Bright Lights Film Journal

Attack (1956)


When Jack Palance’s Lieutenant Joe Costa suddenly returns from what seemed a certain death in Robert Aldrich’s Attack (1956) – his left arm hanging lifeless, rendered to ground beef by the tread of a German tank – he becomes, through a fateful marriage of Joseph Biroc’s noirish lighting scheme and Palance’s one-of-a-kind cheekbones, a gargoyle; an insane, barely ambulatory throwback to the resurrected war dead of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse, only here wielding a much more narrow indictment. He has sworn to almighty God to use what minutes of life are left within him to once and for all rid the world of Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), the equally insane Commander of Fox Company whose repeated, last-minute withdrawals of tactical and artillery support have resulted in nearly two dozen needless combat deaths.

It’s not that Cooney does this out of total incompetence. Screenwriter James Poe (adapting Norman Brooks’ stage play Fragile Fox) portrays Capt. Cooney as a more than adequate strategist, good at both forging a plan of action on short notice and maintaining the bearing of a Commander in the United States Infantry . . . at least when he’s not under any stress. When it comes time for him to saddle up the reserve and join those forces he’s already committed to the fray, forget it. He instantly falls to pieces, starts guzzling Bourbon, goes catatonic or murmurs with growing insistence about pulling back, surrendering.

Cooney doesn’t really belong anywhere near a Commissioned rank in this man’s Army, and not just because of his open displays of physical cowardice. More than anyone in the film, he’s got ‘Civilian’ written all over him. Vain, self pitying, overly sensitive to the slightest criticism (however justified), he also has all the flabby gregariousness of a small-town businessman whose most fearsome tests of mettle prior to this have been with his local Chamber of Commerce (indeed, Cooney at one point laments the un-businesslike inefficiency of the Army). “Who wants this?”, he weeps near the end, while the mortar shells fall and his sanity is about to expire for good. “I didn’t ask for this.” Which is absolutely true. His Captaincy was, for all intent, presented to him gift-wrapped by Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin) as a favor to Cooney’s father, a local Judge and ruler of a political fiefdom back in Kentucky that holds the key to Bartlett’s ambitions once the small matter of the War is behind them all. Bartlett is none too thrilled with having to carry this big baby through the charade of making him look like an officer, but it has to be done. If he’d only stop committing entire platoons to combat right before every ounce of nerve flees from his being, thereby insuring the deaths of far too many, then they could go on about their hideously corrupt scheme and no one would be any the wiser.

Elaborating somewhat on Samuel Fuller’s pulp war picture template (itself a jaundiced twist on the terse lyricism of films such as William Wellman’s Battleground), Robert Aldrich skillfully injects a measure of ambiguity in Attack – a film that might have been, in other hands, a live-action EC War Comic on the order of Two-Fisted Tales – without ever threatening to derail the story’s immediate, visceral impact. When you think about it, this was not a small achievement. Pulp melodramas, after all, do not bear subtleties and refinement with much ease. That’s just their nature. And like all such narratives, the conflict between Capt. Cooney and Lt. Costa, which is the core of Attack, is as fertile a field for action-packed histrionics as a filmmaker was likely to find. Yet somehow, in opting for a strategy of what we might call Serial Nuance, portraying his chief antagonists as both seriously flawed human beings as well as victims of rough equivalence, Aldrich manages to enhance, rather than mute, his film’s polemical thrust.

For despite the monstrous nature of his deeds, Capt. Cooney is not a monster. Aldrich and Poe make this clear. Cooney is a man whose personal agenda – he’s gone along with this squalid setup mainly to come out at the other end with a fraudulent medal; one he hopes will redeem him in the eyes of his old man – has forced him to make deadly common cause with Bartlett’s more mendacious ambition. And it’s getting a lot of U.S. Infantrymen killed as a result. His awareness of his own guilt in this regard is enormous (there are times when he can barely look anyone, even his subordinates, in the eye for more than two seconds), and it only gives nourishment to the demons that brought him to this hellish state in the first place. “I’ll bet Cooney never figured on a war when he joined that National Guard unit”, Costa reflects with great bitterness early on. “He probably thought it was going to be all Cornpone and Chitlins and . . . “, he pauses for a second; as if, in regarding the irony, he suddenly perceives a tragic dimension to the man he hates which he neither anticipated nor wants. ” . . . and a chance to wear his uniform at the Saturday Fox hunt.”

But if Cooney’s guilt is rapidly consuming him, Costa’s hatred of Cooney is just as rapidly turning him into something of a maniac. After a classic Aldrich prologue depicting the mortal consequences of Cooney’s garish inaction, Costa enters a perpetually simmering state of rage and stays there. He knows why Cooney is where he is in the Command structure (Bartlett’s post-war ambitions are an open secret among the officers), and he knows that no amount of wanton bloodshed born of bad leadership will remove him. When the tired, depleted Fox Company is once again called to action, Costa sees that the only thing to do, short of killing Cooney outright, is put the fear of God into him. He threatens his Commander’s life before witnesses; swearing that if he “plays the gutless wonder” once more, he’ll shove a grenade down his throat and pull the pin. When Cooney not only turns chicken again but descends into abject, gibbering psychosis (and from there into flat-out sadism), Costa goes off another, perhaps deeper end: performing acts of extreme, almost lunatic physical bravery for the sole purpose of getting back so he can put a round between the Captain’s eyes.

In their 1995 study, Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, James Ursini and Alain Silver ungrammatically detect a common element in this state of affairs (“Costa’s rage is as inappropriate to a field officer as is Cooney’s terror”) and . . . run like hell from it. To me, however, it’s a point that should not rest without comment. The notion that Cooney’s extreme cowardice and Costa’s relative absence of same are both manifestations of the same madness was no doubt a difficult one for viewers to accept at first blush. Then and now, people are more naturally inclined to see the latter as admirable and the former as beneath contempt. Additionally, the film’s clear suggestion that this lunacy is endemic to militarism on a basic institutional level was so new to American cinema, it seemed almost nihilistic (which is no doubt why the Defense Department flatly refused to cooperate with the production on any level).

Attack has long been considered one of the few genuine anti-war statements to emerge from Hollywood which, if true, is a remarkable status given the film’s setting: the European theater of combat in the closing months of World War II. It was, as we know, the largest military engagement in our history, supported by all Americans save for Quakers, Pacifists, The Nation of Islam and native Fascists whose sy
mpathies had always been with the Third Reich. If there was ever (to use Studs Terkel’s phrase) a ‘Good War’, a war waged at least in part against an enemy force that richly deserved its total annihilation, this was it.

Like all media during our involvement in that conflict, the American film industry unhesitatingly gave itself over to the production of Propaganda works at the behest of the War Department and the Office of War Information; mainly, but not always, for the purposes of boosting morale both on the front-line and here at home. It was all about creating a righteous image of unlimited American determination and sacrifice; a cult of mutual cooperation that would see us through to a victory which would justly be ours. Movies of that time (and by no means was this limited to war pictures) reflected a monolithic, wholly nationalized sense of esprit de corps where such phenomena as internecine conflict in the ranks or even vaguely pacifist sentiment could never be alluded to. This wasn’t a method of insuring that everyone was on the same page. It was a compulsive denial that any other page existed.

Prior to WWII, there had been a fair amount of antiwar sentiment in American cinema, largely in embarrassed remembrance of the bloodthirsty xenophobic material in Propaganda films of the Great War – a model best typified by Erich von Stroheim’s hurling an infant out a window in the midst of a rape scene in Allen Holubar’s The Heart of Humanity. Drawing its aura of grief, in the main, from such works as Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth (“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/Only the monstruous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle/Can patter out their hasty orisons”), the inherently pacifist character of Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Stuart Walker’s The Eagle and the Hawk or Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby may have been the polar opposite of cinematic rallying cries of the Second World War, but their spirit of protest was mournful rather than enraged. These films were elegies, they were not bills of indictment.

There’s absolutely nothing elegiac about Attack. Setting its central conflict deep within the American Army’s officer class during the least controversial military engagement in its history, exploring the underlying insanity at the heart of all warfare, seeing it as an institution virtually designed to exploit the absolute worst in everyone it touches, Robert Aldrich emerged with nothing less than the most radical war picture of the 1950s.