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.
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.(spoilers)
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 comedies, notably Roman Holiday.
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.(real spoiler)
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.(spoiler)
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,