If Robert Aldrich’s loosely fictionalized account of the Battle of the Bulge is less well-known than it should be, then it owes part of its obscurity to his deeply cynical views about the United States Army’s officer corps. That many of the rank and file soldiers almost certainly believed right along with Aldrich that they were being led by cowards, rank incompetents, and outright criminals did not matter at all to representatives from the United States Defence Department. They took one look at the script and decided Aldrich couldn’t even look at Army Signal Corps combat footage. He had to make do with what he could, shooting the film in only thirty-two days on the back lot of RKO studios with a small cast and budget and only a few pieces of military equipment, including two tanks he paid for out of his own pocket.
Nevertheless, Attack not only contains a signature early performance by Jack Palance. It’s one of the great films about the Second World War. After looking at the ponderous, cgi-laden dreck Fedor Bondarchuk crapped out about the Battle of Stalingrad, I’m tempted to say that Robert Aldrich got lucky. When the army cut him off, that meant he had to depend, not on gadgets and cool military hardware, but on great acting and a corrosive, tightly written script. Robert Aldrich is proof that you can keep your integrity and still come out with a great work of cinematic art.
My fellow Gen-Xers might remember Attack when they used to show it on television in the 1970s. It’s the film where Jack Palance gets his arm crushed by a tank. It popped up again in the late 1980s. I saw it at Lincoln Center. It took a ridiculously long time to get released on DVD, partly, I suspect, because Steven Spielberg is so clearly in Aldrich’s debt and Saving Private Ryan is so clearly an inferior movie. It was never, as far as I know, released on VHS. Even though it’s now widely available, it’s still rarely seen. If this review does anything, I hope it gets people to stick Attack in their Netflix queue or stream it off of Amazon for $2.99.
Eddie Albert plays Captain Erskine Cooney, the son of a small town southern judge. He owes his rank as the commander of Fox Company, not to his own abilities, but to his father’s political connections. The elder Cooney is the boss of the local Democratic Party machine. Colonel Bartlett, an excellent Lee Marvin, Erskine’s battalion commander, who’s from Cooney’s home town, has political ambitions after the war.
If the high command of the company and the battalion is a network of southern good ol boys, the rank and file soldiers and junior officers represent the working-class and liberal north. Lieutenant Costa, Palance, is an eastern European from Western Pennsylvania. Lieutenant Harry Woodruff is an every man and the voice of reason. Private Bernstein is witty and cynical. “You have to apologize to your arm when you salute that guy,” he remarks about Captain Cooney. Sergeant Tolliver, played by Buddy Ebsen, is a working-class Kentuckian.
Attack opens with Lieutenant Costa’s platoon pinned down on a hillside, under attack by German troops. His men fight bravely, but Cooney panics and freezes up under pressure. He fails to send reinforcements, and 15 of them are killed. Costa vows that if it happens again, he’s going to shoot Cooney himself, to “frag” him as it would later be called in Vietnam. His friend Lieutenant Woodruff does exactly what every member of the Democratic Party says Edward Snowden should have done. He goes up the chain of command and tries to let his superiors know that Cooney is an incompetent and a coward and likely to cause more unnecessary deaths if left in command. It’s useless. Colonel Bartlett knows Cooney is unfit to lead troops in combat, but in order to protect his political career, he has to protect Cooney. “Don’t worry,” he tells Woodruff. The war’s basically over and there’s little chance that Fox Company is going to see any more action. Woodruff leaves Bartlett feeling relieved. Costa is not so optimistic.
Costa proves to be right. At the very moment Woodruff is leaving Colonel Bartlett, the Germans launch their massive counter attack, and what will eventually become known as the Battle of the Bulge is under way. Fox Company occupies an unnamed city in Belgium near a small town named La Nelle. Since La Nelle is at the center of an important crossroad, Bartlett orders Cooney to take and hold the little town until the 10th Armored Division can get into place. If La Nelle falls, the Germans get the crossroad, and, perhaps, cut off the whole battalion. Woodruff suggests they attack the town from both sides in company strength. Cooney, who’s been heavily drinking over the past few days, is afraid to go in himself. He orders Costa to take 40 men into La Nelle and hold a farmhouse in the center. Costa knows he’s being ordered on a mission likely to fail, but he has no choice. He follows orders. He also warns Cooney that if he gets cut off and loses any men because of the captain’s incompetence that he’s going to come back to the city and murder him.
Costa’s mission fails. The town is not deserted, as Cooney believes, or, at least, wants to believe, but occupied by German infantry. Only Tolliver and Bernstein make it back to the city, which is now under full scale attack by an SS Panzer Division. Cooney is greatly relieved to find out that Costa, who has gone missing, is probably dead. Colonel Bartlett, who knows that Cooney had refused to reinforce La Nelle and got Costa’s platoon massacred, orders him to hold the city. If he doesn’t, Bartlett says, he’ll make sure he winds up in Leavenworth. It’s clear to everybody by now, especially Woodruff, that’s exactly where he belongs.
To Woodruff’s horror, however, Bartlett leaves Cooney in command. His political career still depends on Cooney’s father. Woodruff takes over command as Cooney continues to drink and collapses into a self-pitying mess. Even worse, Bernstein breaks his leg. If he makes it out of the city, his wound sends him back home to the United States, but if he’s captured by SS troops it almost certainly means he gets sent to Auschwitz. Costa, meanwhile, is not dead at all. He’s come back to murder Cooney, exactly as he promised, but Woodruff stands in his way. Just then a Germany tank begins an attack. Costa runs outside, and disables it with a bazooka. Woodruff and two of his men hammer together a makeshift stretcher in order to help evacuate Bernstein. In the film’s most famous sequence, a second German tank attacks. Costa’s bazooka jams, and the tank traps him in a door frame, crushing his arm. We go back to Cooney and Woodruff. Cooney has had a psychotic breakdown and wants to surrender to the Germans. Woodruff tries to convince him that the Germans don’t even know where they are, but Cooney is hearing none of it. He’s perfectly willing to let a wounded Jewish soldier go to Auschwitz rather than fight. Costa returns, his arm mangled, near death. Only the strength that comes from hate, the sheer determination to kill Cooney, has allowed him to make it back. He dies before he can carry out his promise, but his sudden, startling appearance prevents Cooney from alerting the Germans to their presence, and saves Bernstein’s life.
Then Woodruff shoots Cooney dead.
Woodruff, being a by the book junior officer but a perfectly honorable man, intends to turn himself in for murder. But Bernstein and the other soldiers, believing Cooney deserved to die, each shoot him in turn, making it impossible for Woodruff to know who killed him. The 10th Armored Division, along with Bartlett, finally seize the crossroads, driving the Germans back and putting Bernstein and the rest of Fox Company out of harm’s way. Bartlett, who easily figures out that Fox Company had “fragged” Cooney, says he’ll cover up for Woodruff if Woodruff agrees to lie and say Cooney died a hero. Barlett is still determined to preserve his political career at the cost of the army’s honor. A medal for Cooney will put him in good with Cooney’s father. He thinks he’s got Woodruff where he wants him, that Woodruff will chose personal gain over the truth, but Woodruff’s had enough. As the movie ends, he calls the general staff and makes his confession. He will go to jail, but, the movie implies, he will also stop the cynical Bartlett’s political career in his tracks.
It’s easy to see why the army refused to cooperate with Aldrich. This is about something more than just an incompetent company commander. Aldrich is very clearly implying that a network of southern good ol boys dominate the officer corps and put politics above their own men. Fox Company is not only 200 American soldiers in Belgium. It’s a symbol of the United States as a whole. Aldrich clearly believes that the war against Hitler was necessary and that the rank and file soldiers were doing their best, even while being incompetently led. But he also implies that the army, that American politics as a whole, are rotted through and through.
From 1941 to 1945, from the botched invasion of Italy to the ludicrously delayed invasion of France, to the disastrous stalemate in the Hurtgen Forest, to the failure to bomb the Nazi death camps, the American effort in Europe might best be described as a series of fuck ups by incompetents in a thankfully peripheral area of the war. What was waiting at home was even worse. Taft Hartley, the Red Scare, segregation, the American people were being betrayed as surely as Lieutenant Costa’s platoon was stabbed in the back at La Nell. But the United States Army, and Hollywood, wasn’t ready for this kind of sharp, critical look at American politics and the war in Europe. The United States was run by a clique of good ol boys who wanted propaganda, not art. Too much depended on the idea that the United States Army, not the Soviets, beat Hitler. A dominant American victory over evil, not a floundering incompetent assist for the Soviet Union, was needed as the foundational myth of the new American superpower.
It would take Vietnam for the truth to finally break through to the larger public, but Robert Aldrich already had it on screen in 1956.