Movie Review — Jack Palance in Attack! (1956)
It’s easy to think all 50s movies are bland, conformist, patriotic pap, but this intense World War II drama has a surprising amount of bite, and it stars a young Jack Palance at his seething best. It’s also got one of the greatest war movie posters of all time.
There’s some great gung-ho, GIs on the march action here, as a U.S. Army company pushes town to town in the late stages of the war. They’re saddled with a captain who only got the job because his dad has political connections, a total coward who disobeys orders from higher up and never arrives to help out the other platoons in his company. This leads to quite a few deaths and a lot of discontent among the men.
Well, “discontent.” They’re angry, and getting angrier all the time. The angriest is Palance, who just rages and seethes and grits his teeth, and then occasionally lights up the whites of his eyes with hellfire and just tears down the whole scene. Almost every scene in this movie crackles with anger at the injustice of good soldiers sent out to die because of the incompetence of one idiot, and the Army’s inability to deal with it in any constructive way. You get angry while you’re watching it, and when Palance finally tells his captain, “I’ll come for you. I’ll stick a grenade down your throat and pull the pin,” you might cheer a little.
There are a couple of interesting things to talk about with this movie. First, it was made on a low budget (under a million dollars) and shot the old-school way, almost entirely on a studio backlot. There’s something appealing about seeing that old kind of Hollywood magic, seeing the bombed out streets of a European town and bullet-riddled walls of a command outpost and knowing it was all built in California, all illusion, carefully painted walls and dressed sets and costumes.
The minor exception is the two tanks that appear in the movie, and I bring this up 1). because I’m a man who spends entirely too much time thinking about tanks and 2). it’s germane to my next point. The producers only had access to two tanks, both of which I believe were M3 Stewart light tanks. They’re quite small and flimsy looking, but they’re dressed up with some boxy cladding and paint to stand in for Panzer IVs (with PANZER IV helpfully painted in block letters on the side), then later as an American tank column passing through the town — editing can make two tanks look like as many as you need, in a pinch. Anyway, they’re pretty funny looking little tanks with thin armor that probably could have been penetrated by the Americans’ rifles. Here are photos of an M3 and a Panzer IV, for reference.
But the reason they only had two tanks is because the government looked at the script and refused to provide access to any real tanks (which they often do), claiming the story cast the Army in a poor light. Nevermind that it’s about a bunch of brave soldiers who accomplish their mission despite their shitheel captain, they had to buy one tank and rent the other. Oddly enough, the same thing happened in another movie I watched while I was sick last week, Uncommon Valor, about a mission to rescue POWs in Vietnam and needed to buy two helicopters since the military wouldn’t cooperate. As a sprawling, impossibly powerful organization with a budget that dwarfs anything else on the planet, the U.S. military sure does get its feelings hurt easily.
The larger point here, though, is that an edgy, gritty movie like this was made in 1956. There are a lot of terrible one-note jingoistic war movies from the 40s and 50s. One way to find the better ones is to look for the ones with a little bit of an anti-establishment attitude. There weren’t a lot of them. But this one was based on a play, Fragile Fox by Norman A. Brooks, and it makes me wonder if the stage has always served as an outlet for dealing with the pain of war in the years immediately afterward. You don’t have to work within the system as much to put on a play, you don’t need a $100 million budget, so you don’t have to keep as many people happy. That lets you tackle harder ideas, harder to swallow ideas (like maybe that war we fought wasn’t all good and glorious, or maybe sometimes soldiers are willing to commit treason to save their own asses, or maybe corruption seeps into every crevice it can). It takes some distance before Hollywood money will decide those topics are safe enough, most of the time.