Release Date(s)1956 (December 1, 2020)
Studio(s)The Associates & Aldrich Company/United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D
World War II offered 1950s Hollywood countless opportunities for action picture plots and background for dramas. Some of the best known are The Bridge on the River Kwai, From Here to Eternity, and The Caine Mutiny. Lesser known is Attack!. Based on the play Fragile Fox, the film keeps the focus on a single infantry company and the testy relationship between two of its officers.
Toward the end of World War II, Fox Company must set up observation posts in a strategic area. Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert) failed to act during a recent engagement with the heavily entrenched Germans and 14 men died as a result. Cooney is a heavy-drinking judge’s son who never wanted to be in the army and is there only, under the command of Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), to earn his father’s respect.
Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) blames Cooney’s cowardice for the unnecessary loss of his men and warns Cooney that he will kill him if he fails to do his duty again. During a visit from Col. Bartlett, Lt. Woodruff (William Smithers) tells him morale in Fox Company is low and suggests that Bartlett place Cooney in a staff job, far from the front line.
Anticipating military advancement for sheltering Cooney, the cynical and pragmatic Col. Bartlett puts his own career ahead of the safety of his men and ignores Cooney’s weakness as a leader. Bartlett has no open staff jobs and assures Woodruff that the company is not likely to see further action, since the enemy is on the run.
But the Germans make one last massive effort in the Battle of the Bulge and Fox Company is called into action. Cooney orders Costa and his men to capture and hold a position in what is believed to be a deserted Belgian town. And Cooney will provide back-up in case the company faces enemy resistance.
The emphasis of Attack! is the interplay among individuals, not battle action. The film opens with a well staged uphill attack on a German pill box and there is some tank action later on, but the film is not packed with gunfire and explosions. James Poe’s script fleshes out the characters of Cooney, Bartlett, Costa, and Woodruff, and features some good moments for Buddy Ebsen, Richard Jaeckel, and Robert Strauss as men in Cooney’s command.
Rather than glorify all American fighting men, director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) shows that there were incompetents and cowards among American officers and soldiers and sometimes the wrong men were put in charge. The enemy may not always be the primary villain. It may be the corrupt and cowardly officers on our own side.
Albert dominates the film. His Cooney is inept and knows his men don’t respect him. More concerned with the bottles of brandy he cherishes than with his duty, he thinks first of himself. He is the antithesis of Costa, an officer who is protective of his men and intolerant of lethal incompetence. Costa follows orders, even when he knows they’re not the soundest, attempting to carry out a mission with minimum human loss. Both Albert and Palance are excellent actors and inhabit their characters. The scenes between Cooney and Costa bristle with tension.
Featuring 1080p resolution, Attack! is presented by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Contrast, detail, and the dramatic use of light and shadow are excellent. Joseph F. Biroc’s cinematography provides an unglamorous look at men in war. Since the film is based on a stage play, much of the action takes place indoors. Outdoor scenes take advantage of the wide screen as the men are ordered to advance well separated from one another. The Belgian village consists of back lot construction but looks reasonably authentic.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue, more important here than in typical war films of the period, is clear and distinct. Though Cooney drinks a lot, Albert never turns his portrayal into a cliche of the bumbling inebriate. The film’s stage origins are apparent with key characters assembled in groups for crucial dialogue. The dialogue is the primary conveyer of emotion, with actors’ expressions and reactions less significant. Machine gun fire opens the film with a literal “bang,” setting the action during wartime. The motors of menacing German tanks increase in sound volume as they come closer to the camera. When Costa and his men approach the village, silence dominates. There is not even music to enhance tension as the men move toward a town that may or may not be deserted. Characters have distinct ways of speaking. Bartlett does so with a rapid-fire booming voice; Cooney is deliberative, talking slowly; Costa has a short fuse and with snarling ferocity lashes out when he perceives leadership weakness; and Woodruff is thoughtful, weighing each word so as to clarify a tough morale situation while remaining diplomatic.
The only bonus features on the Region A, unrated Blu-ray release are theatrical trailers.
Trailers – Seven theatrical trailers are included: Attack!, Ten Seconds to Hell, Apache, Ulzana’s Raid, The Killing of Sister George, The Grissom Gang, and Beach Red.
Attack! is a gritty war picture that grabs you on an emotional level. The characters’ flaws are magnified by the daily stresses of life and death. The screenplay doesn’t pull its punches as it features brave men captained by a coward. Because of this less-than-heroic look at its officers, the military refused cooperation and equipment, making it necessary for director Aldrich to make the film on a small budget. Appropriately edgy and bleak, Attack! has lost none of its bite and is still a powerful film.
– Dennis Seuling