don't you remember High School?). That's what Stanley Kubrick did a year later in
Paths of Glory, indicting the
whole Army system as degenerate. But since his film was about the French Army of 1917,
it wasn't as threatening to the status quo. At least Aldrich had the courage of directness.
MGM's DVD of Attack is a good transfer, considering that it's letterboxed flat at 1:66. Matting
to 1:78 in a 16:9 television makes it look perfect, but the detail would be much better in an
enhanced transfer. This DVD package restores the exclamation point dropped from the title on VHS and Laser
releases. The effective, frantic trailer makes good use of the stressed title graphic.
Attack is a combat film far better than average, and much preferred by the thoughtful battle
veterans Savant has met over contemporary pap like Battle Cry. These same guys
consistently opt for Merrill's Marauders over The Longest Day, and
The Thin Red Line over Saving
Private Ryan. That's a pretty good endorsement.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 29, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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