The Steel Helmet
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The first American film about the Korean War, The Steel Helmet remains one of the greatest war films ever made. It was only the third film from director Samuel Fuller but the World War II combat veteran was determined to show war as soldiers experienced it. "You never saw the genuine hardship of soldiers, not ours or the enemy's, on the screen," the director wrote in his autobiography A Third Face. "The confusion and brutality of war, not phony heroism, needed to be depicted." Shot in ten days, with only a couple of days of exteriors and the rest on studio backlots and sets, on a budget of just over $100,000, The Steel Helmet isn't a paean to surface realism. Battle scenes were filled out with only 25 extras, students from UCLA who doubled as both American and Korean soldiers, and Griffith Park stood in for the Korean jungles. But what Fuller lost to budgetary restrictions he gained in the freedom to portray the experience of men in war. Where other directors who came out of World War II made films that intently explored the grim face of battle, Fuller's war movies were about madness and meaninglessness, and that theme began here.
The film opens on a close-up of a banged-up infantry helmet, which rises to reveal a grim, grimy American soldier, staring out from under it with almost dead-eyed desperation. The soldier, his arms bound behind him, his leg wounded, writhes through the corpses of a massacre until he freezes as another approaches. All we see are bare feet, peasant pants and a dangling rifle. Is it friend or foe? That question hangs over almost every incident of the film as the soldier, gruff World War II retread Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans, an unknown in his first starring role), tries to make his way back to the American lines, with a Korean orphan tagging along like a puppy (Zack nicknames him Short Round, "because you're not going all the way"; Spielberg borrowed the name for the cute tagalong kid in the second "Indiana Jones" film) and ragtag platoon lost behind enemy lines. The classic American platoon film calls for a colorful cast of characters; Fuller obliges with a lumpy melting pot unlike anything audiences had seen on the screen, including an African-American medic (James Edwards); a smart-talking, battle-tested Japanese-American soldier (Richard Loo) who, like Zack, fought in World War II; a conscientious objector (Robert Hutton) hauling around a hand organ with name "Fat Paul" painted on it; and an arrogant, inexperienced, reflexively prejudiced platoon leader (Steve Brodie) whose naiveté results in the death of more than one of his soldiers.
"This story is dedicated to the United States Infantry," reads the onscreen legend at the opening of the film. It ends with a far less comforting thought. In place of the traditional "The End," Fuller leaves the audience with "There is no end to this story." In between, Fuller confronts the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II (it was the first American film to address the issue in any form) and the Jim Crow laws in the South, explores racism within the ranks of the American army and shows an American soldier shoot an unarmed prisoner in a blast of pure rage. The Breen Office, which enforced the Production Code in Hollywood, objected to the use of racial slurs like "gook" used by the Americans when referring to the Koreans (both enemy and friendly) and especially the shooting of the prisoner, a direct violation of the Geneva Convention. Yet Fuller got them through, which ultimately brought down the ire of fervid right wing politicians and anti-Communist commentators. He was accused of writing anti-American propaganda and called for questioning by Pentagon, where he fielded their questions with the simple truth of his observations. This is what actually happened in battle and Fuller was determined to be honest to the experience.
The Steel Helmet is fiction but the incidents and characters were largely drawn from Fuller's war diaries, where he sketched incidents into story ideas. This portrait of war was unique in other ways as well. Scenes were often enveloped in fog, an effect that not only masked the low-budget limitations of his sets but also created a sense of isolation and confusion, where the soldiers were unable to get their bearings. He portrayed a war where the soldiers are unable to tell friend from foe ("He's South Korean when he's running with you. He's North Korean when he's running after you," explains Zack with a bitter humor) and even end up shooting at each other in the confusion. Warfare is no longer the traditional platoon movements of World War II but guerrilla fighting in alien jungles, where what appears to be monks praying at a roadside shrine may in fact be snipers waiting to ambush the Americans. The Buddhist statue in the temple where they take refuge, watching impassively at the fighting, makes for a striking image of a higher power observing the futility of men destroyed by war and soldiers whose concern is not winning battles so much as surviving them. Unlike the films of World War II, no one here really knows what they're doing here or what they're fighting for. The Steel Helmet anticipated the American films about Vietnam twenty five years later, where the Americans are strangers in a strange land just trying to stay alive.
Despite, or because of, the controversy, the film was a huge success, ultimately earning over $2 million and bringing Fuller to the attention of the studios. But whether making his films for the majors or for the independents, Fuller remained a distinctive director with his own voice and style, and that sensibility first found its mature expression in The Steel Helmet, the first of four war films he made during his career. The low-budget wonder is Fuller's first masterpiece, a gritty combination of his pulp sensibility, his tabloid instincts, and his clear-eyed remembrance of his experiences as a foot soldier, directed with passion and anger and defiance.
Producer: Samuel Fuller
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Ernest Miller
Art Direction: Theobold Holsopple
Music: Paul Dunlap
Film Editing: Philip Cahn
Cast: Gene Evans (Sgt. Zack), Robert Hutton (Pvt. Bronte), Steve Brodie (Lt. Driscoll), James Edwards (Cpl. Thompson), Richard Loo (Sgt. Tanaka), Sid Melton (Joe), Richard Monahan (Pvt. Baldy), William Chun (Short Round), Harold Fong (The Red), Neyle Morrow (First GI), Lynn Stalmaster (Second Lieutenant).
by Sean Axmaker