Stream On: ‘Attack!’: Not everyone is a hero

By on February 15, 2024

A recent question on the Facebook Turner Classic Movies account asked about favorite war movies. They’re sticklers for what they consider “classic” movies, so I didn’t mention The Deer Hunter, but a movie I first saw as a child—1956’s Attack! When I rewatched it recently I was very impressed.


/Amazon /Streaming /🍅100%🍿78% /Trailer /1956 /TP

—In 1944 Europe, Fox company (call sign “Fragile Fox”) is a US Army National Guard infantry unit based in a Belgian town near the front line. They are led by Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert, Green Acres, in real life a decorated war hero), who appears to be better at handling red tape than combat. When Lieutenant Joe Costa (Jack Palance) sends a squad to take a German emplacement, a “pillbox,” Cooney agrees to provide covering fire but freezes at the critical moment leading to the slaughter of Costa’s squad, and the death of another company officer who had attempted to rescue the squad.

The Defense Department refused to grant production assistance to Robert Aldrich’s film, which cast some officers as cowards and Machiavellian manipulators, but others as heroes. Aldrich said, “The Army saw the script and promptly laid down a policy of no cooperation, which not only meant that I couldn’t borrow troops and tanks for my picture—I couldn’t even get a look at Signal Corps combat footage. I finally had to buy a tank for $1,000 and rent another from 20th Century-Fox.”

These constraints didn’t hurt the verisimilitude of the movie; the few battle scenes looked as if they were shot in the field by an army combat film unit. The meat of the action takes place indoors, as the film is based on a play, Norman Brooks’ Fragile Fox, which toured Cincinnati and Philadelphia and then closed after six weeks in New York.

In the opening pillbox scene, Captain Cooney is sitting in a jeep communicating by hand signals with Lieutenant Costa, who sends his men out. All we can see of Cooney is his lap; he puts his walkie-talkie down and wrings his hands rather than ordering the cover he has agreed to.

Afterwards, at field headquarters, it’s a while before we see Cooney’s face. Proactively deflecting blame, he asks, “Where’s Costa? He’s been getting a little out of line lately.”

Lee Marvin, as Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett, enters. We shortly see that he’s intent on leveraging Cooney’s family ties for political gain when the war ends. (Cooney owes his own position to Bartlett, who has known the Cooney family since he was a 14-year-old clerk in the office of Cooney’s father, a powerful judge.)

After the pillbox debacle Costa wants to “get rid” of Cooney; his friend Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers), the executive officer, insists that they should talk to Bartlett and get Cooney “kicked upstairs” to a desk.

Tensions come to a boil during an officers’ card game and Costa leaves, followed by Cooney. Woodruff civilly brings up Cooney’s apparent cowardice to Bartlett, who agrees that Cooney is incompetent, but he believes that the company probably won’t see combat again. “I got it straight from the top”—and as Cooney’s father’s influence could be useful to Bartlett after the war, he doesn’t want to alienate him. “Ride it out. A year from now he’ll be a civilian again.”

Of course, they’re not “out of the shooting” and a “little job” comes up for Costa’s platoon. Cooney chokes again, and the third act is beyond dramatic, but not how we expect. 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Sources include Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED); Long Pauses Blog; Saturday Review.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.

Comments are closed.