This is a revised version of a review originally written for Halo-17
He has been called guerrilla filmmaker, a primitive filmmaker and a tabloid filmmaker. Whatever title you want to label him with, Sam Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” is a low budget masterpiece made for $100,000 in 10 days, and it may just be the most honest and brutal look at war ever put on film. Produced, directed and written (he used his own diaries as source material) by Fuller, “The Steel Helmet” is the story of a battle weary Sergeant known only as Zack the sole survivor in his unit massacred by the North Koreans. As portrayed by Gene Evans, a World War II veteran himself, Zack is cynical, bad-tempered and unemotional. The film opens with Fuller’s camera focusing in an extreme close-up of a bullet-ridden helmet. As the camera pulls back, we see the dirt filled face of an American soldier underneath. We not sure at first if he is alive or dead. He starts to crawl hoping to avoid any potential lingering enemies. Suddenly, we see a pair of legs in peasant pants with a rifle hanging down by his side. Like us, Zack is at first unsure who the legs and the gun belong to. Fortunately, they belong to a sympathetic young Korean orphan who will tag along with Zack as he tries to make his way back to safe territory. The kid is soon nicknamed Short –Round (Guess where Spielberg and Lucas borrowed the name for the young kid in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”).
The two make there way through the foggy terrain soon meeting up with a black American soldier, Corporal Thompson (James Edward), a medic, and escaped POW. Together they move on, eventually meeting up with a rag tag squad of American soldiers led by an arrogant, by the book, Second Lieutenant named Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Zack takes an instant dislike to the shake and bake officer. As a harden World War II veteran he resents Driscoll whose only credentials for being an officer are six months of training and an Act of Congress. When Driscoll ask Zack to lead his unit to a deserted Buddhist Temple, Zack refuses, telling them they’ll have to make it on their own. Zack does have his Achilles heel though, cigars. Offered a box of cigars, he reluctantly agrees to lead them. Once at the Temple, they set up an observation post, which they use to direct artillery attacks on the enemy. The North Koreans eventually zero in on where the American firepower is directed from and a vicious deadly battle takes place.
Fuller has filled the screen with brutal battle scenes presenting one of the harshest views of the realities of war. Bloody, horrific and deadly. The men are dirty and scared. There are no heroes and no cowards, just men trying to survive and survival is precarious. Fullers Americans are multi-cultural, from different backgrounds, filled with misfits and offbeat characters. From John Wayne’s patriotic war films to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, we have seen the unit composed of the misfit, the hotheaded kid, the kid from Brooklyn, the kid from the mid-west, the pacifist and so on. What makes “The Steel Helmet” unique is a coarse quality that filters throughout separating it from the others. This coarseness is apparent in most of Fuller’s works and probably due to his tabloid newspaper background.
Released while the Korean War was still going on, Fuller’s film, a financial hit, was no flag-waving piece of propaganda. The film pulls no punches in dealing with racial issues. In one scene, a captured North Korean Major tries to undermine Corporal Thompson, the black soldier, telling him he is fighting for America, yet back home he is forced to ride in the back of the bus. Later the major attempts similar type bait with a Japanese-American soldier who he tells is a fool fighting for America since during World War II many Japanese-American citizens were placed in internment camps. This stark honesty in dealing with racial issues was rare and shocking for its time, likewise was Fuller’s vision on the treatment of prisoners of war. When an enemy sniper kills Short Round, the young orphan, and the North Korean Major ridicules the boy’s death, Zack shoots and mortally wounds the POW. When Lieutenant Driscoll threatens Zack with a court-martial after the shooting, Zack grabs the dying North Korean being treated for his wounds by Corporal Thompson and yells at him “If you die, I’ll kill ya!”
Fuller’s tackling of sensitive issues like racial relations and the treatment of POW’s upset the U.S. Government to such a point the he was put under investigation, even though he served in the First Infantry Division (The Big Red One) during World War II seeing action in North Africa, Sicily and Omaha Beach on D-Day. Politically, Fuller’s film upset both the left and the right each side accusing him of favoring the other. Despite all this, “The Steel Helmet” was a big hit at the box office.
Gene Evans, in his first starring role, gives an extraordinary performance as the tough, cold, cynical loner who does not let his emotions cloud his survivor instincts. He survives because he shows no mercy and his only interest is in killing as many “gooks” as he can. Zack displays no political motivation, no discussion about whether war is right or wrong. This was Evans first role under Fuller’s direction. He would go on to make four more films with Sam, including “Park Row”, “Fixed Bayonets”, “Hell and High Water” and “Shock Corridor.” Also noteworthy is James Edwards who gives a great performance as the war fatigued black medic. “The Steel Helmet” was only Fuller’s third film as a director. This independent production, filmed partially in Los Angles Griffith Park was a financial success with film audiences making over two million dollars and bringing Fuller to the attention of Twentieth Century Fox.
In 1998, soon after the American Film Institute announced their Top 100 American films, “The Steel Helmet” was included in noted critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Alternate Top 100 American Films list. Rosenbaum compiled his list as an alternative to the “lackluster” listing provided by the staid and corporate minded AFI. If you are interested in Sam Fuller and his work, a wonderful documentary called “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera” is certainly worth seeking out.