The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
Callous brute US Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans), with the rest of his unit having been brutally wiped out (and him having miraculously survived by having the bullet that went through his helmet ricochet around and exit out the back… hence the titular steel helmet reference of the title) and a young North Korean boy (William Chun), orphaned by the murderous conflict, who rescued him, join forces with another platoon, leading to immediate clashes between Zack and the inexperienced by-the-books leader Lieutenant Driscoll (Steven Brodie). Pinned down by sniper fire and losing men, they hunker down in what they believe is a deserted Buddhist temple unaware a North Korean major hides in the shadows waiting to quietly knock them off, one by one, as well as eventually alert his side’s artillery units to reign devastating strikes down on the temple.
Out-of-control with rage, Zack (Gene Evans) shoots up and kills an unarmed North Korean prisoner of war at point blank range. A scheming communist POW (Harold Fong) clandestinely works to undermine the allegiance of both the black American medic Col Thompson (James Edwards) and the Japanese American Sergeant Tanaka (Richard Loo), by pointing out how the only reward a black man will get for putting his life on the line for his country will be to get sent to the back of the bus when he gets back home (as he certainly would have in 1951) and reminding Tanaka (Richard Loo) of the shameful treatment of Japanese Americans less than a decade before when over two hundred thousand (including, we learn, Tanaka’s mother and father) were rounded up and interned in concentration camps after the start of World War II. When the platoon, early in the film, runs across another all-white platoon, the new lieutenant immediately accuses the black medic of desertion. At one point, Zack muses, matter-of-factly, how Driscoll would likely listen to Sergeant Tanaka ‘if his eyes weren’t slanted the wrong way.’ Zack (initially anyway) keeps referring to the young boy (who saved his life, no less) not by his name, but as a ‘gook’, even though he’s South Korean. As two soldiers get blown apart trying to retrieve a dead soldier’s dog tags, not realizing the corpse has been booby-trapped, Zack, looking like a sweaty demonic figure who never stops gnawing hungrily at his food, shrugs indifferently as he was against them bothering in the first place.
The Steel Helmet is clearly not your traditional gung-ho myth-creating American war movie (well, it does create myth, but only with little romanticism or sentimentality). These aren’t men at war bonding together despite their differences, but ones remaining divided and fighting on the same side despite the underlying racism and tensions just below the surface. While Zack, knocked senseless and rendered useless during the major siege on the temple that makes up the final act of the film in which none of the characters are safe from annihilation (something that Oliver Stone would riff on in much more over-sentimental and cloying – hence, Academy Award winning – manner with Platoon 35 years later in another Asian conflict), does appear to at least attempt to reclaim some vestiges of humanity at the conclusion, the price is revealed as so great (as he’s lost both his friend and his antagonist in the conflict) it far outweighs the earning. This is not ‘war is hell but it sure is a morality builder!’ routine that makes up so many American war films (certainly every modern one out of Hollywood, including Platoon and Saving Private Ryan, with that shameless wraparound story). In fact, less than a retrieval of humanity, Zack’s single act (involving the helmet, of course) is more a moment asking for some kind of simple recognition for the plight of the soldier, survived or killed; not for the ideals that the powers that be constantly put forth as the reasons they’re fighting (‘Freedom!’, ‘Nationalism!’, ‘God!’, yecch), but rather for the suffering, both existential and literal, they endured.
Starting from the astonishing opening images, as we watch the long, painful climb of the beast-like sergeant, his arms tied behind his back, as he struggles up a cliff side onto a ridge, where he reaches a line-up of fellow soldiers, with their hands tied behind their back and each shot in the head, Fuller reveals this isn’t going to be a rousing war movie. As the director would say in his later epic The Big Red One, which he intended as his final statement on war, ‘the only glory in war is survival’, and with his intense conviction, seriously brutal characterizations and their startlingly ballsy set-pieces set in a war that that was _stil_l going on at the time the film was released, no wonder the military and uber-right wing (and reported closet cross-dresser) FBI director J Edgar Hoover were outright furious with the director. In fact, Hoover would personally threaten Fuller twice about the less than glowing American portrayals and attitudes in his films. It was the time of the rise of the commie scare-mongering House of Un-American Activities Committee, and it’s quite amazing Fuller was never a target or accused of being a communist (likely because the senators behind the commission were nervous about calling out a legitimate decorated World War II veteran which Fuller was).
Is Fuller’s film didactic in its approach? Yes, but in a challenging critical direction that very few war films, then or now, dare tread. There is such a force to Fuller’s mostly unsentimental approach to the characters that, along with the tension-mounting final assault, he actually manages to obfuscate the fact that the setting is fairly unconvincingly constructed (he shot the whole thing in Los Angeles in a staggeringly paltry ten days! – I mean, the aforementioned siege scene in Oliver Stone’s Platoon is admittedly harrowing, but a lot of that is helped along by not only Stone’s directing, but the sheer scale and verisimilitude his larger budget allowed).
The final narrative credit, displayed as the few remaining exhausted platoon soldiers wearily plod off to face their next deadly encounter, instead of reading ‘The End’ states “There is no end to this story’. The Korean conflict may end, but war goes on and on. This little startlingly brutal tale is part of an endless loop.
Going on this fairly incomplete, yet still tremendously satisfying retrospective of Fuller films (still have his first low budget western, starring Vincent Price no less, The Baron of Arizona sitting on my desk waiting for viewing to finish it all up – well, for now, anyway), what has been perhaps the most exciting thing to discover – with The Steel Helmet being a poster child, in which I found myself emitting a literal sigh to relieve the tension after the brief 80 minutes was up – is just how much emotional intensity, complexity and harsh cynical believability Fuller was able to wring out of his films even in the face of such severe budgetary limitations. Is he the greatest of formalist filmmakers? No, not by a long stretch. But man did he do a lot with a little.