Belgium 1944, and the push by the Allies against the Nazi forces is well underway, but it is not plain sailing by any means and nobody knows that more than Lieutenant Joe Costa (Jack Palance) who was pinned down under enemy fire when he was trying to save members of his platoon. He radioed for assistance, but the only person who could authorise it was Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert) who was reluctant to comply, ostensibly because he didn’t want to endanger his own men but actually because he was determined to stay as far away from the fighting as possible since he is an abject coward who got to his position in the military thanks to family connections. When the endangered men are slaughtered, Costa is out for vengeance...
Attack was one of director Robert Aldrich's most famous films in its day, spoken of in the glowing terms of the finest American war movies, though it fell away in visibility down the years to be remembered as a vivid recollection of an example of its type that happened to be well nigh insane in its plotting. Either that or it has been stumbled across by the unwary expecting the usual gung ho heroics of the era and getting a blast of cold air as Palance and company became increasingly unhinged as the huge pressure of the conflict bore down on the characters, building to a climax that was among the most brutal in terms of what it metes out to the men involved, leading them to decisions that no sane man should have to take.
Yes, there were Nazis here, obviously, but there were more villains than that to be found, and they were in the United States military with Albert, who in real life was a decorated war hero, putting in a skin-crawling performance of self-serving cowardice that places the lives of many men on the line. Some have also seen Lee Marvin's Lieutenant Colonel Bartlet as a menace as well, since he represented the brass who would keep unsuitable individuals such as Cooney in the positions of power they had bluffed their way into, indeed Bartlet represented a culture of corruption in the military that saw to it that the actual U.S. Army refused to have anything to do with the making of the production whatsoever.
That was significant, as there was a tradition of the military of all stripes contributing to movie projects as it raised their profile and if it made them look good, so much the better for public morale and perhaps more importantly, recruitment. This has continued down the years through the most famous example, Top Gun, to works as diverse as Transformers and Captain Phillips, but if the military refuse co-operation then they could make life very difficult for the filmmakers. On the other hand, you could do what the indignant Aldrich did and make it into a selling point, in a "see what the army didn't want you to!" kind of way, a method that bred dividends as the box office profits went through the roof - the fact that this was one of the most violent movies of the day was a big help in that too.
As a movie, it remained a decidedly delirious experience, especially in its latter stages when it was all going to pot for the characters. Although Costa makes it clear in no uncertain terms he bears Cooney a massive grudge, exactly how justified that is grows ever more pressing when Costa and his men are stranded once again and the Captain refuses to assist as he thinks he is sitting pretty, more interested in downing his expensive whisky than doing anything to jeopardise his position, i.e. actually go to war and save some lives. Though we despise Cooney for this, Albert thanks to the script managed to find a sliver of humanity in him which makes it all the more unnerving when he finally rejects it, but really this was Palance's show, a searing performance of righteous anger and maniacal compulsion: see the sequence where Costa took on a couple of tanks for true can-do attitude, albeit borne of the madness war has brought out in him. There was no messing about, this was an anti-war movie that took down its subject with absolute disgust that anyone should be placed in such circumstances, its staginess salvaged by its rough morality and excellent acting. Music by Frank De Vol.