Published on May 27th, 2008 | by Chris1
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Before the epic The Big Red One, director Samuel Fuller created another war picture, The Steel Helmet. "Helmet" was a film about the Korean War, made right smack in the middle of the war, and in it, he pulls no punches on a lot of subjects.
However, the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. I did enjoy the film, but a lot of aspects of it just left me going, "Oh, brother!"
The opening scene is probably the finest bit of film in the whole thing. It starts with our "hero", one Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) being the sole survivor of a band of POW's massacred by the North Koreans. In this amazing shot, we see his bullet-punctured helmet, and then the grisled face of Zack, followed by an incredible tracking shot which takes him out of his hiding place and shows us the aftermath of this massacre. Then a young boy with a gun approaches. Is he good or evil? We don't know!! Neither does Zack, as he braces for the worst. Then the boy (William Chun) frees him from his bonds and the real story begins. Zack gives him the name "Short Round" (which you can't help but wonder if this was an inspiration for Indy's sidekick in The Temple of Doom!) and allows him to tag along.
From there he has to shoot a pair of North Korean soldiers, masquerading as a man and woman praying at a shrine. At this point, early on, you realize that The Steel Helmet is going to be different from your average 50's war film, as Evans has to beat the 'woman' to death, before he (and us) realize its actually the enemy.
He meets up, rather randomly, with another escaped POW, an African American medic, Thompson (James Edwards) who seems equally jaded and hardened. His band increases in size when he's discovered by a wayward US patrol, made up of mostly greenhorns, and a couple of faces familiar to Zack from his time in WWII.
This motley band of characters sets out to set up an observation post in a Buddhist temple, and then things really start to get, well, strange. The movie starts to take on a rather philosophical tone, as they get to know each other a little better.
The catch is that this temple is occupied by a North Korean Major (Harold Fong) who is then captured. He proceeds to play mind games with some of the men, bringing up racial issues with Thompson and Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), something I definitely didn't expect.
The remainder of the film involves them defending their position against a North Korean incursion, leaving only a shell-shocked Zack, Thompson, and Tanaka to tell the tale.
In a lot of ways, you can see that Sgt. Zack is an early prototype of the character he'd later bring to life with Lee Marvin in The Big Red One. The same jaded, but still sort of sensitive persona, chewing on the butt of a worn-out cigar. The similarities are just too many to ignore.
He also goes way out there to illustrate the 'evilness' of the enemy, such as when one of the squad newbies is blown up by a booby-trapped body. The rest of the squad is totally taken aback by this terrible event, but Zack shrugs it off as incompetence, grabs his cigars and carries on. I don't think this kind of "frankness" existed very often in war movies of this era. Hell, I even thought I heard an F-bomb edited out at one point.
The problems with the film do take a lot away from it. The dialog can get rather stilted and phony at times, especially from Zack, Short Round, and the captured "Red." "Forced" might be a better word for it.
I also see a rather obvious non-understanding of Buddhism here, as Short Round tends to pray to Buddha like we Christians would pray to our God, and quite frankly that was one of the -worst- Buddha statues I've ever seen!!
Unfortunately, Fuller's roots as a Western-genre director come through in the final battle. The whole thing plays out like a 'Cavalry defending the fort from the Indians' episode, right down to the hoots and hollers of the encroaching Communists as they blindly charge over the hill.....
On one hand, The Steel Helmet is a great look at the early work of Samuel Fuller, there's no doubt. He pulled few punches here, and I'm surprised he got this made at all, with a lot of scenes that are really quite brutal and "to the point." On the other hand, there's just a lot not to like, I'm afraid. What could have been a true classic loses a lot of points with me for the above reasons.
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Summary: Before the epic The Big Red One, director Samuel Fuller created another war picture, The Steel Helmet. "Helmet" was a film about the Korean War, made right smack in the middle of the war, and in it, he pulls no punches on a lot of subjects.