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Giuseppe De Santis


Arthur Kennedy, Peter Falk, Andrea Checchi, Tatyana Samoilova, Rafaelle Pisu, Otar Koberidze, Ricardo Cucciolla and Yuri Nazarov.


A visually stunning anti-war drama with great performances and a sheer number of memorable anti-war messages.

An Italian unit is sent into combat on the Russian Front, starting out on the winning side until finally being wiped out during a harsh winter retreat.

The story is so episodic that I can't really get into the plot too much. There is no plot; the film is a series of encounters, each with a strong anti-war slant - almost of each of which will seriously leave you shocked. A face-to-face encounter between a Russian and Italian infantryman in the middle of a snowy field which ends in devastation; an ironic twist of fate involving an aristocratic Italian doctor (Peter Falk) and a Russian prisoner (Yuri Nazarov); the constant background image of turmoil and civilian living conditions as armies march back and forth, burning villages and ruining life for those who have no say in war; a drawn-out firing squad sequence; a soldier who treks to reach home and wanders into the middle of the final battle; and the final retreat, in which the Italians are pursued by the Russians and cannot stop their overloaded vehicles for the wounded, often having to run them over at full speed rather than stop and thus be captured. Each episode is set of itself. There are no main characters, besides the Colonel (Andrea Checchi) who tells of the war in a letter to his wife. I can't develop these episodes very much because each one ends surprisingly and I don't want to spoil the film for anyone.

De Santis paints a constant picture of hopelessness. Even Russian in the spring looks harsh, and even more so in the winter. The actors look as though they are really freezing the conditions are deplorable. The mud, the hand to hand fighting, the bombed out towns in the background - it's all a grim, dirty and very honest portrait of what war is like for the guys up front in the trenches. Armando Travajoli's haunting score adds a sharp edge to an already depressingly sharp knife: bound to slice into your heart and move you in one way. In that, the film makes a great companion piece to The Battle of El Alamein. Both films tell true stories of Italian grunts fighting in awful conditions against unbeatable odds. On their own, defied even by their German allies, the Italians have only their own survival and personal pride to fight for. Underfed, under-equipped and under strength, they never gave up until it was ultimately impossible to keep on fighting.

I saw Attack and Retreat on home video from Belle and Blade. The movie is said to run 156 minutes, and this print runs 136 minutes. Some prints are even shorter, apparently, and this video is the only way to track down the movie within the United States. It is presented in pan-and-scan format, mastered from a worn-out negative. The black and white picture doesn’t suffer too much, but it's full of holes, speckles, scratches and a few splices. The audio pops and hisses once in a while, too. In a way this is annoying but in another it adds an even rougher edge to the onscreen action. It's a wonder I found this classic at all and I'm happy to have it in any format.

Attack and Retreat shows us what war is like from the front-line soldiers' point of view perfectly. Front lines troops always live in grim, dirty conditions without any luxury at all, and civilians in the combat area always get caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Then, the front shifts, and civilians are left to fend for themselves while soldiers leave their dead in the field and move on to fight in deplorable conditions elsewhere. And the cycle repeats itself. You attack, and you retreat. That's all war is. Like it or not, the cycle will be repeated eventually no matter who wins. In a perfect world, everyone would realize this and stop fighting. But this isn't a perfect world and Attack and Retreat is a brutal, bitter reminder of this sad fact. Honestly, I believe it's the finest anti-war film I've ever come across and recommend it whole-heartedly.


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