My notes on The Steel Helmet (1951)
Sam Fuller was always eager to get into whatever war the United States was involved in, and by working cheap (for famously tight-fisted Robert L. Lippert) with an oddball cast managed to make the first Hollywood film about the conflict in Korea – though his script is full of anecdotage from WWII and the fact that many characters are either ‘retreads’ (WWII soldiers recycled back into action) or still nursing grievances (many racial) from the earlier war means it doesn’t come to grips with many of the specific issues of Korea (there’s no mention of any other UN participants in the war, which here seems to be between America and ‘the Reds’). Opening credits roll over the title object, which has a bullet-hole in it, and we then find out the head inside belongs to Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans), a bearded veteran who has been tied up and left for dead in a ditch along with his whole platoon. He wriggles out of the ditch and is freed in a battlefield meet cute by a Korean orphan he names ‘Short Round’ (William Chun), who tags along with the loner grunt as he accumulates more stragglers – a black medic (James Edwards), a despised officer (Steve Brodie), a Japanese-American (Richard Loo), a former conscientious objector (Robert Hutton) toting an organ left by a dead padre, a youth suffering from alopecia and looking for any remedy that works (Richard Monahan) and a guy who keeps quiet until he gets stabbed (Sid Melton).
The patrol take refuge in a Buddhist temple inhabited by ‘the Red’ (Harold Fong), who spends a reel or so picking off strays as if in a prototype of It! The Terror From Beyond Space, before being captured and whispering incendiary suggestions in various ears – asking why a black man or a Nisei should fight for a country which has mistreated them, and receiving staunch patriotic responses. The black doctor expresses a belief in gradual change (‘there’s some things you just can’t rush’), hoping that in fifty years time he can sit in the middle of the bus; this now sounds dated but was incendiary in 1951 when Hollywood films barely acknowledged that mistreatment of minorities in America was systematic and enshrined in law rather than a social/psychological problem which could be treated by men of good will. Only Fuller could go with the mix of naivete, editorial, brutality, observation and melodrama – Zack is an interesting character, a tough, officer-hating survivor who is cynical enough to order the kid to loot boots from the smallest man in his former patrol and wary about retrieving dog-tags from a booby-trapped corpse (though he might have mentioned this before a GI gets killed) but whose super-soldier aspects shade into insanity in the final battle where he gets confused as to whether he’s in Korea or back on Normandy beach. Fuller shows an American shooting an unarmed prisoner in a burst of rage, hatred between an enlisted man and an officer which is close to racism, a great deal of racially-inflected dialogue (Zack calls the Japanese-American GI ‘Buddha-Head’ and Short Round hotly denies that he’s a ‘gook’), a wicked communist who turns Buddhist at the point of death and plenty of grim violence (the orphan gets killed rather than lingering gratefully until the fade-out, which suggests Fuller wasn’t entirely sure that the military action in Korea would be any help to the local population). The finale uses stock footage and defaults to somewhat standard battle action, but the aftermath is as direct and tabloid as its blaring ‘there is no end to this story’ title.
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