The Steel Helmet (1951) Sam Fuller

The Steel Helmet- Title

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 Steel Helmet shortroundThe 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.     

The Steel Helmet fuller

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.

SteelHelmet1Gene 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.

TheSteelHelmet_zackIn 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.

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20 comments on “The Steel Helmet (1951) Sam Fuller

  1. Judy says:

    A great and detailed review, John – you make this sound like a very powerful and harrowing film. All the background you have included about Fuller and the reaction to the movie adds a lot. Great stuff!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Judy.

      Fuller is a true rebel in the Hollywood hierarchy and a real primative. He used his newspaper tabloid background in much of his work on the screen. He also made one of the great newspaper themed films “Park Row.”

      • J.D. says:

        Agreed. PARK ROW is an incredible film and not widely known probably because of its lack of availability on home video. Fortunately, Turner Classic Movies shows it often.

        THE STEEL HELMET is a great film and I quite enjoyed your review. I would have to say that it’s probably my fave Sam Fuller film with SHOCK CORRIDOR and FORTY GUNS close seconds.

      • John Greco says:

        R.D. thanks again – I have to agree with you that The Steel Helmet is probably my favorite Fuller work.

  2. R.D. Finch says:

    John, a great post. I’m in the process of watching some of Fuller’s work and was favorably impressed when I saw this recently. Fuller sure accomplished a lot with few resources at his disposal, and Evans really was sensational. Fuller pulled no punches about his political views, but they were so all over the map that nobody could ever accuse him of being an ideologue! I’ll probably be presenting my own (less detailed) take on the movie in a couple of weeks.

  3. John Greco says:

    R.D. – Evans really great in this film. A brillant convincing performance. Look forward to reading your review.

  4. […] appears to be another fantastic review up at Twenty-Four Frames of Fuller’s The Steel Helmut: http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/the-steel-helmet-1951-sam-fuller/   Our man Tony d’Ambra has several new post sup at his place, including two on Paris and New […]

  5. Sam Juliano says:

    I’ll definitely have to seek out that documentary there John, as your uncompromised and wildly enthusiastic review here does bring Fuller into urgent focus. Mind you, I probably would identify this particular film as Fuller’s masterpiece, though a few others like PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE NAKED KISS would be under consideration. At the conclusion of your segment describing the film a sunflinching in its depiction of the horrors and realities of war I think you make the proper clarification here:

    “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.”

    Excellent point, and one that shouldn’t be underestimated in some of his other work (even the editorializing WHITE DOG) but I’d say Fuller was really in his element with THE STEEL HELMUT, which unlike the rest of his output was nearless flawles sin its execution. Again, a tremendous review, and was most entertaining to read.

  6. John Greco says:

    Thanks Sam. The Fuller documentary is very good. It was a few years ago I caught it on TCM (I believe). Unfortunately, I did not record it. “The Steel Helmet” is is one of the really great war films, truly a masterpiece, and I agree on the other three films you mention are definitely in the same ballpark. I have not seen “White Dog” yet which I am going purchase a copy soon.

  7. Dave says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Sam’s assessment in tapping THE STEEL HELMET as Fuller’s masterpiece. He has many other works that I like, namely Pickup On South Street, but this remains my favorite from him. A great film, and it’s amazing to think that this film got made _during_ the Korean War. I was very close to picking this as #1 for 1951 in my countdown, but I still have deep personal attachments to A Place in the Sun, and it ultimately finished as the first runner-up.

    A great essay as usual, here, John. I love the background info, as I honestly did not know much about the movie, its production, or its stars.

    • John Greco says:

      Well Dave, I’m glad your are a supporter of this film, certainly one of the best and most honest war films to be made. I understand your love for “A Place in the Sun” and M.Clift, who is one of my favorite actors. If I were to go on and name my top 10 actors he would be in the top five somewhere. thanks!

  8. Samuel Fueller is one of quite a few legendary filmmakers I’m yet to try (I know, you must now be thinking, “and yet this guy has the audacity to call himself a cinephile!!!”). However I’ve recently got old of his Naked Kiss, and am hoping to correct the blemish with it.

    • John Greco says:

      Shubhajit,

      “The Naked Kiss” is a great film. If possible you get a hold of “Pickup on South Street”, “Shock Corridor” and “Forty Guns.”

    • Dave says:

      Shuhajit – I have many such glaring holes in my own viewing history too, as I’m sure most folks in the blogging world do. But I would definitely recommend checking out The Steel Helmet and the others that John has recommended (Pickup on South Street being my other favorite, with a great Richard Widmark performance). Fuller is an interesting director… he’s so cynical, it’s hard to think of him in the same light as many of his contemporaries.

      • John Greco says:

        Like Nick Ray, Fuller is one of the most idiosyncratic of American filmmakers. His films are like no other, rough on the edges maybe but they hit you full force. I imagine that for filmgoers who first watched this film back in the early 1950’s it had to be somewhat shocked by the mind-set of the film. With most war film “heroes” of the time being John Wayne types and in this film, we see a bitter, war weary Sgt Zack. It is quite a contrast.

  9. […] The Steel Helmet offers up plenty of evidence to confirm its B-movie origins, with obvious incorporation of grainy stock footage during the battle scenes and a generally boxed-in feeling that reflects the backlot sets and nearby SoCal hillsides where the movie was shot. The highly quotable dialog is full of rough-edged sentiment and dark humor: “If you die, I’ll kill ya!” “He’s South Korean when he’s running with you. He’s North Korean when he’s running AFTER you.” “If I was right all the time I’d be an officer, Lieutenant.” A lot of these anecdotes were gathered by Fuller himself, based on the diary he kept in his own combat experience in the 16th Infantry Regiment, the same assignment drawn by Sgt. Zack. […]

  10. caleb says:

    good review. try and cut out the grammatical errors, though. usage of “there”, apostrophe use (e.g. Fullers American’s), and comma use (e.g. Zack grabs, the dying North Korean…)

    otherwise, well done

  11. Tony Madejczyk says:

    Thanks for this review. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person I know who is profoundly disappointed in AFI, The Academy and basically the entire American film/film education establishment.

    Fuller’s films were rediscovered in the 1970s, when Hollywood actually made product with a cultural edge.

    It’s through blogs like this that I find some hope that future filmmakers and audiences will get their groove back.

    • John Greco says:

      Hi Tony and thanks for your comments here. The AFI has been known for playing it safe. Sometimes more interested in promoting DVD’s sales of movies for the studio’s than actually doing something more constructive. When the AFI came out with their TOP 100 film list, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum came out with his own Alternative TOP 100 film list, which he only put in alphabetical order. Fuller’s THE STEEL HELMET made this list along with plenty of other interesting choices. Below is a link if you want to take a look.

      http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/list-o-mania/Content?oid=896619

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