Fragile Fox is an American riﬂe company occupying a town in Belgium near the frontline in the closing days of WWII. They are commanded by Captain Erskine Cooney (Eddie Albert), a conniving coward who freezes under ﬁre.
Cooney’s position is the result of his connection to battalion commander Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett (Lee Marvin), a longtime friend of the Cooney family. But his ineptitude is causing morale problems and aggravating Platoon Leader Lt. Joe Costa (Jack Palance), a brave and resourceful combat soldier respected by his men.
Cooney’s capable executive ofﬁcer, Lt. Harold Woodruff (William Smithers), struggles to keep the peace between Cooney and Costa while he tries to get Cooney reassigned to a rear echelon desk job.
When the Germans launch the Battle of the Bulge, Cooney is ordered to take the town of La Nelle. Without knowing the whereabouts of the German soldiers, Cooney refuses to commit the whole company to a coordinated attack and orders Costa to lead a reconnaissance probe over open ground. Costa agrees as long as he is promised reinforcements if his men are ﬁred upon.
As they approach La Nelle, a dug-in SS unit opens ﬁre on Costa’s platoon. With most of his men killed or wounded, Costa and his fellow survivors seek shelter in a farmhouse.
Costa calls for reinforcements but Cooney panics and ignores Woodruff’s pleas, turning to drink. When panzer tanks appear, Costa and his men are forced to retreat. Costa tells Woodruff over the radio to warn Cooney that he’s “coming back!”
Costa goes missing, but almost all the other soldiers make it back to base where the men are not afraid to show their displeasure: Bernstein (Robert Strauss) spits at Cooney’s feet and Sgt. Tolliver (Buddy Ebsen) refuses to drink with him, telling him that where he comes from “We don’t drink with another man unless we respect him”.
Woodruff and Cooney are told to hold their position, but Woodruff threatens to make a formal complaint to General Parsons, the colonel’s superior, over Cooney’s poor decisions.
A drunken, distraught Cooney tells Woodruff that his father beat him to “make a man” out of him and that Bartlett gave him his command as a favour to Cooney’s father. At this point Costa suddenly reappears, determined to exact vengeance on Cooney, but a renewed German attack sends him back into combat.
Costa grabs a bazooka and knocks out a German tank, only to have his arm ﬂattened by its treads. A handful of men, including Woodruff, Sgt. Tolliver, and a wounded Pvt. Bernstein, take refuge in a basement. Costa suddenly appears, and bleeding profusely from his crushed arm, falls over and dies before he can kill Cooney.
Cooney then suggests that the rest of the men surrender.
When Cooney goes to leave the cellar, Woodruff shoots him and then insists that Tolliver place him under arrest. Instead, the soldiers take turns shooting Cooney to share the responsibility.
Bartlett arrives with reinforcements and the Germans retreat. Woodruff is promoted to Captain and given charge of Fox Company after the soldiers claim that Cooney was killed by the enemy.
Bartlett voices his plan to nominate Cooney for the Distinguished Service Cross, enraging Woodruff and causing him to accuse Bartlett of corruption. Unfazed, Bartlett reminds Woodruff that he has too much to lose if he goes public.
Calling his bluff, Woodruff gets on the radio to call General Parsons.
Scandalised by its subject matter, the US Department of Defense banned Attack! from American military bases, but critics and the film-going public sided with director Robert Aldrich. The film opened in major American cities in October 1956 to excellent reviews and solid box ofﬁce returns, recouping its $810,000 production costs more than twice over.
Lt. Joe Costa
Capt. Erskine Cooney
Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett
Cpl. John Jackson
Peter van Eyck
Lt. Harold ‘Harry’ Woodruff
Pvt. Jacob R. Abramowitz