skip navigation
WWII in the Movies: Allied Powers
Remind Me


The camera becomes an omnipresent character in Attack! (1956). It hides in the darkest places, watching the ever changing dynamics between men at war, and continually raises the question, whose war is this anyway, and who are the real enemies? Is it a clear-cut case of the Germans versus the Americans at the Battle of the Bulge or is it really about decent men pitted against dishonest and corrupt individuals within their own ranks? In Attack!, directed by Robert Aldrich, the real enemy is probably Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), the favored son of a powerful father but, in reality, a coward who jeopardizes the lives of his men. He's protected by Colonel Bartlett (Lee Marvin) who covers up Cooney's mistakes because he clearly expects favors from Cooney's father after the war is over. Events take a dark turn when Bartlett aligns himself with the incompetent Captain against Lieutenant Costa (Jack Palance), a man of integrity and decency who has challenged Cooney's authority, warning him never again to put his men in harm's way needlessly. It is Costa's defiance of Cooney that forms the moral center of Attack!, a grimly effective depiction of men in desperate circumstances. Aldrich would later cover similar thematic ground in such films as The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974).

According to The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller, Attack! was a very personal film for the director. Aldrich said, "My main anti-war argument was not the usual 'war is hell,' but the terribly corrupting influence that war can have on the most normal, average human beings, and the terrible things it makes them capable of that they wouldn't be capable of otherwise." It was meant, he said, to be a "sincere plea for peace."

Aldrich liked to use many of the same actors in his movies, a bonded repertory of sorts, which included Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, Richard Jaeckel and Eddie Albert. The latter four actors are particularly memorable in Attack!, giving their scenes an intensity which is rarely encountered in low-budget productions of this scale. In The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, Richard Jaeckel remembers, "There were scenes of incredible tension - Palance coming down the stairs to get Albert - we were all impressed, even in rehearsals. It was a heavy project." Indeed, it was a war movie that went against the grain, a movie without traditional heroes, without the shiny gloss of the war movies of the time. Instead, it returned to the philosophical questioning of The Big Parade (1925) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) but also looked forward to such powerful anti-war films as Coming Home (1978).

Aldrich was a rebellious artist who came out of the old studio system, having worked with such legendary directors as Lewis Milestone, Joseph Losey and Abraham Polonsky. He was a fast learner and quickly established his own unique directorial style which resulted in a variety of innovative, rule breaking films such as The Big Knife (1955) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Eventually he came to own his own studio at the peak of his financial success but a few unfortunate career decisions in a row forced him to sell it a few years later as independent filmmakers faced tougher competition from the majors. He finally became disillusioned with much of the movie industry after he was deposed as president of the Director's Guild of America. Despite his successful lobby for more creative rights during his 1975-1979 term, he often felt that he had been secretly blacklisted for that same work. Aldrich officially retired in 1981 and died two years later from kidney failure. Despite the uneven quality of his work during his final years, Aldrich is still respected and revered by filmmakers today for the B-movie gems he made in the fifties and Attack! is one of the best.

In The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, co-authors Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller observed that the most dreadful loss of all for an Aldrich character is his self-respect. To retain that self-respect the character(s) have to, "Uphold the values of courage, decency, integrity and self-sacrifice - those values which give meaning to men's lives and bind them to the community; These values, of course, are evident in Aldrich's films and in his career and were among the reasons that he was first recognized outside the US as a true artist and not just an action director. He is revered by the French and considered an auteur in the same league with Nicholas Ray and Richard Brooks. In fact, Cahiers du Cinema, who referred to Aldrich as "le gros Robert," found "more love of the cinema" in his work than any other American director of the fifties. But there is something else going on in Aldrich's films besides the pure pleasure of making movies, and that is the continuing struggle between the individual and the system that surrounds him, something the director fought against his whole life. As Arnold and Miller put it, "Aldrich's films, although packaged as entertainments, were nonetheless moral studies of individual integrity - a conflict with the collective power of authority. If you stand against the system, you will be crushed. If you compromise with the system, you will pay with your self-respect. If you step outside the system, you forfeit your self-determination by default. Thus the conundrum posed by Robert Aldrich."

Producer/Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: James Poe, based on a play by Norman Brooks
Cinematography: Joseph Biroc
Art Direction: William Glasgow
Film Editing: Michael Luciano
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Special Effects: Dave Koehler
Principal Cast: Jack Palance (Lieutenant Joe Costa), Eddie Albert (Capt Erskine Cooney), Lee Marvin (Col. Bartlett), Robert Strauss (Private Bernstein), Richard Jaeckel (Private Snowden), Buddy Ebsen (Sergeant Tolliver), Jon Shepodd (Corporal Jackson), Peter van Eyck (German Officer), Strother Martin (Sergeant Ingersol).
BW-108m. Closed captioning.

by Joseph D'Onofrio



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Glenn Ford - Mondays in July
31 Movies

Our Star of the Month for July was always good company onscreen. An actor with naturalism who never pushed too hard, Ford mastered...more

TCM Shopping
  • Air Force
  • The Flying Fortress Mary-Ann and it's crew... more info
  • $16.46
  • Regularly $21.99
  • Add to cart