Attack (1956 film)
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Attack theatrical poster
|Directed by||Robert Aldrich|
|Produced by||Robert Aldrich|
|Screenplay by||James Poe|
|Based on||Fragile Fox|
by Norman Brooks
|Music by||Frank De Vol|
|Cinematography||Joseph F. Biroc|
|Edited by||Michael Luciano|
|Distributed by||United Artists (1955, original) MGM (2003, DVD) Filmedia (under license from MGM) (2013, Blu-Ray DVD)|
|Box office||$2 million (US)|
1,493,421 admissions (France)
Attack, also known as Attack!, is a 1956 American anti-war drama film. It was directed by Robert Aldrich and starred Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, William Smithers, Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, Buddy Ebsen andPeter van Eyck. The cinematographer was Joseph Biroc.
"A cynical and grim account of war", the film is set in the latter stages ofWorld War II and tells the story of a front line combat unit led by a cowardly captain clearly out of his depth as well as a tougher subordinate and an executive officer who both threaten to do away with him. As the official trailer put it: "Not every gun is pointed at the enemy!"
The film won the 1956 Italian Film Critics Award.
Europe 1944: Fragile Fox is a company of American G.I.s from the National Guard of the United States based in a Belgian town near the front line. They are led by Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), a man from a southwestern town called Riverview, Kentucky who appears to be better at handling red tape than military strategy. On the other hand, Cooney is a natural coward out of depth who freezes under fire and cannot bring himself to send more men into battle to reinforce those already under attack. The increasing and unnecessary loss of life is causing morale problems among the troops and trying the patience of Platoon Leader Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance), a bold and brave fighter and a natural leader of men, The Executive Officer, Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers, in his first credited screen role) is the "voice of reason" who tries to keep the peace between Cooney and Costa. Both he and Costa are respected by the enlisted troops. While Woodruff tries to get Cooney reassigned to a desk job behind the lines, Costa hints at a more direct solution to the problem. It's a well-known fact that Cooney owes his position to battalion commander Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin), a man who has known the Cooney family since he was a 14-year-old clerk in the office of Cooney's father, a top judge. The judge and his influence could be very useful to Bartlett's post-war political ambitions and it all depends on his and Cooney's war records. Neither Captain Cooney nor Bartlett are liked by the company: as PFC. Bernstein (Robert Strauss) puts it: "When you salute them two, you have to apologize to your arm."
When the Germans start the counter-attack known as the Battle of the Bulge, Bartlett orders Cooney to seize the town of La Nelle. Since there is no way of knowing if the Germans are there or not, Cooney overrules an all-out attack and decides that Costa should lead a reconnaissance mission. Costa agrees provided that both Cooney and Woodruff promise him to send in reinforcements if necessary. As he is about to leave, Costa warns Cooney of the consequences if he ever plays the "gutless wonder" again: "I'll shove this grenade down your throat and pull the pin!" As they approach La Nelle, the platoon comes under fire by German SS. Most of them are killed or injured. Costa and four of his men (Sergeant Tolliver, Bernstein, PFC. Ricks and Pvt. Snowden) take refuge in a farmhouse but find themselves under siege. When Costa calls for reinforcements, Cooney snaps, ignores the pressure from Woodruff to go in and turns to drink. A little strategy and deception enables Costa and his men to hold up and capture a German SS officer and a soldier, but when Panzers appear he has no choice but to call a retreat. He furiously tells Woodruff over the radio to warn Cooney that he's "coming back!"In the confusion that follows the retreat, Costa becomes MIA. The rest of the men manage to get back to the main town, though Ricks (James Goodwin) is killed in the escape, in addition to the many casualties during the initial move on La Nelle. The men show their contempt for Cooney: Bernstein spits at his feet and Tolliver rejects his offer of a drink, telling him that where he comes from "We don't drink with another man unless we respect him." Bartlett, who has just arrived, reprimands him for failing to send in his entire company to take La Nelle. As a result, the German Army is now approaching their position and he tells Woodruff and Cooney that they must hold their present position in spite of the German advance. Bartlett threatens to arrest Cooney if he falls back, as it would leave another company unprotected, and strikes Cooney after the coward begs to be reassigned. Woodruff warns Bartlett that he is going to lodge a complaint with General Parsons, the Colonel's superior, over the handling of the company. With the pressure building up, Cooney turns to drinking again, but Woodruff smashes the bottle, accuses him of "Got every man in this outfit thinking that the U.S. army is a mockery!". After that Cooney then breaks down, whimpering that he will never measure up to his father and telling Woodruff about having been beaten by his drunken father in order to "make a man" out of him, revealing that he's been a victim of child abuse in attempt to become a man. Bartlett has told him that he is in command "as a favor to the judge. He's always wanted a son, now I'm trying to give him one." Feeling sorry for Cooney, Woodruff tells him to sleep it off and is about to assume command when Costa suddenly reappears, determined to kill Cooney. As they argue, they are told by Cpl. Jackson (Jon Shepodd) that the town is being overrun by Germans. Costa grabs a Bazooka and bravely disables an enemy tank, but is gravely wounded when another tank drives over his arm.
Woodruff, Tolliver, Bernstein, Jackson and Snowden (Richard Jaeckel) take refuge in a basement but Bernstein is injured in the leg and, being a Jew, is unlikely to have his POW rights respected by the attacking SS. They try to get out but their way is blocked, and a drunken and erratic Cooney insists they are "holding for Clyde [Bartlett]". As they argue, Costa suddenly appears. Seriously injured in the arm and with only minutes of life left, he appeals to God to give him enough strength to kill Cooney, but he collapses and dies. Cooney mockingly kicks the gun away from him. With Costa dead, Cooney suggests that the rest of them surrender even though they have not been discovered. At that moment Woodruff warns him that he will shoot him if he does. When Cooney does make a move, Woodruff kills him.
Woodruff insists that Tolliver place him under arrest, but he and the other GIs reject this, claiming that "shooting him was just about the most just thing I ever seen." They then take turns shooting the dead Cooney themselves except Snowden who has left to see if the Germans heard the shots. Allied reinforcements arrive and the Germans retreat. Told by the men that Cooney was killed by the Germans, Bartlett appears to accept this and puts Woodruff in command. When the men ask Woodruff to confirm that he is now the C.O., there is some anxiety and hesitation in the room. Bartlett, an expert pokerplayer who knows all about bluffing, is momentarily suspicious.
Bartlett, who has always hated Cooney, contemptuously kicks him over, remarking "So the old judge wanted a son, huh? Looks like he had to lose one to get one." He gives Woodruff a field promotion to captain and tells him to forget about the threatened complaint to General Parsons; but he then announces that he is going to nominate Cooney for the Distinguished Service Cross. Outraged that a coward should be honoured in this way, Woodruff openly accuses Bartlett of manipulating the whole thing in order to get rid of Cooney, who was a liability, and get favors with his powerful father: "I may have pulled that trigger but you aimed the gun. You set this whole thing up so it would happen!" Bartlett is unconcerned, remarking that Woodruff has too much to lose if he makes the whole affair public. But Woodruff calls his bluff, goes to the radio and calls for General Parsons to complain about the company and to file a full report.
- Jack Palance as Lt. Joe Costa
- Eddie Albert as Capt. Erskine Cooney
- Lee Marvin as Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett
- William Smithers as Lt. Harold "Harry" Woodruff
- Robert Strauss as Pfc. Bernstein
- Richard Jaeckel as Pvt. Snowden
- Buddy Ebsen as T/Sgt. Tolliver
- Jon Shepodd as Cpl. John Jackson
- Peter van Eyck as SS Captain
- James Goodwin as Pfc. Ricks
- Steven Geray as Otto, German NCO
- Jud Taylor as Pvt. Jacob R. Abramowitz (credited as Judson Taylor)
The film was based on Norman Brooks's stage play, Fragile Fox. Director Aldrich bought the rights when he failed to obtain those for Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead.
Due to the nature of the film, which cast officers as either cowards or Machiavellian manipulators, the US Defense Department refused to grant production assistance. Critics attacked this attitude, pointing out the heroic and noble behavior of other officers like Costa and Woodruff who were "more representative of the Army than the cowardly captain, who is clearly an exception."
Aldrich is quoted, "The Army saw the script and promptly laid down a policy of no co-operation, which not only meant that I couldn't borrow troops and tanks for my picture — I couldn't even get a look at Signal Corps combat footage. I finally had to buy a tank for $1,000 and rent another from 20th Century-Fox."
Aldrich directed Attack! without the big budget that other war productions were getting at the time. It was shot in thirty-two days on the back lot of RKO Studios with a small cast and budget and a few pieces of military equipment, including the two tanks.
The opening title sequence depicting off-duty soldiers was created by Saul Bass.
Eddie Albert, who played the cowardly Cooney, was in reality a decorated hero in the WWII Pacific Theater. Before World War II commenced he was secretly working for U.S. Army intelligence photographing German U-boats in Mexico. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, rescuing American marines during the Battle of Tarawa while under heavy gunfire in 1943. He also lost a portion of his hearing from the noise of the battle.
Aldrich Against the Army
THERE has been considerable talk
lately about the changing pattern
of production in Hollywood. The
old style of studio operation in which
thirty or more pictures were turned
out annually under the supervisory
eye of a single executive producer, it
would seem, is gradually giving way to
a system of small, flexible units built
around a star or a director who acts
as his own producer on perhaps one or
two films a year. We are, in other
words, beginning to get custom-made
films in quantity rather than the longstandard
assembly-line jobs. Pictures
like "On the Waterfront," "Marty,"
and "Moby Dick" are representative of
the new trend—not only off-beat, but
made with an individuality and enthusiasm
that the larger studios can
rarely duplicate. Significantly, within
the past year every one of the major
companies has added a number of independent
productions to its releasing
Behind this change is the firm of
United Artists. Formed in 1919 by
Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks,
and Mary Pickford to handle the distribution
of their own independently
made pictures, during the ensuing
quarter of a century it became recognized
as the one real outlet for quality
product. Goldwyn, Selznick, Korda,
Disney—all the leading independents
released through its facilities. In the
years immediately after the war, however,
the firm fell on evil days. With its
original members either dead or inactive
there just was not enough quality
production to support a large, expensive
distribution organization. Goldwyn,
Disney, and the others slipped
away to more profitable tie-ups with
larger companies. By the late Forties
the firm's position was desperate.
When United Artists was reorganized
in 1951 by two young lawyers,
Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin,
they immediately substituted a policy
of quantity for quality, building up the
volume of their business to meet the
overhead of a strong sales organization.
By carefully nursing the better
films that came their way, and boldly
exploiting such big ones as "The African
Queen" and "Moulin Rouge,"
Krim and Benjamin gradually wiped
away the tarnish that had gathered on
the U.A. escutcheon. New independent
outfits began to flock to its banner—
some of them formed for capital gains,
some by men who sincerely sought a
greater freedom of expression on the
screen. Today U.A.'s roster of independents
includes such names as Stanley
Kramer, Hecht-Lancaster, Joseph
Mankiewicz, Otto Preminger, and
Robert Aldrich—and its policy has
proven so profitable that it has been
adopted by the industry at large.
Aldrich was in town recently, en
route to Los Angeles. He had just
spent eight hectic hours in Rome arranging
for the screening of his latest
film, "Attack!," at the Venice Festival.
He arrived in Rome, he said, at three
p.m. the previous afternoon, screened
his picture for the Festival authorities,
caught a plane for New York at eleven,
and was going on to Hollywood that
very evening. All in the day's worl
for an independent producer, h
seemed to imply, hooking his leg ove
an arm of the chair he was reclinin
in. A heavy-set man with thick, horn
rimmed glasses and close-croppe^ 1
brown hair, Aldrich is youthful, se
rious, and outspoken. "Attack!"—lik
so many of the new independent pro
ductions—is a controversial picture, a
antiwar story in this day of Cold Wa
militaristics, and Aldrich prudentl
knocks wood every time he mention
the title. "The Army saw the script,
he said with a wry smile, "an 1
promptly laid down a policy of no co
operation. Which not only meant thf I
I couldn't borrow troops and tanks fc
my picture—I couldn't even get a lool
at Signal Corps combat footage. I fi
nally had to buy a tank for $1,000 an 1
rent another from 20th Century-Fo;
Mine is parked now in my garagi
Know anybody who wants to buy
tank?" He poured himself a cup t I
black coffee. "The joke of it is th<
anybody could have stopped the pic
ture cold for about $25,000, just b
buying up all the uniforms." IHE reasons for the Army's lack o^
enthusiasm are readily apparent.
Based on Norman Brook's play of a
few seasons ago, "Fragile Fox," the
film deals with a cowardly company
commander and an opportunistic battalion
CO. who risks the life of every
man in the outfit by refusing to relieve
his dangerously inept subordinate. The
Captain's father, the CO. explains to
an indignant lieutenant, heads the political
machine back home and the
man can be very useful to him once the war is over. When the Captain's
refusal to send promised support to a
platoon cut off during an attack results
in heavy losses the platoon leader
swears personal vengeance. "Attack!"
is hardly a recruiting poster for the
U.S. Army. It is, on the other hand, a tense and
throbbing drama, expertly acted and
directed. Whether he saw Signal Corps
footage or not Aldrich has managed
his combat tactics—attacks on a pillbox
and, later, on a strongly held town
—with rare verisimilitude. Even more
impressive is his handling of strained
personal relationships against the
background of the Bastogne breakthrough—
the company Exec Officer
who recognizes his Captain's weakness
but respects the discipline of rank,
the naked contempt of the battalion
CO. for the man he hopes to use to
his own advantage, the fierce loyalty
of the platoon leader to his men. All
of these are not simply stated; they
unfold with the developing crisis in
Fox Company, building to a climax of
forcefulness. From his cast—Jack Palance,
Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, Buddy
Ebsen, and particularly William
Smithers as the hard-pressed Exec—
Aldrich has obtained a series of superb
performances which he has sustained
with strongly composed shots
and an imaginative use of natural
sound "Attack!" Aldrich explained, cost
about $750,000 to produce—$50,000
above his anticipated budget. The
main part of the money was loaned by
banks, with U.A. advancing the additional
sum needed to complete the film.
If it succeeds there will be no difficulty.
If not the loss comes out of his
own pocket. But Aldrich, like many of
the independents, prefers to work this
way, owning outright a considerable
percentage of the film he directs in lieu
of salary. Should the picture prove a
hit he can use his equity in it as collateral
for loans on future productions.
"It's a gamble," Aldrich admitted, "and
sometimes you lose—as I did on 'The
Big Knife.' On the other hand, once
you get three aces back to back, like
Hecht-Lancaster with 'Vera Cruz,'
'Marty,' and 'Trapeze,' then you're
really set. You can do anything you
want." He paused a moment to reflect.
"Well, almost," he amended.
"There's still the problem of distribution.
An independent doesn't get the
money to make his picture until he
has some distribution deal set. And
the people who decide what will go
and what won't, I'm afraid, are the
same fifteen men who dominated the
industry in the pre-independent days
—shrewd, but still using the same old
yardsticks. Sure, the independent today
has more freedom to make what
he wants the way that he wants to than
the fellows in the studios. But three
aces back to back—that's rea\, independence."