Dir. by Robert Aldrich
The following was written for a graduate seminar on Cold War military history. It examines the confluence of social, political, and economic events that allowed the financing and production of such an ambivalent anti-war film in Eisenhower America. For a thorough formal analysis of the film itself, see: The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich by Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986)
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“Grinding at You Head-On Like a Ten-Ton Tank”: Attack! and the Changing Face of the Military in Independent Films of the Late-1950s
On the cover of the December 9, 1957 issue of Time magazine, Vice President Richard Nixon stares directly into the camera eye. He’s framed in a medium close-up, his hair neatly groomed, his mouth turned in a slight smile. Published only days after President Eisenhower’s stroke — the third significant health crisis of his term, following a heart attack in 1955 and a bout with ileitis the following year — the cover photo is apparently intended to arouse public confidence in the man who would be king. However, as would be the case throughout Nixon’s career, the Time portrait betrays his unease in the spotlight. His shoulders are rounded, causing his neck to disappear into the rumpled collar of his suit jacket, and despite his recent weight loss (achieved “by grace of careful calorie counting,” the feature article alliteratively informs us), his often-caricatured jowls and small eyes are lost in dark shadows.
The photo seems oddly representative of American culture in the late-1950s, a nebulous era sandwiched between the more clearly-compartmentalized McCarthyian hysteria of Eisenhower’s first term and the social unrest of the Kennedy/Johnson years. After his decisive victory over Adlai Stevenson in 1956, a victory that collected votes from such disparate, traditionally liberal-leaning figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jack Kerouac, Eisenhower stood metaphorically like a flagpole around which the vast majority of Americans proudly congregated. But by the midpoint of his second term, Ike’s power position, and the consensus it represented, had begun to show its first signs of weakness. Those rifts in the “consensus of the liberal ideology,” as Godfrey Hodgson has usefully described it, would, of course, be more violently exposed in the following decade. As Stephen J. Whitfield writes in The Culture of the Cold War, “After 1956, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons closed the detention camps that had been set up six years earlier, [J. Edgar] Hoover complained about the ‘growing public complacency toward the threat of subversion.'” In a series of landmark cases in 1956 and 1957, the Supreme Court likewise reflected changing public attitudes by gradually stripping the Smith Act of its power and by “giving civil liberties greater weight on the scales of justice.” By the end of the Eisenhower administration, Premiere Khrushchev had walked on American soil and the Civil Rights movement had taken shape in the South. That cover photo of Nixon, intended to portray confidence and strength, instead reveals (at least in hindsight) the slow birth of public ambivalence toward a changing world, and more particularly, toward America’s role as the moral, social, and political leader within that world.
Given the tumultuous social environment surrounding that week in December 1957, it is little surprise then that within the pages of that same issue of Time — surrounded by advertisements for Allied Chemical, Convair, Carter’s Knit Boxers, and General Electric that all proudly assert their affiliation with “America’s hidden line of defense” — two new American war films inspire notably different responses from a staff reviewer. The first, Gordon Douglas’s Bombers B-52, is called a “$1,400,000 want ad for Air Force technicians-the ground crews needed to keep ’em flying in the Strategic Air Command.” Starring Karl Malden, Natalie Wood, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Bombers B-52 is a typical service film of the era: a major studio release (in this case, Warner Brothers) presented in CinemaScope and featuring equal helpings of romance and action. The reviewer acknowledges the public fascination with such films, noting, “SAC being what it is, a powerful discouragement to missile warfare, audiences might be prepared by recent headlines to take the picture seriously,” but he or she ultimately concludes that the film “is all pretty silly in an amiable way.” Other reviewers agreed. InfluentialNew York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “nice,” but was more impressed by Malden’s performance than by the film’s cliché-ridden promotion of America’s Department of Defense.
The other war film reviewed in that issue of Time, however, elicited a much more heated response. The reviewer claims, “[Stanley Kubrick’s] Paths of Glory made 20 years ago, might have found a sympathetic audience in a passionately pacifist period, might even have been greeted as a minor masterpiece. Made today, it leaves the spectator often confused and dumb, like a moving speech in a dead language.” Based on Humphrey Cobb’s best-selling 1935 novel of the same name, Paths of Glory tells of a failed attempt by a French squadron to take an important German position during World War I. Kirk Douglas stars as a noble sergeant forced to watch his men die due to the incompetence of power-hungry senior military officials. Paths of Glory is like the anti-Bombers B-52; it is explicitly anti-war, anti-military, and anti-‘service film.’ Shot on location in black and white, and eschewing easy sentimentality for detached realism, Paths of Gloryexemplifies a new breed of war film, a breed willing to move beyond the simplistic assessment: “War is hell!” Instead, Kubrick and other vanguard filmmakers such as Robert Aldrich — whose Attack! played in American movie houses more than a year before Paths of Glory — fought for independence from studio and government interference in order to question more firmly-rooted beliefs, particularly the unquestioned support of the growing ‘Military Industrial Complex’ and its leaders.
A study of Hollywood’s changing and often tumultuous relationship with Washington, relying on careful analysis of Attack! as a case study, reveals that this period of transition was difficult for both the filmmakers and their audience. Comfortable codes of cinematic narrative and characterization were thrown off in lieu of a new, highly confrontational and morally ambiguous aesthetic. It would take more than a decade, and the flowering of America’s “Hollywood Renaissance,” before audiences would grow accustomed
to those new codes. The Time reviewer seems to have been aware that he or she was witnessing the first shots of a large-scale assault, concluding, “[Paths of Glory]’s only real mistake: it attacks an unfashionable devil.”
The Washington/Hollywood Connection
The history of cooperation between Hollywood studios and the War Department/ Department of Defense is almost as old as the history of American cinema itself. In 1911, only fifteen years after Thomas Edison’s first moving pictures were exhibited in New York City, D.W. Griffith employed engineers from West Point as technical advisors on his Civil War epic, Birth of a Nation. The film amazed audiences with its large-scale, realistic battle sequences, and set a standard for spectacle against which all contemporary war and historical films were judged. As Lawrence Suid notes in Guts and Glory: Great American War Movies, “Virtually all American films about war and the military followed the pattern established from the earliest days of the industry, showing only the glamorous side of combat — the excitement, the adventure, the camaraderie. Battle was not always shown as pleasant, but the films made it clear that pain was necessary for ultimate victory.”
While this war film formula continued to solidify, a notable change in the cultural climate had occurred by 1924, when King Vidor, a young Hollywood director, set out to make the first war movie told from the soldier’s perspective. Again, seeking historical accuracy and cinematic spectacle, Hollywood turned to Washington, this time requesting from the Army “two hundred trucks, three to four thousand men, a hundred planes, and other equipment.” Made during the isolationist years between the wars, The Big Parade — very much like Lewis Milestone’s adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front released five years later — was a huge success with audiences and critics alike, this despite its complex representation of man and war. The film’s protagonist, John Gilbert, is shipped to the western front where he loses a leg and watches his two best friends die. Ultimately,The Big Parade questions accepted notions of heroism and imagines war as a deeply flawed and very human endeavor. Vidor himself viewed war as “a mixed-up sentiment,” and did little to overtly support or denounce it. That the War Department would so enthusiastically support such a production dramatically distinguishes the pacifistic 1920s and 1930s from the two decades that would follow.
Like every other facet of American life, the course of Hollywood film history was dramatically altered by the events of December 7, 1941. The three months preceding Pearl Harbor had seen the opening of an investigation by the Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce into the production of “propaganda” films by the major Hollywood studios. Senators Champ Clark (D-MO) and Gerald Nye (R-ND), along with other leading isolationists, accused the studios of attempting to hasten America’s involvement in World War II by producing “preparedness” films such as Dive Bomber (1941), Sergeant York (1941), and Confessions of a Nazi Spy(1939). A similar charge was leveled against Charlie Chaplin, whose The Great Dictator (1940) was later deemed “prematurely anti-fascist” by Senator D. W. Clark (D-ID). Although such noted figures as the Warner brothers did eventually testify in Washington, the investigation proved to be little more than political posturing and was abruptly abandoned when America entered the war.
Like much of the general population, Hollywood also immediately enlisted in the war effort, producing great numbers of service films for popular consumption. The studios, of course, were more than willing to take advantage of the explosive levels of public interest in modern combat (and the box office revenue it created), but the War Department also became keenly aware of how the cinema might be used for its own purposes. A symbiotic relationship quickly developed and by the end of 1942 several films based on actual events and made with the assistance of the armed services were released to a public brimming with patriotism and clamoring for swift and decisive victory.
Criticized only months earlier for its propagandist pictures, Hollywood churned them out with impressive regularity for the remainder of the war. The earliest examples looked to the South Pacific for inspiration. Wake Island, Air Force, and Bataan, all released in late-1942 or early-1943, showed the Marines, Air Force, and Army respectively in their heroic efforts against the ‘Japs’ following the setbacks at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, and the Philippines. As Suid points out, these early films helped establish what would quickly become the standard service film format. A “crusty old sergeant” serves as a father-figure to a heterogeneous pack of raw recruits. The brave young men fight nobly — and often die even more so — against insurmountable odds, all in hopes of returning to their faithful women “back home.” Of course, each film also features spectacular battle sequences, often made with the assistance of the service that the film was promoting. The collective message of the films, quite simply, is that America was in for a good, hard fight, but that through perseverance and bravery, American democracy would inevitably triumph over the depraved, Godless forces of fascism and Jap-treachery.
When that inevitable triumph did finally come, Hollywood, like the rest of the country, turned its attention briefly to the transition to peace-time life in films such as Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Till the End of Time(1946). For a few years, combat films no longer translated automatically into box office gold. While a few war pictures were released between 1946 and 1948, it wasn’t until the ignition of the Cold War that the American public began to reexamine World War II and its effects on the global landscape. Certain events between 1947 and 1951, however, made that reexamination compulsory. The trial of Alger Hiss and the arrests of Klaus Fuchs in England and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the United States made Communist infiltration an ever-present threat. Mao Tse Tung’s victory in China, the Soviet Union’s detonation of an atomic bomb, and the outbreak of the Korean War threatened America’s dominance of global politics. And Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist histrionics inspired a national case of hysterical xenophobia.
Again, Hollywood studios were called up for action, this time against an enemy that could not be so clearly defined and in a war that could not be so easily won. The late-1940s and 1950s saw a re-birth of the service film genre. Studio scenarists returned to the landmark victories of World War II and found fresh content in Korea. John Wayne, through his performance in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), came to personify both the modern Marine — “the anti-intellectual doer in contrast to the thinker” — and the patriotic ‘Star’ who stood out in Hollywood, “the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.”
Studio heads looked to epic scale and modern technology to pull audiences back into the theaters. Weekly movie attendance had reached its all-time peak in 1946, when an average of 90 million tickets were sold each week. Through the influence of several social, political, and technological factors, that number had been cut in half by 1954. Following the early example set by Griffith and Vidor, filmmakers used visual and, now, aural spectacle to attract ticket-buyers. Films were promoted for the very things against which television could not compete: new widescreen, color formats such as CinemaScope, VistaVision, and Cinerama; explosive, stereophonic soundtracks; gimmicky effects like 3-D; and epic scale possible only with equally epic budgets. The Department of Defense was more than willing to aid in the cause, offering complete cooperation to films like Strategic Air Command (1955), an unapologetically pro-military film starring World War II hero Jimmy Stewart and showcasing the latest technology in America’s most powerful deterrent to outward threat. The film’s premiere was even attended by top brass and several prominent Congressmen.
But by Eisenhower’s second term, film reviewers, and, to a lesser extent, film-goers were beginning to become jaded by the onslaught of formulaic service films, films that were growing increasingly exploitative of combat situations for the telling of trite love stories and increasingly bland in their representations of war. In his review of 20th Century Fox’s D-Day, the Sixth of June (1956), Bosley Crowther writes, “But if they think they’re kidding the public into believing that this is the way World War II was — wistful love in cozy London apartments and a quick little scramble up a cliff, in CinemaScope and color, not to forget stereophonic sound — then they’d better watch the box office figures on this one.” These sentiments are echoed nearly a year later in his review of Universal’s Battle Hymn: “It follows religiously the line of mingled piety and pugnacity laid down for standard, idealistic service films. What’s more, it has Rock Hudson playing the big hero role. Wrap them up and what have you got? The popular thing.” Although it would take more than a decade before Hollywood would fully emerge from the shadows of the Pentagon and the Capitol building, new voices in the film community soon found independent outlets for their less popular opinions, and, in doing so, helped to change the face of the military in the movies.
Independent Production and the Re-Birth of United Artists
In 1947 the House Committee on Un-American Activities paid an official visit to Hollywood at the bequest of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group that included such notable personalities as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, and Adolphe Menjou. The visit sparked a highly flammable relationship that would leave long-lasting scars on the film community. Those most visibly wounded by the ‘Red Scare’ hysteria were those who saw their careers destroyed (at least temporarily) by the blacklisting — the Dalton Trumbos, Abraham Polonskys, and John Howard Lawsons of the industry. But perhaps more damaging on a larger scale was the total silencing of even Roosevelt-era liberalism, let alone progressive ideology, in the subject matter of studio films. The Battle Hymns of the late-1950s are vapid, two-dimensional melodramas compared to many of the war films of the 1930s, but the studios were left with few alternatives. Whitfield writes:
Because strongly ideological films were considered unlikely to attract the masses anyway, the studios apparently reasoned that anti-Communist pictures might mollify the American Legion and the right-wingers in Congress without losing too much money. . . . Movies of the era were not permitted to locate the motivations for turning toward Communism in economic or social conditions, since themes of class and race, injustice, and impoverishment contradicted the complacent ideology of the 1950s.
It would take a major restructuring of the Hollywood studio system, and the first rifts in the consensus of the liberal ideology, before filmmakers would be able, really for the first time, to fully address the complexities of Cold War American society.
The same combination of factors that led to the dramatic drop in weekly box office attendance between 1946 and 1954 also caused the studios to shift their main mode of film production. Janet Staiger refers to the shift as one from the “Producer-Unit System” to the “Package-Unit System.” The Producer-Unit System became established in the early-1930s and contributed to what is generally considered the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Within that system, each studio clearly compartmentalized the division of labor, creating separate departments for cinematography, art, costuming, etc., and signing “talent” (actors, actresses, directors) to long-term contracts. The power rested firmly in the hands of the studio heads, often to the financial and creative detriment of the filmmakers and actors.
The shift to the Package-Unit System is significant within this discussion because it allowed, among other things, the diffusion of independent film production. Whereas under the Producer-Unit System, projects were born, approved, financed, scripted, and produced all within the walls of a single studio, the Package-Unit System allowed independent producers to develop a property, to raise independent financing, and to assemble on their own terms both the talent and the technicians. The assemblage is short-lived, intended to produce only the one film. The result of the shift was a major restructuring of the Hollywood hierarchy and the disappearance of the self-contained studio. The system as it exists today is, in fact, very little changed from that of forty years ago. As Tino Balio writes, “By 1970, the transition, with the notable exception of Universal Pictures, had become complete. The majors functioned essentially as bankers supplying financing and landlords renting studio space. Distribution now became the name of the game.”
Independent film production was hardly a new phenomenon when the film community shifted to the Package-Unit system in the mid-1950s. Some estimates, for example, claim that as many as one-third of all films produced between 1916 and 1918 were independent productions. Staiger describes the independent production firm as, “a small company with no corporate relationship to a distribution firm. An independent producer might have a contract with a distributor or participate in a distribution alliance, but it neither owned nor was owned by a distribution company.” The breakdown in the Producer-Unit System resulted in a greater distribution of wealth, allowing big name stars and filmmakers to collect enough capital, either by means of their own wealth or through investors, to establish personal production companies, thereby guaranteeing greater freedom in developing projects for themselves or for others. As early as 1943, talents such as James Cagney, Hal Wallis, and Joseph Hazen had inked independent deals and by 1947 every major studio except MGM had acknowledged the financial advantages of distributing independently produced films by adding them to their regular schedules.
Leading the move toward independent production and distribution was United Artists, a company founded in 1919 to distribute the films made by its four owners: Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith. Balio explains UA’s original business structure: “UA was not expected to generate profits but to function as a service organization that operated at cost. UA could therefore charge a lower distribution fee than the competition and return to the producer a larger share of the film rentals. In other words, a UA producer could enjoy as production profits what otherwise would be distribution profits.” The operation ran smoothly throughout the 1920s, but the company then experienced two decades of frustration and financial difficulties, mostly due to the majors’ oligopolistic business practices. With ownership of not only important distribution avenues, but also the movie theaters themselves, the majors were able to block out the smaller distributors, eliminating competition.
However, in the early-1950s, thanks in part to both the Supreme Court’s ruling against Paramount and the production shift described above, UA saw its star once again on the rise. After taking over the company’s struggling business operations in 1951, Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin planned an aggressive strategy. Balio writes, “in return for distribution rights, UA would offer talent complete production financing, creative control over their work, and a share of the profits. . . . The company and a producer had to agree on the basic ingredients — story, cast, director, and budget — but in the making of the picture, UA would give the producer complete autonomy including the final cut.” Other terms included requiring talent to defer much of their salary until the film broke even, allowing producers to work wherever they desired, surrendering ownership of the film to the producers, and abandoning all long-term contracts. The strategy paid off quickly, attracting powerful players who were seeking autonomy and guaranteeing a steady supply of product for UA. By 1955, important Hollywood names Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Bob Hope, Yul Brynner, Robert Mitchum, and Burt Lancaster, along with filmmakers Stanley Kramer, Sam Fuller, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert Aldrich had all, at least temporarily, joined the UA family.
Robert Aldrich’s Attack!
In August 1979, Robert Aldrich delivered a speech to the Director’s Guild of America in honor of Lewis Milestone, the famed director of All Quiet on the Western Front. Aldrich had served under Milestone during his apprentice years, working on The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Arch of Triumph (1948), and The Red Pony (1949). In his speech, Aldrich thanked his mentor for teaching him the most valuable lesson of filmmaking: “The game is power.”
The power is for the director to do what he wants to do. To achieve that he needs his own cutter, he needs his cameraman, he needs his own assistant and a strong voice in his choice of writer; a very, very strong voice on who’s the actor. He needs the power not to be interfered with and the power to make the movie as he sees it. Milestone had all the tools, but above all, he had the capacity to know when trouble was coming and how to deal with it. And it worked, really worked.
That struggle for power became the hallmark of Aldrich’s career. The grandson of prominent Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich (R) and first cousin of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller (R), Aldrich abandoned a likely career in banking or publishing, opting instead to work in Hollywood, where the consistently liberal message of his films would conflict sharply with that of his conservative family. In 1941, Aldrich left the University of Virginia without a degree and took a job at RKO studios. Working for $25 a week as a production clerk — “the lowest job in existence on a sound stage” — Aldrich took advantage of every opportunity afforded him, learning the film business from the ground up. Over the next twelve years he rose quickly through the ranks, first working exclusively for RKO, then free-lance at other studios. A summary of those apprentice years reads like a “Who’s Who of Film Legends.” Along with Milestone, Aldrich served under, among others, Jean Renoir (The Southerner, 1945), William Wellman (The Story of G. I. Joe, 1945), Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), and Charlie Chaplin (Limelight, 1952). Aldrich looked back on those years as a time of education by “assimilation, . . . you try to make yourself a composite of what you like and stay away from the things you didn’t like.”
From 1946 to 1948, Aldrich worked under contract at Enterprise Productions, an interesting but ultimately failed experiment in independent filmmaking. The experience significantly shaped both Aldrich’s view of the film industry and his aesthetic. Enterprise became a gathering place for big name stars, including Ingrid Bergman, John Garfield, Joel McCrea, and Barbara Stanwyck, along with filmmakers such as Milestone and Ophuls, who were seeking a larger share of profits and greater artistic freedom. Arnold and Miller write, “many of the creative people who gathered at the studio shared a liberal philosophy: for them a film could and should do more than entertain. A belief in the essential decency of the ‘common man’ and a basic distrust of wealth and power were at the heart of many of their pictures.” Significantly, it was while at Enterprise that Aldrich befriended Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky, two of his many Enterprise associates who would later be called before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. Aldrich first worked with both men on Body and Soul (1947), the only hit of the nine films produced by Enterprise. It tells the story of a prize fighter who must choose either the physical safety and economic gain of corruption or the possibility of moral regeneration and the danger that accompanies it. Aldrich later explained to James Powers exactly what he had learned from the film:
Polonsky said in 1945 that to tell that kind of story you need to establish a heroic figure who falls from grace and spends the rest of the picture trying to regain his self-esteem. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s successful or not. From the fact that he struggles to regain his opinion of himself, he will prove to be a heroic figure.
John Garfield’s Charlie Davis would become the prototype of the Aldrich hero, a character whose struggle for redemption is central to the central conflict of most Aldrich films.
But his experience at Enterprise did more than shape Aldrich’s aesthetic. It also taught him the importance of power, business sense, and effective leadership. In an interview conducted during the late-1960s, Aldrich remembered Enterprise as “a brand new departure, the first time I can remember that independent film-makers had all the money they needed.” But he realized regretfully how such an opportunity was wasted by poor management. “The studio, in fact, had everything in the world in its favor except one thing,” he said. “It didn’t have anybody in charge who knew how to make pictures. . . . When, as they inevitably must, people began to realize that the end product wasn’t worth all this extra care and concern, the bubble burst and the dreams faded. But I think it will be tried again some day.” Aldrich, in fact, spent much of his career trying to recapture the spirit and freedom of Enterprise Productions, eventually investing his sizable profits from The Dirty Dozen(1967) in his own independent studio. However, Aldrich Studios, like its predecessor of two decades earlier, proved another failure, closing after only two years and four films. But during those twenty years between the closing of Enterprise and the launch of Aldrich Studios, Robert Aldrich exercised impressive freedom as an independent producer and director, completing seventeen films, including the acknowledged classics Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1963), and The Dirty Dozen.
After cutting his teeth as a director on several New York television dramas and two low-budget features, The Big Leaguer (1953) with Edward G. Robinson and World For Ransom (1954), Aldrich was hired by Ben Hecht and Burt Lancaster, who were independently developing Apache (1954) as a star vehicle for Lancaster. Aside from the obvious opportunities such a high-profile project afforded, Aldrich was also drawn to the story, which, like Body and Soul, centers on an alienated man who suffers for his refusal to compromise to larger social forces. The original script that Aldrich agreed to shoot ended with Massai, the Apache warrior played by Lancaster, returning home where he is shot needlessly in the back by Federal troops. About Massai, Aldrich later said, “I felt he could not possibly be re-accepted or survive, for progress had passed him by. I respected his audacity, courage, and dedication, but the world no longer had a place for his kind.” That ending, however, did not sit well with Hecht-Lancaster Productions, who agreed that killing the star would significantly affect the film’s box office returns. Aldrich was asked to shoot a compromised ending. Nearly twenty years later, he reflected on the experience with palatable bitterness:
If Burt had stood firm, I think the picture would have been more — “significant” is a pompous word — but I think it would have been more important. It was seriously compromised. You make a picture about one thing, the inevitability of Massai’s death. His courage is measured against the inevitable. The whole preceding two hours becomes redundant if at the end he can just walk away.
The compromise, however, would literally pay off. Shot in thirty days on a tight budget, Apache eventually grossed over $6 million. The film’s success brought Aldrich international acclaim, but also left him desperate for greater creative control.
After reteaming with Hecht-Lancaster once more on Vera Cruz (1954), Aldrich began his career as an independent. Although Victor Saville is credited as executive producer of Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Aldrich had agreed to direct the Mickey Spillane mystery only if he were allowed “to make the kind of movie [he] wanted and provided [he] could produce it.” Both Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife (1955) attack McCarthyism, personifying the HUAC witch hunt as Mike Hammer, a “cynical and fascistic private eye,” in the former film and as Stanley Hoff, an “incompetent, tyrannical” studio head, in the latter. Although he had been spared McCarthy’s wrath himself, several of Aldrich’s friends and colleagues were brought under investigation. For Aldrich, McCarthy’s fundamental assumption that the ends justified the means was simply terrifying. It was exactly the type of social force under which the Aldrich hero, as typified by Jack Palance’s Charlie Castle in The Big Knife, would be destroyed for refusing to compromise.
With the profits from Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich financed the birth of The Associates and Aldrich, thereby securing his official entrance into the turbulent world of independent film production. A year later, after producing and directing Autumn Leaves (1956) for Columbia Pictures, Aldrich turned his attention to making an “angry” war film. Frustrated by the steady stream of overly simplistic Hollywood service films, he attempted first to purchase the rights to both Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Unable to acquire either, he instead bought Norman Brooks’s unsuccessful stage play, Fragile Fox, and took the project to United Artists. UA was a natural fit for Aldrich. The company had distributed both Hecht-Lancaster pictures, as well as Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife. UA was also known for its active commitment to its talent, having already waged publicity campaigns for such controversial films as Howard Hawks’s The Outlaw (distributed by Howard Hughes in 1943, redistributed by UA in 1946), Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947) andLimelight (1952), and Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue (1953). That commitment would be crucial for Aldrich’s project to succeed. Fragile Fox, renamed Attack! (1956), is a study of incompetence and corruption in American military leadership, obviously a sensitive issue during the years of the consensus of the liberal ideology. The play ends with the murder of a commanding officer by his men, an ending that Aldrich was determined to keep. Now an independent, and secure in the power he had lacked on Apache, Aldrich was able to do so.
Attack! was budgeted at $750,000, a far cry from the blockbuster budgets of contemporary war spectacles likeStrategic Air Command and Away All Boats. Securing even that much financing for such an overtly anti-military, anti-authoritarian film, however, would have been unthinkable even two or three years earlier. The Associates and Aldrich borrowed a large portion of the money from banks, and were advanced the rest by United Artists. This had become standard UA practice under Benjamin and Krim, who bought out original owners Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford in the mid-1950s and reorganized the company with the financial backing of the Walter E. Heller Co., a Chicago financing firm. In Movies and Money: Financing the American Film Industry, Janet Wasko writes, “By 1958, [UA] was arranging financing for approximately 85% of its releases, and that year provided $6 million for production, with $25.7 million guaranteed by the company but procured from others.” Their financing strategy guaranteed United Artists a steady flow of product (and the distribution revenue it provided), which by 1956 had become a hot commodity. The major studios had all been forced to scale back production because of the dramatic decrease in box office receipts. UA, on the other hand, emerged from those transition years as a leader, signaling an unprecedented paradigm shift in Hollywood film production.
Aldrich deferred the majority of his salary in lieu of a larger percentage of the film’s gross, placing the financial burden squarely on his own shoulders. It was a risky bet. Not only was he working with a small budget and an unknown and potentially inflammatory commodity in Fragile Fox, but, not surprisingly, he was also refused the cooperation of the Defense Department. While the armed services may have been willing to cooperate with Milestone and Vidor in the 1930s, Aldrich was afforded no such luxuries. As he later told Arthur Knight, “The Army saw the script and promptly laid down a policy of no co-operation, 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.” Instead,Attack! was shot in thirty-two days on the back lot of RKO Studios with a small cast and a few pieces of military equipment (including only two tanks) that Aldrich had bought or rented and that he used throughout the film with great economy.
Critical and Public Reception
On August 30, 1956, Representative Melvin Price (D-IL), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, spoke out publicly against the Defense Department for its refusal to cooperate in the making of Attack!. He called the decision a “shameful attempt to impose censorship on a film because it dares to present an officer whose character is marred by the human failings of weakness and cowardice.” The Congressman had recently attended a preview of the picture and considered it an “exceptionally fine film.” He praised Aldrich for having completed the project without assistance, and disputed the assumption that Attack! might adversely affect a viewer’s opinion of the military, pointing out the noble actions of Costa and Woodruff, whom he described as “more representative of the Army than the cowardly captain, who is clearly an exception.” Referring to the Pentagon and its self-serving policies, Price concluded his speech, saying, “I hope the American people will not let those responsible for the injustice get away with their attempt to depict all phases of military life through brass-colored glasses.”
United Artists and Aldrich quickly capitalized on the controversy. They had originally intended to open Attack! in only a few key cities during late September and early October. However, after learning that 20th Century-Fox would be releasing Richard Fleischer’s Between Heaven and Hell (1956), a similarly-themed war film, to saturation bookings on October 11th, UA counter-attacked, switching to a more aggressive release strategy. According to Balio, UA typically based a film’s promotion budget on its projected income. Although specific figures are difficult to come by, the promotion budget for Attack! was probably between $200,000 to $300,000. The first print advertisement appeared in The New York Times on September 12th, a full week before the film would open. The teaser features head shots of the cast, their faces arranged geometrically in the shape of a mountain, along with only the name of the film and an announcement of when and where it would be opening. Capitalizing on Price’s much-publicized speech, the only other words in the ad read, “A Congressional Statement Of Thursday, August 30th Told The Inside Story!” A similar ad appeared two days later, this time featuring only an extreme close-up of Palance pulling out the pin of a hand grenade with his teeth and the question, “Is This The Most Controversial Picture Of The Year?” The two teasers prepared readers for what would greet them in the “Screen” section of the Sunday edition. It’s a fascinating advertisement — twice as large as the teasers and almost entirely textual. It begins:
THIS IS WHAT HELL IS LIKE!
This is a picture that grabs you by the throat and shoves you into the shell-ripping, lood-drenched, screaming heat of war.
Here is the hell behind the glory . . . the real guts and smell of battle! This is the story they didn’t tell-of the heroes who stood up under fire, and the few who belly-crawled out!
While pitching Attack! as one of a “handful of great battle pictures,” United Artists is also clearly trying to separate it from its contemporaries, sensationalizing the film for its lack of the “candy-coated sentiment” that dilutes their films. The only images accompanying the text are a photograph of Costa’s and Cooney’s bodies lying on stretchers and an illustration of Costa being chased by a tank. It is also the first of the ads to list the film’s credits, along with its tagline, “Attack! . . . the story of the flash-fused, fouled-up company the army called ‘Fragile Fox’!” Two more advertisements appeared in The Times, one on Tuesday, the 18th, and another on the 19th, opening day. All five ads exploit the controversy surrounding Attack!, selling it as the “raw naked guts of war grinding at you head-on like a ten-ton tank,” and comparing it to All Quiet on the Western Front and the other stories that “none would dare tell.”
When Attack! hit theaters, it ran into heavy competition. Three weeks before the film’s release, a short article in Variety examined the growing trend toward the production of big screen epics and their impact on the movie exhibition business. Because of their longer running times, films like War and Peace, The Ten Commandments, and Giant were held over for extended engagements, thereby creating a shortage of exhibition outlets and greater box office competition. United Artist’s sensationalist promotional campaign forAttack! was obviously intended to pique the interest of New York film-goers — to get them to the theater on opening day for, if no other reason, curiosity alone. The plan worked. On September 19th Attack! opened at the Mayfair Theater on Broadway to impressive box office numbers. By week’s end it had taken in more than $32,000, making it the second highest-grossing film in the city. The day after its opening, Bosley Crowther called Attack! a “ruthlessly realistic drama” that “draws a grim and discouraging picture of the behavior of some Army officers in World War II.” He praised the film’s breathtaking battle sequences and fine ensemble acting, but complained of holes in its premise and faults in its resolution, concluding, “the completion of the drama is so charged with personal anger and hate that the whole situation collapses in a flood of hysteria.” Crowther’s mixed review, however, did little to discourage attendance. Attack! played at the Mayfair for six weeks, taking in nearly $100,000 in the process.
Attack! opened slowly across the country over the next six weeks and was met by mixed reactions. In general, it was most well-received in East Coast urban centers such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where it played at the Viking and the Columbia respectively for three weeks and collectively earned more than $60,000. But, as the old saying goes, Attack! didn’t really “play in Peoria.” Typical of its reception is in Denver, Detroit, and Portland, where in all three cities it opened to fairly impressive numbers, before dropping off by 30-40% in its second, and final, week. Reviews were likewise mixed. John McCarten from The New Yorker echoed Crowther’s sentiments, criticizing the film for its melodramatic collapse, but then calling it “a damn sight more interesting than most war films, where everybody but the enemy is as noble as an eagle Scout.” Philip Hartung in Commonweal also appreciated Aldrich’s message more than his presentation of it, writing, “So much carnage piled on carnage gets somewhat ridiculous after a while, and there is a real possibility that many viewers will end by not believing any of this diatribe — even the parts that need saying and are said so well by this good cast.” The reviewer for Time faulted Attack! for spending “more time making melodrama than making sense,” while a writer at Newsweek praised it for “giving melodrama almost the look of a newsreel.”
The mixed reactions to Attack! seem symptomatic of the culture in which it was released. As the reviewers repeatedly mention, audiences were growing increasingly anxious for a new breed of war film, anxious to critically reconsider their accepted notions of combat and its consequences, but they had yet to be socialized for doing so. Attack! ultimately earned a respectable $2 million and, according to Aldrich, turned a profit. It placed #44 on Variety‘s list of the “Top Film Grossers” of the year, finishing twenty spots and $1.5 million behind Universal Studio’s big-budget service film, Away All Boats. But 1956 was clearly a year in which film-goers were still more interested in widescreen epics and musicals — Guys and Dolls and The King and Ifinished #1 and #2 respectively — than in uncompromising and morally ambiguous examinations of our military leadership. It’s interesting to note that only a decade later, The Dirty Dozen, a violent and subversive film about a squadron of degenerate “heroes” committed to almost certain death by Allied officers, proved to be Aldrich’s greatest financial success, earning more than $18 million to become the box office champ of 1967. But by then, independent director and producer Stanley Kubrick had already exposed the ridiculousness of the arms race in his satire, Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Arthur Penn was simultaneously redefining our notions of screen violence in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). In 1956, however, Americans had not yet grown accustomed to the confrontational images of Vietnam as displayed nightly on the evening news. Their eyes were only slowly opening to the dangers buried beneath the consensus of the liberal ideology. Attack! quickened the process, hitting American audiences head-on like a ten-ton tank.
— presented at American Culture Association National Conference
New Orleans, LA, April, 2000