"A cynical and grim account of war", the film is set in the latter stages of World War II and tells the story of a front-line combat unit led by a cowardly captain clearly out of his depth, as well as a tougher subordinate and an executive officer who both threaten to do away with him. As the official trailer put it: "Not every gun is pointed at the enemy!"
The film won the 1956 Italian Film Critics Award.
Europe 1944: Fragile Fox is a company of the US National Guard based in a Belgian town near the front line. They are led by Capt. Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), who appears to be better at handling red tape than combat. Cooney freezes under fire and cannot bring himself to send more men into battle to reinforce those already under attack. The increasing and unnecessary loss of life caused by Cooney's actions is lowering unit morale and trying the patience of platoon leader Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance). The executive officer, Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers, in his first credited screen role), is the "voice of reason" who tries to keep the peace between Cooney and Costa. Woodruff tries to get Cooney reassigned to a desk job. It is well known that Cooney owes his position to battalion commander Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin), who has known the Cooney family since he was a 14-year-old clerk in the office of Cooney's father, a politically powerful judge. The judge's influence could be very useful to Bartlett's post-war political ambitions.
When the Germans launch the Battle of the Bulge, Bartlett orders Cooney to seize the town of La Nelle. Unsure whether the Germans are there or not, Cooney overrules an all-out attack and decides that Costa should lead a reconnaissance mission. Costa agrees, provided that both Cooney and Woodruff promise to send reinforcements if necessary. As the platoon approaches La Nelle, the men come under fire--the town, as it turns out, is strongly held by German troops backed up by mortars and tanks. Most of Costa's squad is killed or wounded. He and the survivors (Sgt. Tolliver, Pfc. Bernstein, Pfc. Ricks) take refuge in a farmhouse. When Costa calls for reinforcements, Cooney ignores his request and begins drinking. Costa and his men capture a German SS officer and a soldier, but when tanks start shelling the house, he has no choice but to retreat. He furiously tells Woodruff over the radio to warn Cooney that he's "coming back!"
In the confusion Costa goes missing in action. The rest of the men manage to get back to town, though Ricks (James Goodwin) is killed. The men show their contempt for Cooney. Bartlett reprimands Cooney for failing to send in his entire company to take La Nelle. As a result, the Germans are advancing on their position; he tells Woodruff and Cooney that they must hold. Bartlett threatens to arrest Cooney if he falls back, as it would leave another company unprotected and the Germans would be able to "roll up the entire front line". When Cooney begs to be reassigned, an enraged Bartlett strikes him. With the pressure building up inside him, Cooney turns to drink again, but Woodruff smashes the bottle. After that, Cooney has a mental breakdown. Feeling sorry for him, Woodruff tells him to sleep it off and is about to assume command when Costa suddenly reappears, determined to kill Cooney. As they argue, they are told by Cpl. Jackson (Jon Shepodd) that the town is being overrun. Costa disables an enemy tank with a bazooka, but is gravely wounded when another tank he disables drives over his arm.
Woodruff, Tolliver, Bernstein, Jackson and Snowden (Richard Jaeckel) take refuge in a basement, followed shortly afterward by Cooney. Bernstein's leg is broken when a beam falls on it. They try to get out, but the way is blocked. Costa suddenly appears. With only minutes to live, he appeals to God to give him enough strength to kill Cooney, but collapses and dies. Cooney suggests surrendering, even though they have not been discovered. Woodruff warns him that he will shoot him if he tries. When Cooney does, Woodruff kills him.
Woodruff insists that Tolliver place him under arrest, but he and the other GIs reject this. They then take turns shooting Cooney's body themselves, all except Snowden, who has gone to see if the Germans heard the shots. American reinforcements arrive, and the Germans retreat.
Told by the men that Cooney was killed by the Germans, Bartlett–who has figured out that it wasn't the Germans but Cooney's own men who killed him–puts Woodruff in command. Bartlett gives him a field promotion to captain, but then announces that he is going to nominate Cooney for the Distinguished Service Cross award. Outraged, Woodruff accuses Bartlett of orchestrating the whole thing in order to get rid of Cooney and gain favor with his powerful father. Bartlett remarks that Woodruff has too much to lose if he makes the whole affair public, but as the film ends, Woodruff calls the commanding general, Gen. Parsons, on the radio to file a full report.
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.
Due to the nature of the film, which cast some officers as either 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 clearly 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! without the big budget that other war productions were getting at the time. It was shot in thirty-two days on the back lot of RKO Studios with a small cast and budget and a few pieces of military equipment, including the two tanks.
The opening title sequence depicting off-duty soldiers was created by Saul Bass.
Eddie Albert, who played the cowardly Cooney, was in reality a decorated hero in the World War II Pacific Theater. Before World War II commenced he was secretly working for U.S. Army intelligence photographing German U-boats in Mexico. He was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, rescuing American 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.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
Attack was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on May 20, 2003 as a Region 1 fullscreen DVD and to Blu-ray on May 2, 2013 by the French company Filmedia (under license from MGM) as a Region 2 Blu-ray DVD.