Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Steel Helmet

The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951) Shot in ten days for a budget of $100,000, The Steel Helmet was the first film dealing with the, by-then, six month old Korean War. It was Fuller's third job as a director and his first established hit, but it marks a big contrast with the World War II films that were still making their way into theaters at that point.

The credits appear over a single steel helmet in the dirt. Once Fuller's director's credit fades away, the helmet begins to move. Underneath it is Sergent Zack (Gene Evans), tied and crawling out of his place in a pit where his entire captured squad was executed, he being the one survivor. He is untied and aided by a Korean orphan (William Chun), whom Zack dubs "Short Round" and while a bit of an annoyance, the kid is kept around while the soldier looks for other Americans.

Already Fuller is differentiating this film and this war from the squadron of films that came out of WW II. By the time of the film's release, movies made about the second world war were comfortably moving into the realm of myth, sanitizing the conflict and its hardships in the name of a "good war." But Zack is a different breed. He's scraggly, bearded, and a bit of a jerk, but a survivor. Suspicious of everyone and everything, he'll at least cut some slack if you're wearing the same uniform. But you have to prove yourself.

The rag-tag soldiers of The Steel Helmet
After fending off an attack from soldiers disguised as villagers praying at a small shrine, he and Short Round run into Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards), a medic, also the last survivor of his platoon. Thompson stitches Zack up and soon, they come across another group of dog-faces, lost in transit to a mission: to find a particularly strategically located Buddhist temple and establish a post. Along the way, the make-shift patrol is attacked by snipers hiding in the trees and attempt to disarm a booby-trap...unsuccessfully.

By this time, personalities have come to the fore. Every soldier is a "type," but not the usual religious and ethnic melting pot from the second World War films. Among the group is a yokel, a soldier who doesn't say much, a conscientious objector, a "green" college-educated officer, a Nisei soldier (who'd been to the West Coast concentration camps during the second world war and portrayed by veteran actor Richard Loo), and Thompson, who's black. This is stronger stuff than the Jews, Poles and Italians who provide "color" to white-washed war films of the previous decade. These guys are scruffy, too, and though typed, there's enough personality and grit to make them stand out as individuals, not tokens.

The crew makes their way to the temple, little suspecting there's a Korean sniper already entrenched there, outnumbered and biding his time, hiding in the shadows. As the soldiers set up a bivouac, the Korean takes out another of the rank and gets wounded in the process. The squad starts to squabble about what to do with their prisoner, while the whole time the huge Buddha observes mute in the background.  Eventually, Thompson treats the wounded captive, but once he's healthy again, the English-speaking prisoner starts to try to subvert Thompson and Tanaka by questioning why they would fight for America, given the racial prejudice visited on both their races.
That scene got Fuller in trouble with the FBI and the Army (who provided the film with stock footage) both for its portrayal of American troops and for bringing up American social deficiencies that might provide aid and comfort to the enemy (The Daily Worker also criticized the film for being too "right-wing"—leaving Fuller caught in the middle between idealized ideologies, something that would happen throughout his career).  
Thompson patches up "The Red."  Notice who's holding up the IV.
Warring ideologies inform the film, as well, especially over the POW. The GI's must battle between practicalities and the "better angels" of their natures over his fate. But, the point may be moot as a squad of North Koreans is advancing on the temple. Before the fight is over, more men will die and Zack will come to a greater understanding of his place in the war and rather than being hardened by his experience, learns to yield.
On an extremely small budget and a limited scope, The Steel Helmet still manages to pack more ideas and challenging points of view than most other war films, probably because there's less emphasis on battle and more on camaraderie, there's more getting along and survival skills than actual combat, which sets it apart. In typical Fuller fashion, the film is blunt, tough, practical and makes the most of its budget, while nudging insistently out of audience's comfort zones. Despite that (or maybe because of it) the film became a minor hit and launched Fuller into a Hollywood career directing and becoming a maverick doing it.

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