"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Steel Helmet

 “The only way to bring the real experience of war to a movie audience is by firing a machine gun above their heads during the screening.” – Samuel Fuller

Hopefully, most of us will never have to experience what it is like to fight in a war. It is a horrifying; dehumanizing experience and the best cinema can do is approximate it. If the filmmaker has seen combat, such as Oliver Stone, it can give the film an authenticity that it might not have otherwise. This is the case with Samuel Fuller, who served as an American infantryman in World War II, and applied his experiences into several of his films, most notably The Steel Helmet (1951) and The Big Red One (1980), however the former was his first war film and had the distinction of being the first one made about the Korean War while it was still ongoing. It was unflinchingly honest in depicting the war and drew criticism from some as “anti-American,” but was widely praised by most critics. It was also a financial success, paving the way for a Hollywood studio contract for Fuller.
The filmmaker kicks things off with his trademark provocative opening scene involving a shot of the titular helmet to reveal the man attached to it: Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans). Fuller pulls back to reveal that he’s the only survivor of a platoon whose bodies lie strewn around him, hands tied behind their back, including his own. He crawls towards a knife lying on the ground but someone gets to it first – a young Korean boy (William Chun). He takes the knife and after a tense moment frees Zack. It turns out that the boy is South Korean, smart, friendly and even speaks soldier lingo surprisingly well. Zack is a gruff curmudgeon that, initially, doesn’t want the kid tagging along but the child wears him down by making a convincing argument for his worth. The infantryman begrudgingly allows him to travel with him, nicknaming him Short Round.
Fuller immediately establishes the constant peril Zack and Short Round are in when they spot two people worshipping at a makeshift temple that turns out to be enemy soldiers in disguise. Even when fatally wounded, one of them tries to stab Zack only for him to kill them without hesitation. Eventually, they encounter a medic by the name of Thompson (James Edwards), also the lone survivor of a massacred platoon and together they meet up with a squad of soldiers tasked with establishing an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple. The rest of the film chronicles their attempt to defend it against overwhelming odds.

The screenplay, penned by Fuller, is chock full of his trademark, pulpy, hard-boiled dialogue with such memorable prose such as, “You got nothin’ outside but rice paddies crawlin’ with Commies just waitin’ to slap you between two big hunks of rye bread and wash you down with fish eggs and vodka.” It’s exactly the kind of dialogue you’d expect these grizzled soldiers to say to one another.
The film is beautiful shot by Ernest Miller as evident in a moody, atmospheric scene where Zack and the squad of soldiers try to kill two enemy snipers in a fog-enshrouded forest that is also a masterclass in tension as Fuller uses no music, just the sound of gunfire and we see how Zack and another soldier come up with a clever idea to flush out the enemy. This is also evident in the film’s incredible climactic battle scene as wave after wave North Korean soldiers attack the temple the squad is holed up in. It is never confusing what is happening and really manages to capture the heat of battle in an effective way.
Gene Evans is perfectly cast as the perpetually scowling Sgt. Zack with a cigar always clenched between his teeth like a live-action Howling Commandos-era Nick Fury. Zack doesn’t seem to like anyone and only gives someone grudging respect when they’ve earned it. This role was early in his career and Evans acts very natural in front of the camera, disappearing effortlessly into the role. He also does an excellent job of bringing Fuller’s colorful, purple prose vividly to life. The actor understands that Zack’s only goal is to stay alive by any means necessary. He’s not interested in making friends, in case they die, hence his gruff exterior. Obviously, Fuller was impressed with Evans work in The Steel Helmet as he went on to cast him several of his other films, most notably, Park Row (1952).

One of the more interesting aspects of The Steel Helmet is the notions of race and racism. Initially, Zack sees every Korean as a “gook” until he meets Short Round who quickly corrects him by proudly proclaiming, “I am no gook. I am Korean.” He’s fresh-faced kid sidekick but much more than that as he frees Zack, can recognize the kind of rifle he has, and the ammo required for it. He also helps Zack navigate the territory without a map. In turn, Zack allows him to tag along, instructing him to take a helmet for protection, a rifle, and boots for his feet. Fuller refuses to present the North Koreans as a faceless enemy. This is evident in a scene where a captured major (Harold Fong) is attended to by Thompson and tries to get under his skin by asking him why he serves a country that treats African Americans so poorly. He tries out the same tactic with the Japanese American soldier in the squad (Richard Loo) but it doesn’t work on either of them, whose sense of duty trumps any conflicted feelings they may have for how they are treated back home.
The inspiration for The Steel Helmet came from newspaper headlines of the day reporting on the ongoing Korean War. Fuller felt that it was only “natural for me to come up with a tale set in the ongoing conflict, utilizing my own firsthand experience from World War II.” He wanted to debunk the clichés that riddled so many war films in the past. “The confusion and brutality of war, not phony heroism, need to be depicted,” he said.
Fuller wanted to make it his way and approached independent producer Robert Lippert who greenlit it after the filmmaker pitched him the story. One of the major Hollywood studios found out Fuller was putting it together and offered to produce it but under the condition that John Wayne play Zack. Fuller balked at this, realizing that if he cast Wayne, he’d be making “a simplistic morality tale,” and wanted his film to look real with the soldiered being “human and deeply flawed.”

Fuller worked with a low budget and a tight shooting schedule of only ten days! He had started rehearsals and was only days away from the start of principal photography without an actor to play Zack. One day, Gene Evans and his agent showed up at the production office. Even though he had never been cast in a major role in a movie he told Fuller about serving as an engineer in WWII. Without warning, Fuller tossed an M1 rifle at the actor who caught it and displayed his familiarity with the weapon. Fuller knew he had found his man.
Lippert met Evans and after consulting with Fuller approved his casting but days later associate producer William Burke tried to fire Evans, telling him they were going with a more famous actor instead. When Fuller found out he was furious and went to Lippert. He found out that actor Larry Parks was going to testify at the McCarthy hearings and in danger of being blacklisted. The producers figured they could the well-known actor for a cheap price and use the free publicity he was getting from the hearings. Fuller told Lippert that he and Evans were quitting and immediately walked out. That night, Lippert and Fuller talked things over and the next morning he and Evans were on the set filming.
Capitalizing on the relevancy of the subject matter, The Steel Helmet was a commercial success. One critic called Fuller a pro-Communist and anti-American. Another said the film was secretly funded by the Russians and Fuller should be interrogated by the Pentagon. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote, "For an obviously low-budget picture that was shot in a phenomenally short time, Samuel Fuller's metallic The Steel Helmet has some surprisingly good points." Variety magazine wrote, "The Steel Helmet pinpoints the Korean fighting in a grim, hardhitting tale that is excellently told.”

Another striking aspect of The Steel Helmet, and arguably much of Fuller’s body of work, is the lack of sentimentality. He’s not afraid to kill off the most beloved character of the film and in doing so reveals Zack’s humanity, that he tries to keep buried, in a rare, poignant moment of self-reflection. Evans handles this moment masterfully through facial expressions before snapping back to his hardened G.I. At the end of the film, exhausted but alive Zack continues on. What other choice does he have? Fuller ends the film with the title card, “There is no end to this story.” A powerful anti-war statement as Fuller acknowledges what few others do – there is no end to violent conflict. There will always be a war somewhere and that is the sad reality of our existence.
Fuller, Samuel. A Third Face. Alfred A. Knopf. 2002.