U.S.A. / 1956
Directed by Robert Aldrich
Jack Palance
Eddie Albert
Lee Marvin
B&W / 108 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
MGM Home Entertainment
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
The American Cross of Iron?
    Made three years after the Korean armistice and almost a decade prior to America's involvement in Vietnam, Attack!* is a very unusual military drama for its time in that it paints an unflattering portrait of the U.S. Army. In tone and theme it's a precursor to the antiwar films of the post-Vietnam period. Set during the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944), there is absolutely no way the film could've been made during World War II. In our current age, when flag-waving infotainment and propaganda passes itself off as news on the 24-hour cable channels, it pains me to think that, due to so-called 'Patriotic Correctness', filmmakers might have a tough time getting such a picture greenlit today.
    Jack Palance headlines a strong cast as Lt. Joe Costa, a conscientious platoon leader in Fox Company, part of a National Guard battalion serving in northern Europe. The G.I.s of Fox Company have the severe misfortune of being commanded by one Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), a cowardly, incompetent alcoholic. When one of Costa's squads is wiped out assaulting a German position slaughtered because the assistance promised by Cooney never arrives he's finally had enough. The lieutenant, who places the highest priority on the welfare of his men, vows to personally kill Cooney if the captain causes any more unnecessary casualties.
    You'd think such incompetence would result in Cooney being canned by his superiors. But no. Cooney is protected from scrutiny by his battalion commander, the corrupt Lt. Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin). Bartlett's a hometown friend who's currying favor with Cooney's father, a politically well-connected judge, to further his own postwar career. Fox Company's straightlaced executive officer, Lt. Woodruff (William Smithers), approaches Bartlett about Cooney's deadly mistakes and their damaging effects on morale, but is rebuffed. Besides, the colonel assures him, the word from "upstairs" is that the war is virtually over; the chances of the battalion seeing heavy combat again are a hundred to one. Woodruff's failed attempt to go through the system, using the chain of command, only makes Costa more determined to force a showdown with Cooney. He's not so convinced the enemy's been licked. He's right. The Germans launch a surprise counteroffensive, breaking through the American lines in Belgium. And hapless Fox Company stands directly in their path, guarding an important crossroads with the infamous Captain Cooney still in command.
    Attack! offers a grim picture of men at war not only with the enemy, but also the injustices of a system easily corrupted by those in authority. It doesn't provide any pat answers. Heroism isn't automatically rewarded or even recognized. A cloud of doom seems to hang over the soldiers whom fate has put in the hands of a criminally negligent oaf. We come to see that the extreme solution advocated by Costa is the only way out but that it, too, will come with a heavy price.
    The film is solidly helmed by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen), giving it a stark, almost documentary feel that's less dated than most of its contemporaries, though at times it can't help but betray its stage play origins. Jack Palance who could be one of the worst big name actors ever when slumming for a check (see Marquis de Sade's Justine or The Shape of Things To Come) gives an intense, riveting performance as Lt. Costa. (The scene in which Costa's arm is squashed by a German tank, though not gory, is unforgettable. Palance's agonized screams may well send a chill up your spine.) Backing him up is an excellent cast in both major and minor roles. Marvin shows us the flip side of his heroic tough guy persona, all smarmy (but crafty) venality you'll hate this guy as much as Cooney because he actually has the power to do something about the situation, but won't. Jed Clampett himself, Buddy Ebsen, shines as Costa's rock-steady platoon sergeant who, just like ol' Jed, is a crack shot and a man of few words. The always reliable Robert Strauss (Stalag 17) provides comic relief as a wisecracking Jewish soldier; a young, fresh-faced Richard Jaeckel appears as one of the riflemen. Smithers, whose Lt. Woodruff is the voice of sanity caught between the extremes of Costa and Cooney, is very good in a key role. (Best known as the traitorous Captain Merrick in the "Bread and Circuses" episode of classic Star Trek, this was his first movie; he pretty much labored in TV obscurity for the rest of his career.) As the locus of the film's tragic narrative, Eddie Albert's Captain Cooney emerges as one of the most thoroughly despicable characters I've seen in quite some time. The script plumbs Cooney's psyche, revealing a tortured childhood as the root of his monumental failings, but he's so utterly contemptible that there's simply no room at all for sympathy. We know that Costa's right: Cooney deserves to be killed. Though it's a difficult role, Albert effectively conveys this pitiful excuse for a human being in all his 'glory', be it the belligerent drunk, the craven coward, or the smirking bully.
    The most significant misstep in the film is the mostly awful music score by Frank DeVol. In spots it's bombastically gung ho inappropriately so, given the subject matter and even undercuts Albert's performance. In quite a few of Albert's key scenes, ones in which we're shown the depths of Cooney's psychosis, a cartoonish nursery rhyme version of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" is played. Albert's acting skirts very close to being over the top here but he generally knows when to pull back unfortunately, DeVol's music sends these scenes right over the edge. (All right, already! We get it that Cooney's supposed to be nuts, okay?) One other aspect of the movie deserves mention, but to do so involves an unavoidable spoiler. So skip the next paragraph if you'd rather not know:
    The Costa character dies with a grimace of horror and agony on his face a 'silent scream' if you will. I realize that Aldrich is trying to make a point here, but it strains credulity that none of Costa's buddies bother to cover him up or close his mouth and eyes. They just leave him like that on the stretcher. This could very well result in unintentional laughter on the part of the viewer... I tried hard not to but found myself chuckling nonetheless.

Presented in full-screen format (the film's original aspect ratio), the crisp black and white transfer looks exceptionally good for a nearly 50-year old film. The serviceable mono audio track is free of hiss or distortion. (A few passages of dialog are muffled or too low but this is due to the actors' line readings and not the disc.) A Spanish language track is included which is significantly inferior. The original U.S. theatrical trailer is offered as an extra. 6/03/03
UPDATE This DVD went OOP in 2008, and is now fetching up to $30.