Attack (1956) 4.07/5 (6)


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Rating: The Good – 77.3
Genre: War
Duration: 107 mins
Director: Robert Aldrich
Stars: Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert

Robert Aldrich’s Attack is a war film about guts that took a lot of guts to make. At a time when most Hollywood movies were being actively supported by the military with equipment, machinery, vehicles, and other logistics, Attack was not considered by the military to convey as positive a message as other more propagandist movies did. Thus, without the support of the military, it was made on a shoestring budget and with a bare minimum of props and equipment which they had to acquire themselves. Despite this, or perhaps even because of it, Attack shines a piercing light on the less seen side to war: that of cowardice. In the wake of Band of Brothers, where such subject matter was dealt with in a number of episodes (and in a very similar way to Aldrich’s film), this might not seem so risky but in the 1950’s, it very much was. That said, the film is not a criticism of the army but in actuality a respectful examination of the individuals who find themselves in battle whether they signed up or not.

Eddie Albert stars as a captain of a National Guard Infantry company ordered to take and hold a strategically important town from a regiment of SS. However, as Captain Cooney is only there to impress his powerful and overbearing father and has no stomach for battle, he has on numerous occasions let his men die by failing to move in and support besieged front line platoons which he sends in ahead of himself. Jack Palance is the caring but tough as steel Lieutenant Costa who decides he has had enough of his captain’s cowardice and promises to kill the captain if he fails to support his troops again.

The premise is truly gripping as the tension is softly tightened with every passing skirmish, battle, and personal confrontation between the officers. Albert who himself was a decorated war hero showed an astonishing amount of bravery by throwing everything into his detestable character while also managing to reveal the damaged person underneath all Cooney’s pretense. It’s a wholly commendable performance that probably could only have been delivered  by someone who had nothing left to prove in real life. Palance too was rarely better in an equally substantial and multifaceted performance. Lee Marvin offers some interesting and uncharacteristic support as the ambitious superior of both Costa and Albert whose politically motivated yet reckless promotion of the latter is what’s ultimately to blame for the decimation of the company.

There’s a stark beauty to the way this film is shot with the rubble of the destroyed buildings being wonderfully captured by the coarse black and white photography. The direction behind the action sequences is outstanding and the crew made a lot of the small resources they had. However, it’s in the more personal moments where Aldrich’s direction really stands out. Being one of the better film-noir directors, it’s not surprising that his use of light to reflect the varying tensions of the indoor sequences is superb and it adds substantially to the mood of those scenes. Norman Brook’s play and James Poe’s screenplay no doubt provided the rich basis for all this and while the dialogue is bare in terms of finesse, it actually serves to accentuate the raw emotion it’s expressing.

Attack is a fascinating breath of fresh air which will make even the most familiar fans of war movies stop in their tracks. It’s complex and determined and in the final analysis does more to honour the men of WWII than most flag waving propagandist films.

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