THE STEEL HELMET
Pros: Realistic and quite harrowing; strong lead performance from Gene Evans
Cons: Low budget limits the film’s overall effectiveness; some ideas not developed in a satisfactory manner
Samuel Fuller’s third film overall, 1951’s The Steel Helmet, is undeniably his first that’s truly outstanding, following the story of an Infantry sergeant fighting in the Korean War. Unlike most of the war films of the day that served only as flag-waving epics, Fuller’s film becomes a surprisingly harrowing, sometimes brutal tale which doesn’t pull its punches in detailing the horrors and absurdity of war. The film also, in its own underhanded way, examines the issue of racism during the 1950s by pointing out that blacks and Asian-Americans were fighting for the same country that looked down on them prior to the war. Though obviously hampered by a low budget that ensures this thing looks like it was filmed in the California countryside (and it was), it winds up being one of the more memorable of the old time war movies.
Zack and Short Round, ready to take on the world…
The film begins by introducing sergeant Zack, who has miraculously survived a massacre by North Korean forces when the bullet fired at his head bounced around inside his helmet instead of piercing his skull. Zack is quickly befriended by a young South Korean boy nicknamed “Short Round” (inspiration for the character in the Indiana Jones movie?) who tags along as the sergeant attempts to reunite with friendly forces. These plans are forgotten however when Zack is recruited by a ragtag patrol in an attempt to help them secure a Buddhist temple as an observation post. From here, Fuller’s script presents a realistic view of the hardships of conflict as experienced by a purposely stereotypical platoon of soldiers. All the expected characters are here: slightly goofy, naïve new recruits, an idealistic, inexperienced captain, the token black guy, a Japanese-American soldier, the former conscientious objector who’s now a machine gunner, and even a mute. In comparison, Zack seems to be the stubborn old goat, but having a veritable “Pez dispenser of wisdom” along for the ride might just whip these recruits into shape and make them true soldiers.
Quintessential Samuel Fuller: stogie in hand, firing off a pistol instead of calling “action” to begin a shot.
One thing that’s immediately evident when viewing this piece is that Fuller’s script (which draws upon the writer/director’s own experiences fighting on the front lines in WWII, with Zack being a stand-in for Fuller himself) presents a(n appropriately) microscopic view of the Korean War. It’s also pretty remarkable that The Steel Helmet falls very much in line with more modern war films; an almost ruthless, emotionally affecting portrayal of armed conflict. Zack becomes more and more attached to Short Round as the film goes along, which winds up causing some heavy melodrama by the end of the piece. Though Fuller’s script values bravery and sacrifice above all else, it certainly doesn’t glorify combat itself, instead arguing that the whole concept of war is downright absurd.
This first feature film dealing with the Korean War rapidly points out that no one fighting on the ground even knew what they were fighting for. Even today, those who remember the Korean conflict in the first place are still confused about just what the whole thing was all about – the scenario leading up to it wasn’t nearly as cut and dry as the one leading to WWII. A further idea in the script deals with the idea that there’s absolutely no connection whatsoever between the Americans and the South Koreans they’re allied with. There’s a great scene in the film in which one of the Americans starts playing “Auld Lang Syne” on a portable organ, only to have Short Round start singing along to the tune in Korean – none of the Americans knew that the music for this popular song is actually the same as used for the Korean national anthem. It’s also interesting to note that, in the mind of the Americans, all the Koreans – whether they’re allies or foes – are viewed as being “gooks, and it’s only the fact that Short Round is helpful to Zack that the sergeant’s perspective on this matter begins to change.
The interior sets created for the Buddhist Temple are pretty impressive.
As is typically the case with Samuel Fuller movies, this one is full of serviceable but unspectacular visuals. Fuller films were designed simply to work as intended, and it’s clear that the director was never concerned with wowing an audience with his technically stunning visual compositions. That said, The Steel Helmet does have some nice moments from a visual standpoint courtesy of cinematographer Ernest Miller – check out the scene where a wounded enemy soldier emerges from behind a multi-armed statue of Buddha and also the nifty, high-angle shots looking down at the Americans as they scurry about on the first floor of the temple. I wasn’t at all convinced by the California locations or the truly pathetic balcony set that obviously overlooks a drop curtain as opposed to “the great outdoors,” but the sets used to portray the Buddhist temple the Americans wind up defending is actually (shockingly) fantastic, with a large and imposing (if Americanized) statue of Buddha sitting in its main hallway.
Zack in action against enemy snipers.
Gene Evans is outstanding as the smart-mouthed, world-weary Zack, whose character starts to warm up as the film goes along since he becomes a sort of father figure for Short Round. Evans is particularly effective late in the going, when he starts to break down under extreme physical and emotional stress. A scene where Evans acts as a sort of Greek Chorus to the patrol’s captain while chowing down on a melon is great and just one of many instances where Fuller provides Evans with super snappy dialogue If he wasn’t so spot-on with his assessment of the situation, a viewer could easily call Zack a tremendous jerk.
In other roles, William Chun is likable and cute as Short Round, but sorry to say, most of the rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well, with Richard Loo as the Japanese-American possibly faring the worst. Loo almost seems to be acting in a comedy rather than a dramatic piece, and his over-performance downplays and ultimately ruins an deadly serious scene commenting on the unequal treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (this film features the first mention of the fact that Japanese Americans were rounded up in internment camps during the war). I should point out that some of the issues with the acting may be due to Fuller’s (overbearing) handling of story material, since another moment in which the black medic stationed with the patrol (played by James Edwards) is confronted with the idea that the country he’s fighting for doesn’t treat his race as equals similarly plays in an awkward fashion and doesn’t hit as hard as it should. It’s brave that Fuller would even tackle issues like this (which was a bit of a no-no in 1951; Fuller actually landed in some hot water when the US Army didn’t take too kindly to his portrayal of warfare as depicted in this film), but one wishes he would have allowed his main points to develop and play out in a more natural manner instead of hammering them home recklessly. Alas, Samuel Fuller was never one for subtlety.
Finishing up with a small-scale but rather exciting battle scene, The Steel Helmet would be the film that truly pointed writer/director Samuel Fuller on the path to success. Many of the lessons learned here would serve to make 1953’s equally economical and efficient Pickup on South Street Fuller’s best-known, most highly-regarded film. Though Steel Helmet does look like the low budget wonder it actually is and has some issues with regard to its script’s tone and development, the dramatic realism and wonderful performance of Gene Evans alone make this a must for fans of war movies. Truly, this film was ahead of its time, perhaps more similar to the foreign-produced war films (Kon Ichikawa’s two World War II films from the 1950s – 1956’s The Burmese Harp and 1959’s Fires on the Plain – came to mind for me) than to the American war films of the day. It also pointed the way towards more responsible and realistic cinematic portrayals of warfare by abandoning the then-typical “gung ho!” approach. Both as a prime example of Samuel Fuller’s talent, and as one of the best war movies of the early 1950s, this one is definitely recommended.
Released as part of Criterion’s First Films of Samuel Fuller box set, the film is presented in a nice-looking full-frame, black and white print. As with the other films included in this box (I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona), there are unfortunately, no extras.
5/10 : Minimal onscreen gore, but some fairly intense violence and realistic depiction of combat where not everyone walks away unscathed.
3/10 : Though there’s no profanity here, the language is pretty rough and course, with some potentially derogatory remarks.
0/10 : Not a woman or hint of sexual tension in sight – after all, these are “good ol’ American boys!” AHEM!
3/10 : A bit more interesting than the typical war film from the late ’40s/early ’50s, but not weird enough to excite the typical cult film fanatic.
“What a fouled-up outfit I got myself into…”
Short Film Clip – Zack is introduced to the patrol: