“Attack!” originated as a play so it relies on acting more than action. The cast is great. All of the performances are strong. Jack Palance is at his best as the cynical, on the edge Lt. Costa. Seething is a good description of him. Kudos to Eddie Albert (a WWII hero) for portraying the cowardly, incompetent Capt. Cooney. A third WWII veteran (Lee Marvin) is slithery as the ambitious Lt. Col. Bartlett who is using Cooney for his future political career. He will make a great politician. Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Richard Jaeckel (of course) are part of the solid ensemble. Robert Strauss (“Animal” of “Stalag 17”) provides funny lines as the comic relief.
“Battleground” is a small units dynamic movie. It follows a platoon into Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The cast is full of familiar faces and is close to all-star. Although there is little dysfunctionality to chew scenery on, the characters are very likeable and you care about them. This adds to the “who will survive?” theme. James Whitmore was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but he does not really stand out because the rest of the ensemble is equally strong. Speaking of standing out (Get it? If not, you haven’t seen the movie), the movie manages to throw in a female character (Denise Darcel as the fraternization-friendly Bastogne babe).
FIRST QUARTER SCORE:
“Attack!” is a Robert Aldrich film so you can expect it to be iconoclastic. In fact, right off the bat there is no dedication or thank you to the military. This is because the Armed Forces refused to cooperate due to its depiction of incompetence, cowardice, and corruption among the officer class. It is not really a men on a mission movie. The mission is to take a town, but that is simply a catalyst for the ultimate confrontation between Costas and Cooney. Cooney’s situation is basically the opposite of the hero with leadership thrust upon him, but obviously the movie includes the typical command conflict. It’s resolution is definitely non-cliché, however. There is no redemption character.
“Battleground” is more of a typical small unit movie. It is dedicated to the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne”. The unit is heterogeneous and includes a hillbilly, an old guy named Pop, a ladies man, an intellectual, a Latino, a newbie, and the crusty sergeant, among other stock characters. One of the men (Holley) has leadership thrust upon him. It could have gotten worse, but it does not cross the line into “give me a break”. There is no redemption although several characters shirk duty or either think about deserting under fire or actually run away. This is not done to set up any epiphanies, however. The film is simply saying these things happen. The tag lines on the posters clearly delineate the two movies with regard to cliches.
HALF TIME SCORE:
“Attack!” is based on a play and feels like one. It is the tale of an excellent combat leader (Costas) who cares about his men, but understands the realities of combat. He doesn’t avoid combat, but he insists his unit be supported when it’s out on the limb. He and his men have nothing but contempt for the nepotistic Cooney. This contempt builds to a threatening hatred that naturally leads to a climactic showdown that is fairly predictable, but still powerful. The movie throws in a moral dilemma to close out.
“Battleground” is much more traditional in its plotting. The unit starts out in camp, moves into the combat zone, digs in, and then encounters the enemy. Much of the plot involves character development so that when the fighting commences we will care about who makes it. Mission accomplished. The soldier banter and interaction is very entertaining. Each of the main characters is a distinct individual with personality quirks. One guy clicks his false teeth. Another has his own catch phrase (“That’s fer sure, that’s fer darn sure.”) It builds to a set piece battle and resolves with a feel good “cavalry riding to the rescue” happy ending. The survivors march off into the sunset.
THIRD QUARTER SCORE:
“Attack!” given its origin on stage was not really conceived with combat in mind. The three combat scenes exist to advance the plot. The opening scene has Costas’ men assaulting a pill box and getting slaughtered without support from the craven Cooney. The action is brief with old school deaths. The second bout is an assault on a house on the outskirts of a German held town which results in a "last stand" vibe. Again nothing special here combat-wise as it is more of an excuse for banter among the few who reach the house and to rev up Costas. The closing attack by the Germans on the American position includes two very un-German tanks (the low budget nature of the film impeded the scale of combat), but has a nifty segment of Costas taking on the tanks with a bazooka and suffering a unique injury.
“Battleground” is surprisingly bereft of combat. That would be refreshingly realistic if this were a film like “A Walk in the Sun”, but in a movie about Bastogne it seems a purposeful attempt to downplay the realities of the situation to lighten the film. The big fight at the railroad embankment is an average payoff for the character-driven proceedings. This set piece does not match the noncombat segments. It is painfully sound-stageish and simplistic. The flanking maneuver results in a crowd-pleasing slaughter of the faceless enemy. This is the only extended violence in the film and it is far from a movie like “Cross of Iron”.
COLOR ANALYSIS: As they say, on any given Sunday. If there had been different categories in the first round, this bout could easily have ended differently. Basically “Attack!” won on the basis of it not being a traditional war movie. Although “Battleground” is not as full of clichés as it could have been, it was at a disadvantage against an Aldrich film. "Battleground" did not make up the ground in the obvious area of combat. In the other areas, they were pretty even. The second quarter decided this match. It’s a shame only one could win – they are both very entertaining films.