Robert Aldrich was one of the most interesting American directors of the 20th Century and was, for a long time, underrated as a vulgar hack who had struck lucky with his material on the occasions he came up with something worth watching. It didn't help that his best known films were his least interesting - Whatever Happened To Baby Jane and The Dirty Dozen. But, gradually, a cult built up around his marvellous noir epic Kiss Me Deadly and Aldrich's reputation steadily rose until he became something of a cult figure himself; a 'smuggler', to use Martin Scorsese's term, who managed to insert his own peculiar vision into mainstream films and deliberately, methodically subverted every genre he worked in. So in Ulzana's Raid, he deconstructed the western into moral dialectics, in Hustle he produced the most despairingly existential cop film that side of Bad Lieutenant and in Attack! he made a battle film which is as bitter an anti-war statement as anything produced in Hollywood during the 1950s. His own battle to make it resulted in a film which says as much about Aldrich's relationship with the establishment as it does about the US army.
Set during the Battle of the Bulge (although this isn't directly stated in the film), Attack deals with a company led by Cpt.Cooney (Albert), a coward and an incompetent commander. His weakness and refusal to provide support has led to the death of a popular officer during an operation, and he is particularly despised by Lt.Costa (Palance) who sees right through his bluster into his essential fear of battle. When Lt.Woodruff (Smithers), a decent but by-the-book officer, tries to have Cooney replaced, Col.Bartlett (Marvin) refuses, explaining that he knows Cooney is incompetent but that he doesn't want him fouling things up at division headquarters. However, the truth is that Bartlett is looking to his position after the war and hopes that, if he looks after Cooney, then he will gain political patronage from Cooney's powerful father, a Judge. His assurance to Woodruff that the company won't see active service again proves false when the company is charged with the task of taking and holding the key strategic town of La Nelle. Cooney decides that, in order to avoid taking direct fire, a platoon should go in to recce the situation and hole up in an old house if they encounter any enemy resistance. Costa is, inevitably, charged with this task but finds his platoon decimated by a large German force camped in the town. He radios to Cooney for support but the Captain refuses, stating that he won't risk his company for "one lousy platoon".
What follows is an engrossing and harrowing confrontation between Cooney's inaction inspired by cowardice and Costa's attempts to return to base and get his revenge on the man who has left him and his men to die in order to save his own neck. The psychology of the film is, surprisingly for a genre film of this period, placed above the action. Cooney is trying to impress his father, who despises his weakness, and Bartlett says in disgust, "You're father always wanted a son and I'm gonna give him one" when refusing to send the increasingly unbalanced Cooney back to division. Costa is equally unbalanced, obsessed with an increasing need to kill Cooney in order to atone for the lives of his platoon that have been lost. If Costa is a hero - or at least an anti-hero - it's because he places the lives of his men over his own safety, but it's clear by the time he is holed up in the house, surrounded by German tanks, that his grip on sanity is becoming loose. The gutted house in which he sits, curtains flapping in the wind, seems to represent Costa's own faith in himself and in the army that he serves. This is quite extraordinarily bleak; indeed, the imagery throughout is as stark as anything in film noir. The ruins of the medieval town seem the only place for such ruined men to play out their own tragedy. Unlike these two emotional wrecks, Bartlett is entirely sane, perhaps too sane because he's all too aware that wars always end, eventually, and that history is written by the survivors. His cynicism is breathtaking and blackly funny, and its obviously the way that men not only survive war but flourish during it. The nearest thing to a straightarrow hero is Woodruff, but the film refuses to allow his liberal humanism to remain untinged by the general malaise of war and his decisions during the last third of the film are as confused as they are, basically, honourable. Aldrich's constant questioning of heroism and the making of masculinity, which stretches right through to his films of the 1970s, is evident throughout this film and his conclusions - somewhat disappointing final moments apart - are far from comfortable
Most war films tend towards epic scale, which often only serves to point up how little imagination there is in the writing and direction. Aldrich's film is different - the emotions are certainly epic, but it's otherwise a very claustrophobic film which is shot close in for maximum intensity. This was a matter of necessity - Aldrich had 35 days to make the film on the old RKO backlot - but it leads to a movie which is very unusual. The agonising brutality of the battle scenes is certainly memorable but what are shocking and disturbing are the scenes between the officers. If Spielberg could have followed up the first half hour of Saving Private Ryan with something as compelling and as insightful of human behaviour as this, then that film might actually have been worth the endless superlatives hurled at it. Aldrich understands that violence is spiritual as well as physical and in the face of Costa, played superbly by Jack Palance, he has his perfect embodiment of this idea. Palance is so good here that it's sad to think he ended up playing cutesy supporting roles in comedy westerns. He makes Costa a bundle of nerve-ends, all of them erect to the electricity of the moment, and then gradually deconstructs him into a mass of conflicting emotions which finally result in him bursting into Cooney's quarters like some demented avenging angel as they are boiled down into pure hatred of his superior's incompetence. Palance's Costa is scarred and sad, as obviously doomed as any tragic hero, but he's not self-pitying. A pivotal scene in which he prays to the virgin, runs out against heavy fire and tries to save one of his men who has been mortally wounded is as powerful an expression of the obscenity of war as I have ever seen. His face, all horrified desperation mixed with self-righteous rage as he holds the corpse, is unforgettable and the image which I always have of him, strong enough to counteract all that hamming he did once he stopped getting the roles that might have stretched him. Aldrich caught a tender, wounded side to Palance which few other directors recognised - you can also see this in full flower in the director's deliciously full-blooded Hollywood melodrama The Big Knife.
The rest of the (all male) cast are also excellent. Eddie Albert, an actor who became all too keen on using the same old tricks to hide his lack of ideas and who used shouting as a replacement for acting, is actually very effective here. It's not a subtle performance, but that fits the character of Cooney who isn't a subtle man - if he were, then the platoon might not hate him so much. Every emotion is worn on his sleeve and he flaunts his basic cowardice as a badge of honour as if to say "I may be a coward, but at least I'm still here". When he becomes a blubbering wreck, it's not a pretty sight but it does make sense and grows out of the character, as does the revelation of a sadistic streak to his character during the climax. The scenes between him and Palance are riveting, partly because of a clash of acting styles and partly because the two men simply ooze with hostility to each other. As Bartlett, Lee Marvin is sheer delight, using that beautifully sardonic reserve with glee as he mouths horribly cyncial platitudes which contain enough truth to pass as the voice of experience while actually being the essence of selfish ambition. In smaller roles, Richard Jaeckel and Buddy Ebsen are totally convincing - although Ebsen is stuck with some comic relief which is about as funny as a sinus wash - and William Smithers is believably bewildered in the somewhat bland but pivotal role of Woodruff.
Joe Biroc's cinematography is typically excellent, as is all his work for Aldrich. The way he captures the bleak exteriors is evocative and haunting and the very low lighting of the interior scenes is expertly done. James Poe's screenplay from a play, "Fragile Fox" by Norman Brooks, is pungent and often funny with the best lines given to Lee Marvin, who knows exactly how to make the best of them. But the film belongs to Robert Aldrich. His films have often been dismissed as hysterical but I think that's totally missing the point. Aldrich deals with characters on the brink, people who are out of control in one way or another and his essential honesty as a director means that he sometimes pushes them into situations where they go over the edge. Occasionally this results in prime ham - Bette Davis in Baby Jane for example - but it can also result, as here, in something genuinely truthful about people in battle. Refused co-operation by the US military, who didn't like the portrayal of their officers in the film, he was forced to bring it in on a small budget in just over a month. This was to prove an important lesson to Aldrich but one that he didn't learn, since he constantly found himself in conflict with whatever establishment didn't like the subjects he chose to film. He found corruption and incompetence in the ranks of the studios just like that depicted in the film - on a smaller scale - and he suffered for it, twice losing his own production company in the process. But he battled on and found success in appearing to play by the rules while actually tearing them asunder - has there ever been a more blackly cynical popular blockbuster than The Dirty Dozen ? His attack on complacency, incompetence and corruption in Attack is just as strong as that in Kubrick's Paths of Glory and, I would suggest, more barbed and less sentimental. Attack is a vivid character-driven drama which deserves to be ranked among the best war films and is certainly one of the most unusual.
We're still waiting for a DVD which actually gets into Robert Aldrich's work in the depth it deserves so the films that have been released tend to be either bare bones or accompanied by little more than a trailer. The recent release of Attack from MGM is a case in point. It's not bad but the film deserves so much more.
We are offered a full screen monochrome transfer of the film. This appears to be the correct open matte ratio for the movie since there is no obvious panning and scanning and the framing looks fine. The image is clean and reasonably crisp with sharp shadow detail and a good level of contrast. There a few artifacts but this isn't a problem. The only real drawback is the occasional print damage which results in white speckling and scratches in places.
The soundtrack provided is monophonic, reflecting the original recording of the film. This won't please people who can't cope with a war film unless it's setting their surround channels ablaze but it's a clean track which is more than adequate.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. This is very much of its time and hysterically over the top - "THIS IS THE RAW, NAKED FACE OF BATTLE". There are 16 chapter stops and a wide selection of subtitles.
Attack is, simply, a great movie by a great director that demands a much wider audience. Ahead of its time, it has a mature intelligence that is light years away from the usual blood and thunder being made in the war genre during the 1950s. It's influence can be seen in the fact that what must have seemed very unorthodox in 1956 is now the norm in any war movie. This DVD isn't anything to write home about but it does present the film quite well and is thus cautiously recommended.