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A war film which deserves recognition
on 23 October 2004
A World War 2 tale, set in or around the Battle of the Bulge. An American colonel with political ambitions (Lee Marvin) pushes forward one of his companies, assuring the company commander (Eddie Albert) that the village he has to take is unlikely to present any dangers. Inevitably, the first platoon in there (led by Jack Palance) will find itself in a murderous trap. Arnold lacks the courage to do the job, but he comes from a good family with powerful political connections. Marvin needs this support if he is to succeed in politics after the war: he knows the war is won, he's already focusing on his own future ... and he's prepared to ignore the obvious cowardice and incompetence of Arnold.
Robert Aldrich offers a striking study in courage and cowardice, ambition and duty, leadership and indecision. Originally a stage play, the structure of the production does suffer in places from this. However, instead of the guns-blazing, flashy special effects of recent war movies, 'Attack' often feels claustrophobic, with men pinned into small rooms and glum cellars. While it sometimes feels a bit 'staged', at others, the sense of confined space means you can almost smell the sweat. There are echoes of Tennessee Williams here.
Shot in black and white, the film has a distinct noir quality. Indeed, one of its most attractive features is the photography, the use of light and dark to emphasise the loneliness and the isolation of the soldiers. Palance has a rugged face at the best of times, but his cragginess is emphasised by the noir lighting ... and by a little cameo scene where he strips to the waist to work bellows for a blacksmith. This is Hollywood realism, juxtaposing the muscular, masculine Palance against the podgy, effete, political Arnold.
The acting can become almost melodramatic at times - Arnold, in particular, is in danger of becoming a caricature. In the end, it's a method acting tour-de-force as Arnold comes unpicked at the seams.
A serious subject, sentimental in places, but the photography and direction often gives it an almost documentary feels ... and don't ever doubt that soldiers do get sentimental from time to time. For all its breathlessness and raw emotion, for all the bulging muscles and taut jaws, this is not a very physical - or physically energetic - movie. The tension is in the dialogue and the interaction between characters. This can be a bit dated in places, a bit stereotypical, but there is a quality in the writing and in the drama which is sadly missing in many better known war movies.
What is the moral of the 'play'? Courage? Retribution? Justice? I tend to feel it's actually dishonesty, corruption, perversion. Truth is the first casualty of war. 'Attack' confirms that warfare is ultimately about lies - convincing yourself that the enemy are sufficiently different from you to be worthy of hate, convincing yourself that you're not scared, convincing yourself that the war has a meaning and a purpose, convincing yourself that it will lead to a better future.
A film which aspiring screenwriters should study and deconstruct. 'Attack' has genuine qualities in both its drama, its acting, its direction, and its cinematography. It is a film which will engage.