Attack! (1956): War Film Directed by Aldrich, Starring Lee Marvin

Robert Aldrich went to Hollywood in 1941 and worked his way up from being a production clerk at RKO. He was a script clerk then assistant to several directors (including Dmytryk, Milestone, Renoir, Wellman, Polonsky, Fleischer, Losey, and Chaplin), then production manager, and next associate producer.

At the same time, he started writing and directing episodes for the TV series “The Doctor, China Smith.”

In 1953, he directed his first feature film, The Big Leaguer.

In 1954 he established his own production company, Associates and Aldrich, and thereafter produced many of his own films.

Aldrich gained experience and dynamic energy from his TV background, as well as from working as assistant on such important films as The Southerner, G.I. Joe, Force of Evil, and Limelight.

Attack! the cynical, brutal chronicle of men at war is one of his very best films, bearing his personal signature in this portrait of infantry warfare, set in Belgium circa 1944.

Grade: B (**** out of ******)

Attack Poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster


The opening title sequence depicting off-duty soldiers was created by Saul Bass.

Scripted by James Poe, based on the play “The Fragile Fox,” by Norman Brook, the saga centers on Captain Cooney (Eddie Albert), a coward who has achieved his rank due to family connections, specifically his father’s political power.

In a strong performance, Lee Marvin plays Colonel Batrtlett, an officer well aware of Cooney’s incompetence, who overlooks the problem in order to promote his own personal ambition. However, the platoon, led by Lt. Costa (Jack Palance) feels victimized, resenting the situation and even vowing to take vengeance.

As a realistic movie about the inner and outer politics of war, “Attack!” is grim, even noirish in its sensibility and style, deviating from most American movies of the era (and admired by Kubrick, who would make a cynical version of WWI a year later, in “Paths of Glory.”

The excellent cast includes Robert Strauss, Richard Jaeckel, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, Jon Shepodd, James Goodwin and Steven Geray.

Ace lenser Joseph Biroc gives the picture sharp, dark images that fit the subject matter and tone

Aldrich’s individual style was characterized by frantic motion within shots and in the progression of a sequence, often underlined by violence, brutality, and grotesque chaos.

First Peak in Aldrich’s Career

Attack! represented the first big peak in Aldrich’s career. Indeed, he won the Silver Award of the Venice Festival for “The Big Knife” in 1955, the Italian Critics Award for “Attack!” in 1956, and the best director award at the Berlin Festival for “Autumn Leaves,” starring Joan Crawford, also made in 1956.

The commercial success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), his biggest  hit, prompted him to acquire his own studio, but subsequent debacles forced him to sell it in 1973.

The film was based on Norman Brooks’ stage play Fragile Fox. Director Aldrich bought the rights when he failed to obtain those for Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Aldrich never saw the play on stage but had read it and liked what it said about war.

Due to the nature of the film, which cast some officers as cowards or Machiavellian manipulators, the US Defense Department refused to grant production assistance. Critics attacked this attitude, pointing out the heroic and noble behavior of other officers like Costa and Woodruff who were “more representative of the Army than the cowardly captain, who is an exception.”

Aldrich said, “The Army saw the script and promptly laid down a policy of no cooperation, which not only meant that I couldn’t borrow troops and tanks for my picture–I couldn’t even get a look at Signal Corps combat footage. I finally had to buy a tank for $1,000 and rent another from 20th Century-Fox.”

Aldrich directed Attack! with a small budget, shooting in thirty-two days on the back lot of RKO Studios with a small cast and few pieces of military equipment, including two modified US M3 light tanks that inadequately portrayed German tanks.

Eddie Albert

Eddie Albert, who played the cowardly Cooney, was in reality a decorated hero in the World War II Pacific Theater. Before WWII, he was secretly working for US Army intelligence, photographing German U-boats in Mexico. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, rescuing U.S. Marines during the Battle of Tarawa while under heavy gunfire in 1943. He also lost a portion of his hearing from the noise of the battle.


Directed, produced by Robert Aldrich
Screenplay by James Poe, based on Fragile Fox 1954 play by Norman Brooks
Produced by Robert Aldrich
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Edited by Michael Luciano
Music by Frank De Vol

Production company: The Associates & Aldrich Company

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: October 17, 1956

Running time: 107 minutes
Budget $810,000

Jack Palance as Lt. Joe Costa
Eddie Albert as Capt. Erskine Cooney
Lee Marvin as Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett
William Smithers as Lt. Harold “Harry” Woodruff
Robert Strauss as Pfc. Bernstein
Richard Jaeckel as Pvt. Snowden
Buddy Ebsen as T/Sgt. Tolliver
Jon Shepodd as Cpl. John Jackson
Peter van Eyck as SS Captain
James Goodwin as Pfc. Ricks
Steven Geray as Otto, German NCO
Jud Taylor as Pvt. Jacob R. Abramowitz (as Judson Taylor)
Strother Martin as Sgt. Ingersol