Blog-a-thon Entry #3:
Some Remarks on Robert Aldrich's Attack (1956)

I don't know if there's any way I can state the following without sounding a craven, rationalizing fool, so I'll just have to risk it. What a few of you are about to read is something I wrote very quickly, within the last 24 hours; and under normal circumstances I would not regard this a piece finished to my satisfaction. But I did want to participate in the Aldrich Blog-a-thon today, so I'm posting it with this caveat. It is at best a draft of something I may re-visit in the future, no more than that.

Since we have that out of the way, here 'tis:

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 sympathies 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.


Peter L. Winkler said...

Good analysis. I just recommended this film over at 2Blowhards when they were soliciting comments on the best war movies.

Aldrich's early movies like Attack and The Big Knife are extremely caustic and as you point out, radical critiques, one of military heroism, the other of Hollywood.
Too bad Aldrich later settled into making tired, cynical action films for middle-aged men, like The Dirty Dozen.

Tom Sutpen said...

Thanks! Though I'd disagree about Aldrich's later works. I think they still had that radical strain running through them, though his essential pulp sensibility became more labyrinthine and downright bizarre with time. The Dirty Dozen to me is a prime example of this. It's Aldrich's most twisted vision of human endeavour: If we all band together and overcome our differences . . . we can wipe out as many of THEM as possible.

Vanwall said...

I think the salient point of "Attack" is that Aldrich dared to use cowardice as the focal point of failed ambition, militarily and otherwise, something only hinted at in previous Studio efforts, such as Van Johnson's Pfc Holley having a weak moment in the excellent "Battleground", but hardly so forcefully as in "Attack" - the Iron Triangle viewed such efforts as unacceptable, and usually withheld any cooperation until such "offences" were excised from the screenplay. The fact that Cooney is punished for his cowardice eventually was no doubt a selling point to Hollywood, but such retribution is portrayed at no small cost to the lower ranks, and while I'm sure the implication wasn't meant that the average Joe was just cannon-fodder, the mere fact that that even in death rank has its privileges (burial with the lower orders sent on ahead to wait on him in the afterworld) conveys the impression a rather depressing fate awaits the grunts in the line companies, regardless. This one broke the taboo of intelligent treatment of gutless G.I.s even being possible in the Hollywood universe - "Pork Chop Hill" and others that later used it a plot device owe a lot to this one, but it pulled some of the punches just a little.

Just a year later, Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" would show not just the lowest levels of cowardice and the highest levels of evil ambition, with the blameless shot for trumped-up cowardice, but the true coward rewarded with life, the casually indifferent commanding General is unfazed and unscathed, the earnest junior officer is pushed aside, and only the overly vain mid-level Mireau, who failed to secure his own ass with paperwork, is even lightly punished. Such upside-downness may have been a harder sell without "Attack" preceding it, at least in the public's eyes, I'm sure, but it was bleak, bleak, bleak all the way down the line. I will say one thing - Eddie Albert had the military looney down cold, as evinced by his amazingly crazy Col. Bliss in "Captain Newman, M.D." - what a remarkable actor.


Anonymous said...

The Dirty Dozen to me is a prime example of this. It's Aldrich's most twisted vision of human endeavour: If we all band together and overcome our differences . . . we can wipe out as many of THEM as possible.

Oh, I agree, I agree! Attack! is very high up on my Netflix queue and now I really can't wait to see it. This is a pretty enticing appetizer to the film!

C. Jerry Kutner said...
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C. Jerry Kutner said...

Aldrich had two sides - the utterly nihilistic side expressed most fully in Kiss Me, Deadly, and the side that believed in collective action, labor unions, and so on. (He was, after all, President of the Directors Guild for a time.) It's particularly weird when you see both sides expressed in the same film as in The Dirty Dozen and The Choirboys.

Tempest said...

I saw this movie the first time (high school age) in 1968 on some Dialing-for Dollars afternoon movie local program.

I was totally TOTALLY blown away by this movie. The raw anger in it.
Still blown away by it. And oh how it resonates today.

It doesn't have the production values of Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line in fact the production values are slim-the US Army wouldn't help and it was made on a shoe-string.

This movie has a harder edge than "Paths of Glory" if that is possible.
The story-the way the actors invest themselves.....

This movie I put in the Top 10.
Geeez this is one ANGRY movie.
Just down right hostile.
FWIW Lee Marvin was wounded at Saipan, Eddie Albert was psychologically screwed up by his Tarawa experience, Jack Palance needed plastic surgery on his face after surviving a training flight in a a B-24 and Buddy Ebsen served in the North Atlanic. So they are all veterans. So maybe thaye brought some of their 'Good War' experience to this movie.

See this movie and then marvel how it could have been made in the 1950's.

Robert said...

Attack is certainly a unique movie. Does anyone know if Aldrich approved the ending or if it was forced on him by his studio? A huge amount of dramatic tension is created as a viewer gets angry and fearful that the Captain will get away with his self-serving behavior. I was surprised by Lt. Woodruff's phone call to headquarters. I assume that most veterans watching the movie would not believe the Lt. would have made the call. And--remember My Lai--it is not clear anything would have been done to the Col. who knew about Capt. Cooney's behavior.

cd said...
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Jim Beaver said...

Tom, if this is what you call a rough draft, then I can't wait to see what a polished version looks like!

I would not accuse anyone who could make EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE in his later years of making "tired" movies.