Often out image of the 1950s is one of fervent patriotism and home cooked peachy keenness, then we run across a film like Attack! and realize that it wasn’t. This is an incredible cynical film about corruption of the officer class in the United States Army during World War II. Not that the setting matters, the basic plot could be transported to any war and still ring true. It stars Eddie Albert, Jack Palance, Lee Marvin, and Richard Jaeckel.
Eddie Albert is the standout character here. A living representative of the Peter Principle where a man can be promoted three or four rungs above their competence level. He is the son of a rich senator who gained his position through his family’s contacts. Planning to go into politics himself, the character needed some wartime credentials to seal the deal, but found he couldn’t handle the stress.
His men suffer and die for it, as the cowardly captain refuses to go into dangerous situations to back up his own men. The captain is allowed to get away with it, because his commanding officer, played by Lee Marvin, who hopes to use the family’s connections to further his own career after the war. Sick of seeing his men die, Jack Palance is the only one who will stand up to him. This results in many arguments, an ultimate showdown that is both haunting and grim.
The Defense Department (as it had been recently renamed from the Department of War) refused to cooperate in any measure with the production of the film, hampering it immeasurably. Their objection, as will come to no surprise, was to Eddie Albert’s character, claiming in a letter that the personage “is a very distasteful story and derogatory of Army leadership during combat including weak leadership, cowardice, and finally, the murder of the Company Commander.” The director pointed out that there were many other fine examples of noble officers, but the government still rejected it. This meant no equipment, no uniforms, no vehicles, or even Army stock footage. The production had to make due with a pair of old ones on the Fox backlots and use creative editing to make there appear to be more.
This action by the military however turned out to be a boon for the film. Congressman Melvin Price openly criticized the military for their non-involvement in the film, calling it a "shameful attempt at censorship". The distributors, United Artists, exploited this with teaser posters asking "Is this the most controversial picture of the year?" Leading to a much higher profit margin than had been estimated.
The director, in his biography The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich, said of this film, “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.”
As you will see, he did an excellent job in this. The entire film is below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.