Mar 062014

AttackRating: ★★★½☆

United Artists, 1956, 107 minutes
Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, William Smithers, Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, and Buddy Ebsen
Screenplay: James Poe
Based on Fragile Fox by Norman Brooks
Producer: Robert Aldrich
Director: Robert Aldrich

Historical Background

With the Allies pressing against the borders of Germany and the Soviet juggernaut moving east, Hitler gambled on an offensive that would create total victory. The plan was simple, wait until weather grounded the Allied air force, and then move twelve panzer and eighteen infantry divisions through the Ardennes to cross the Meuse River. The goal was the destruction of the British and Canadian armies, which Hitler believed would convince the United States to wash its hands of Europe and concentrate on the war against Japan in the Pacific. Attempts to persuade Hitler to adopt a more feasible objective failed since Hitler’s trust in his generals had evaporated following the failed Valkyrie plot. Preoccupied with their own offensives, the Allies thought that the Germans were incapable of a major offensive.

Despite total surprise on December 16, the Germans were already behind schedule by nightfall, creating a massive traffic jam behind German lines. More important, the Americans responded much faster than Hitler had expected, and moved troops to block the Germans at the Elsenborn Ridge and the rail junctions of St. Vith and Bastogne. On December 19, the Germans had their greatest victory of the offensive when two American regiments were forced to surrender. However, the American strength in the Ardennes had grown from 90,000 to 180,000 men, and the rest of the offensive was going badly. The Germans continued to advance, surrounding Bastogne, but when the weather improved on December 23, it ended the last remaining shred of German hope for victory. Bastogne finally received supplies, while Allied planes targeted the German columns. The siege ended when Patton’s tanks reached Bastogne on December 26, and all of the Allied lines in the Ardennes still held. Unwilling to face reality, Hitler refused to end the offensive until January 7, and fighting continued until January 25. The offensive was a crushing defeat since the Germans ended up at the Siegfried Line, the fallback position advocated by Hitler’s generals before the offensive, minus all of the troops and tanks lost during the Ardennes Offensive.

Plot Summary

As the Allies drive the Germans back to Germany in late 1944, morale is low in Fragile Fox Company because an entire squad was slaughtered when Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), the company commander, was too scared to lead the rest of the company to support them. Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance) loathes Cooney because the squad was part of his platoon. Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers), the company’s executive officer, hopes to convince Lt. Colonel Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin), the battalion commander, to transfer Cooney, but Bartlett’s political ambitions depend on Cooney’s father, a judge who controls the local political machine. Well-aware of Cooney’s weaknesses, Bartlett refuses to push Cooney upstairs, although he promises that there will be no more combat. When the Germans launch an unexpected offensive, the company is assigned to occupy a nearby town, but Cooney decides to send only Costa’s platoon to check it out. Once again, Cooney fails to provide the promised reinforcements, leaving Costa’s men dangerously exposed, and the death of each soldier sends Costa further over the edge. After Cooney has a nervous breakdown, Woodruff has to deal with a maniacal Costa, intent on murdering Cooney.

Historical Accuracy

Although set during the Battle of the Bulge, viewers will learn little about the German offensive. When the company is resting in the town, the soldiers wonder if the war is almost over. Hoping to reassure Woodruff, Bartlett promises that the company will not see combat again. This attitude reflects American over-confidence before the Battle of the Bulge. To be fair, the Ardennes region was considered safe, and the Allied generals thought that the Germans would remain on the defensive. Confusion reigned during the first day of the offensive as each unit struggled to survive an unexpected attack, so the movie captures the perspective of the average company, where soldiers hoping to rest, suddenly found themselves fighting off Germans, all too aware that there was no one behind them to help.


A surprising success at the box office, Attack was the first movie made after WWII to show cowardice and corruption within the American military leadership. The success repaid director Robert Aldrich’s belief in the project. Having financed most of the film’s budget himself, he received a percentage of the profits instead of a salary. Aldrich had a lifelong hatred of traditional authority, and the enemies in the film are the American authority figures who repeatedly fail the men. Like all of Aldrich’s films in the 1950’s, the protagonist struggles to survive in a system with his self-respect.

Given the film’s subject, the U. S. army refused to cooperate, so Aldrich was denied access to troops and tanks, and could not even use Signal Corps footage. All of the equipment, including two tanks, was rented, and the movie was shot on a back lot of RKO Studios. The army’s refusal to cooperate is not surprising. The movie pulls no punches, and the survivors of Costa’s platoon radiate contempt for Cooney, but it is left for the viewer to decide who is the real villain, Cooney or Bartlett.

The film was made early in Lee Marvin’s career when he was limited to soldiers and thugs, so Aldrich had initially wanted Marvin to play Sgt. Tolliver, Ebsen’s character. Having seen an officer like Col. Bartlett when he was a Marine in WWII, Marvin was eager to play that role, and he created an astonishingly repulsive character, who relentlessly tempts Woodruff with compromise after compromise. However, the standout performance was given by Eddie Albert. During the final confrontation with Woodruff, Cooney cracks, revealing that his father had beaten him to make him a man, and he curls up on the cot crying. Actually, the cowardly bully Cooney was quite a change for Albert, who had had a successful career as a song-and-dance man. Aldrich focused on the four leads, leaving less time for the supporting actors, who are all solid character actors. Buddy Ebsen could play the role of Tolliver in his sleep. All war movies need a griping soldier, and Robert Strauss does some excellent griping.

There is a noticeable contrast in the anxiety that paralyzes Albert in the field and his confidence in the office where he smoothly handles the logistics for his company. Placing Costa in a blacksmith’s shop, where he praises the ancient profession, shows that he is a craftsman who rejects the idea of compromise that govern both Cooney and Bartlett.

Despite the excellent performances, the end is too stagey. Costa’s final death scene is painfully melodramatic with a lengthy speech from Costa begging for the strength to lift his arm high enough to shoot Cooney, instead of simply showing a man struggling to raise his arm.

While Jack Palance’s vengeance-driven Lt. Costa is suitably intimidating, the standouts are Lee Marvin as a manipulative, corrupt battalion commander and Eddie Albert as the cowardly, bullying company commander.

  • the war movie buff

    Well done. This may have been a success at the box office, but it has become obscure over the years. That is a pity because it is a gem of a movie. As you mention, the Army was totally against it being made and that is no surprise considering how different it was from the typical WWII movie. I have been reading a fascinating book about military cooperation with movie makers and the military up until recently was very protective of its image. Most filmmakers would make changes in the script to get those tanks, etc. This movie was the rare case where the military did not even bother to suggest changes because the necessary changes would have meant a totally different movie. This did effect the authenticity of the movie as the “tanks” Aldrich was forced to use are pretty laughable. Palance was not laughing when one of them ran over his arm in the most memorable scene in the movie.
    The film has the definite feel of a play (which it was based on), but it has some interesting cinematography to dilute that feel a bit. The dialogue is also play-like, but that means its stronger than most WWII movies.
    What a cast and you didn’t even mention Richard Jaekel (I guess that goes without saying since he was in every WWII movie ever made). I agree that Marvin is the stand-out, but Albert is also quite good. Kudos to both considering they both were the real-life opposites of their characters. Both were WWII veterans. Marvin developed his character based on a despised former commander in the Pacific.
    You might recall that “Attack!” defeated the overrated “Battleground” in my March Madness tournament last year.

    • historyonfilm

      It is definitely an underrated gem. It is also too stagey, which as you point out, reflects its origin as a play.
      I think the fact that both Albert and Marvin were WWII veterans gave their performances strength, since they were not just mocking the army, but reflecting what they had observed. Glad you enjoyed the review. Aldrich in general deserves more recognition, he was a talented filmmaker who did not understand the meaning of compromise.