Robert Aldrich's Attack Explores the Failure of Command
by Grant Tracey

Prior to W.W.II, America's attitude toward war was in keeping with the vision of British poet Wilfred Owen: men drudging, trudging through mud, coughing amidst mustard gas, and charging "dulce et decorum est" a cultural lie. And too, Hollywood's great post-W.W.I films: The Big Parade (1925), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and The Road to Glory (1936) were full of pacifist polemics; however, according to Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien (author of Going After Cacciato), perspectives changed after W.W.II.

Tension reaches a peak while Lee Marvin, Eddie Albert, Jack Palance, and William Smithers play poker in Robert Aldrich's Attack (1956).

Horrors of war became tainted with visions of John Wayne heroism. Film after film, through the direct influence of the Office of War Information, presented noble men fighting for glory. Robert Aldrich's Attack (1956), recently released on MGM/UA video, provides an interesting counterpoint to the post-W.W.II celebration. His film is a sobering look at war and leadership.

Aldrich's Attack has no traditional heroes. There are no men-of-action sent to blow up a bridge or take a valuable hill or pillbox. His narrative with its dark greys and crisp blacks, portrays a group of grunts trying to survive in Europe, 1944. Their problem: commanding officer Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert) is a coward and can't be trusted. Visually, Aldrich sets up Cooney's fractured state of mind. When first introduced, Cooney is filmed from behind, sitting in a jeep. His face is invisible as his hand flexes at his side and he refuses to act to save several of Lt. Costa's men. By making the visible invisible, Aldrich presents Cooney as being unwhole, unmanly.

Jack Palance as Joe Costa, in sweat-stained t-shirts, grime, and self-confident indifference, is all manliness. The entire patrol respects the lieutenant, and some of the film's best scenes occur when the angular muscle of Palance crosses with the bourbon flab of Albert. As they play a "friendly" game of poker, Costa's offscreen stares, grunts and mumblings about Albert's masculinity create an intense unease. Later, following a patrol briefing for taking a small, German farmhouse, Palance makes the unease fully known. He walks toward Albert and says he'll take the house, but if Albert "once more plays the gutless wonder" and refuses to back him up, then he'll return and kill him. This is a confrontation hardly explored in war films.

Costa's buddy, Lt. Woodruff (William Smithers) attempts to deal with this leadership problem by telling the Lt. Colonel (Lee Marvin) that Cooney is unfit for command. But the army hierarchy is even more corrupt than the shortcomings of the captain. Marvin, an old buddy of Cooney's rich Southern father, wants a cushy stateside job after the war and the way to get it is to make Cooney a war hero. Besides, he tells Woodruff not to worry; they won't see any more action. However, moments later they're told to move out and Woodruff brutally realizes that he's trapped with a bad captain and within the darker web of the armed forces.

Whereas Woodruff may be frustrated, Costa boils. He takes the house and awaits Cooney's back-up. But Cooney, immobile at headquarters, paces, drinks too much bourbon and says he can't take chances. Eventually Cooney cracks, embraces his slippers, tells Woodruff how his Dad tried to whip manhood into him, and collapses into a bed. Costa, in the meantime, held up in a house surrounded by Germans and Panzers takes out his rage on a captured German captain. When the officer smugly refuses to cooperate, Costa grabs him by the collar and throws him out the front door where he's machine-gunned by his own men. The gesture mirrors what Costa would like to do to Cooney. It's brutal, intense and not quite how we expect to see our fighting forces on film.

After several soldiers die and Cooney refuses to provide support, Costa and his men must retreat or die. And with revenge becoming an all-consuming passion, Costa goes looking for Cooney. However, we soon find out Cooney isnít just a coward, but a sadistic bastard who takes glee in torturing a wounded man in the presence of other soldiers.

Aldrich, like many of the great directors: John Ford, Sam Fuller, Howard Hawks and Robert Altman, loves to play with the rules of the genre, balancing repetition with innovation. Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) shattered the romanticism of the detective myth, making Mike Hammer into a brutal thug and presenting a misanthropic, dizzying world heading for disaster. It's the only detective film of its time to weave into the center of its plot a science-fiction emphasis: "Manhattan Project, Trinity, Los Alamos." The Big Knife (1955), also with Palance, showed the ugliness of the star system and how studio chiefs and their associates can murder insignificant players and blackmail bigger ones in order to maintain a profit margin and own a star. Attack has the manly look of a war film: sturdy fight scenes, wonderfully high-angled long shots of alienation, and plenty of existential angst. True to the war film's code it upholds a notion of an essential masculinity and punishes a coward by converting him into a sadistic monster. But in pursuit of its central theme--poor command and corrupt decision-making--Attack's mortar shells really hit their mark.

Attack is available from MGM/UA Home Video for $14.95.