Attack, also known as Attack!, is a 1956 American war film. It was directed by Robert Aldrich and starred Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin, William Smithers, Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, Buddy Ebsen and Peter van Eyck. The cinematographer was Joseph Biroc.
“A cynical and grim account of war”, the film is set in the latter stages of World War II and tells of a front line combat unit led by a cowardly captain clearly out of his depth and a tougher subordinate who threatens 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 based in a Belgian town near the front line. They are led by Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), a man who appears to be better at handling red tape than military strategy. Cooney is a natural coward 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 re-assigned 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 Erskine’s war records. Neither Captain Erskine 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.”
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Attack (1956) Opening Titles
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 a handful of men 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 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!”
Lee Marvin as the manipulative Colonel In the confusion that follows the retreat, Costa becomes MIA. The rest of the men manage to get back to the main town, though another of them is killed, 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 Sergeant Tolliver (Buddy Ebsen) 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 appears and tells Woodruff and Cooney that they must hold their present position in spite of the German advance. 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, Cooney breaks down, telling Woodruff about having been beaten by his father in order to “make a man” out of him. 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 that the town is being overrun by Germans. Costa grabs a Bazooka and bravely disables a tank, only to have his arm crushed by its treads.
A handful of men, including Woodruff and Sergeant Tolliver, take refuge in a basement. Private Bernstein is injured 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 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 take turns shooting the dead Cooney themselves. 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 poker player 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.