As long as there have been wars, there have been anti-war films. When I think of waves of anti-war films though, I start to think of the late 1960’s, especially in the U.S. as Americans grew disillusioned with the Vietnam War. But how about an early anti-war effort from the 1950’s that was ahead of its time in so many ways? Here’s 1956’s Attack.
It’s 1944 and Allied forces are advancing all over Europe on German forces. One infantry unit is dealing with a command issue though, especially as the fighting intensifies. Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) is a platoon commander in an infantry company commanded by the cowardly Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert). In a recent engagement, Cooney’s outright cowardice and indecision cost the lives of an entire squad when he refused to commit a reserve to the fighting. As Costa tries to decide what to do, the Germans attack all along the front (the battle of the Bulge), pushing the American forces back. Can Costa hold his men together, or will Cooney’s inability to command cost the lives of even more men?
From director Robert Aldrich, this 1956 World War II movie is an oft-forgotten gem. Based off a Norman Brooks play, it never gets the credit it deserves for the truly dark, honest look it takes at war. These are normal, everyday soldiers trying to get through the war unscathed. These aren’t super-men single-handedly winning the war. Their commander’s general ineptitude at everything he does has some of the men, especially Costa, considering shooting Cooney because no one in the command system will do anything. The commanders are either inept or self-serving while the enlisted men simply want to survive the war.
In a career that featured one memorable tough guy performance after another, Palance delivers one of his best here. His Lt. Joe Costa is as tough as hell and an ideal platoon commander, but he’s human too. After years of fighting, all the death is starting to wear on him, especially when there was potential to stop those deaths. His Costa becomes obsessed with stopping Cooney, no matter how and no matter the consequences. Eddie Albert is frighteningly good as the inept Cooney, a company commander with some serious emotional issues, from alcoholism to daddy issues to fear of failure to…well, just about anything you can think of. Two amazingly different but incredibly memorable parts.
Aldrich had a knack for assembling some damn good casts, and though ‘Attack’ doesn’t have a ton of star power, it’s a damn good cast. In one of his first major roles, Lee Marvin is a scene-stealer as Lt. Colonel Clyde Barrett, the battalion commander using Cooney for his pull back home politically. William Smithers is excellent as Lt. Woodruff, Cooney’s executive officer caught in between his commander and the men in the company. The men in Costa’s platoon include Richard Jaeckel, Robert Strauss, John Shepodd, Jim Goodwin and a scene-stealing Buddy Ebsen as Sgt. Tolliver. Also look quick in the opening scene for Strother Martin as an infantry soldier and Peter van Eyck as an SS officer.
Considering the film’s rather dark subject matter and the timing in the Happy Days-esque 1950’s, it’s not surprising that the US Army wanted nothing to do with Aldrich’s film and offered no support. The result? A lower budget, gritty war film shot on the backlots in a Hollywood studio. It works nicely, ‘Attack’ reflecting its stage-based roots with some long dialogue scenes broken up by some surprisingly realistic, chaotic combat scenes. It’s hard not to look at the bombed-out French town and see the similarities with the finale to Saving Private Ryan.
A lot to be said here, ‘Attack’ getting progressively darker and darker with each passing scene. Aldrich leans on his film noir roots for some great uses of darkness and shadow as tensions rise. Even on repeated viewings, I’m surprised where the story ends up going in the final third of a 107-minute movie. It’s never gotten the credit it deserves, but it’s an anti-war classic. A must-watch.
Attack (1956): *** 1/2 /****