The Steel Helmet
Cast & Crew
Sgt. Zack, a hard-bitten U.S. Army Infantryman battling Communist North Koreans in the Korean War, is the sole survivor of an enemy attack on his regiment. A bullet hole in Zack's helmet serves as a grim reminder that he narrowly escaped death. When the sergeant regains consciousness, he finds a young Korean boy with an M-1 rifle surveying the scene of the massacre. The boy, an orphan from South Korea, whom Zack names "Short Round," wants to be Zack's friend and insists on scouting for him on his search for the enemy lines. Zack is reluctant to let the boy travel with him, but consents to the arrangement until he can deliver Short Round to safety. On their dangerous journey through the war-torn territory, Zack and Short Round come under attack from two Communist guerrilla soldiers disguised as women praying at a religious site. After killing the two guerrillas, Zack and his charge encounter Corp. Thompson, a black medic who is also the sole survivor of a North Korean attack on his platoon. Thompson joins Zack and Short Round and the three continue their search for the front lines. They eventually encounter an American patrol regiment under the command of Lt. Driscoll, whom Zack knows and dislikes. As Driscoll is in need of an experienced soldier to help his patrol set up an observation post at the front, he offers to put aside his differences with Zack and asks him to join his regiment. Zack initially refuses to join the patrol but changes his mind following a sniper attack by Communist guerrillas. Zack continues, however, to hold his opinion that the men in Driscoll's unit are mere amateurs, especially Priv. Baldy, who carries a music box with him, and Priv. Bronte, a conscientious objector in World War II. Soon after Driscoll's unit and Zack's companions set up their observation post at an apparently deserted Buddhist temple, they come under a surprise guerrilla attack. In the ensuing battle, a Communist officer from Manchuria is taken prisoner by Driscoll, who intends to deliver his prized capture to his base. During his captivity at the observation post, the Manchurian officer tells Driscoll's Japanese-American sergeant, Tankaka, that he should be ashamed of his allegiance to a country that interned his people during World War II. Tankaka ignores the prisoner's words, prompting the prisoner to call him a "dirty Jap rat." While Driscoll's unit prepares to clear out of the observation post and return to camp, they are attacked by snipers and Short Round is killed. Motivated by a desire to avenge the boy's death, Zack kills the Manchurian officer in cold blood. The situation looks bad for the Americans, as a large Communist force is making its way to the temple, but they are saved by the arrival of a U.S. Infantry platoon. In the ensuing battle, however, Driscoll is killed and Zack is injured. Following the defeat of the Communists in the battle, the Infantry division escorts Zack, Thompson and the remaining men in Driscoll's unit back to camp.
Robert L. Lippert
John Francis Murphy
The Steel Helmet
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
The Steel Helmet
Dead man's nothin' but a corpse. No one cares what he is now.- Sergeant Zack
They all look alike to me.- Pvt. Bronte
Don't you know how to tell the difference, Fat Paul?- Sgt. Zack
No.- Pvt. Bronte
He's South Korean when he's running with you. He's North Korean when he's running AFTER you.- Sgt. Zack
Well, Sergeant, I told you it was a waste of time.- Lt. Driscoll
If I was right all the time I'd be an officer, Lieutenant.- Sgt. Zack
I just don't understand you. You can't eat with them unless there's a war. Even then, it's difficult. Isn't that so?- The Red
That's right.- Cpl. Thompson
You pay for a ticket, but you even have to sit in the back of a public bus. Isn't that so?- The Red
That's right. A hundred years ago, I couldn't even ride a bus. At least now I can sit in the back. Maybe in fifty years, sit in the middle. Someday even up front. There's some things you just can't rush.- Cpl. Thompson
When I get out of this, I'm gonna join the Air Force. No more beetle-crushing for me!- Sgt. Tanaka
Aw, be smart. There's nothing like the infantry. If you're in a plane and get hit, what happens? You still gotta fall. There's two strikes against you. If you're on a ship and get hit, you can drown. In a tank, you can fry like an egg. But in the infantry, you get hit and that's it. One or the other, you're dead or alive. But you're on the ground. Get wise, there's nothing like the infantry.- Sgt. Zack
Is he kidding?- Sgt. Tanaka
A recurring character name in Fuller's films.
The following written, onscreen dedication appears before the credits: "This story is dedicated to the United States Infantry." Samuel Fuller's onscreen credit reads: "Written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller." The film ends with the written statement, "there is no end to this story." This was the first American feature-length film about the Korean War, which began in late 1950.
According to material contained in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in October 1950, the Breen Office raised a number of objections, from the standpoint of the Production Code, to certain details in the script. The criticisms ranged from the inclusion of offensive expressions, such as "gook," which appeared in the final film, to the insensitive portrayal of Buddhism and the disregard for the sanctity of the Buddhist temple. In this matter, the Breen Office urged producer Robert L. Lippert to confine the violent scene in the temple to an ante-chamber so as not to show the wanton destruction of Buddhist religious icons. Notes in the MPAA/PCA file also indicate that the Breen Office informed Lippert that it did not approve of the story's unpunished murder of the North Korean prisoner of war, as it was a direct violation of the Geneva Convention code.
In response to the Breen Office complaints, associate producer William Berke assured them that the only destruction to the temple would be done by enemy fire, and that "Zack" would be punished more severely for murdering the North Korean prisoner of war. While the U.S. Department of Defense refused to grant the production its offical approval, it did furnish the production with with some stock military footage of artillery fighting and tank maneuvers. A February 1951 Daily Variety news item notes that although the Pentagon raised objections to the film's unfair depiction of American officers, the film was booked, uncensored, for the entire circuit of Army and Air Force camps in the United States. An October 1951 Variety news item noted that the exhibition of the film in Iran had been marked by Communist demonstrations, which resulted in the barring of the film there.
According to modern sources, the film was shot in only ten days, including a day and a half of exterior scenes in Griffith Park in Southern California. Modern sources also note that the unexpected success of the film led to a contract for Fuller with Twentieth Century-Fox. The Steel Helmet was the first of a small number of films in which Lynn Stalmaster, who became a prominent casting director, appeared as an actor.