Samuel Fuller made five war films in his career, the most notable perhaps being 1980’s The Big Red One, which came more than a decade after audiences learned to appreciate Fuller as a filmmaker and not just a director of B-pictures. Before that Cahiers-bolstered pedigree, however, Fuller scored a hit in 1951 with his third film, The Steel Helmet, which is not only his first war picture but also the first film made about the contemporaneous Korean War. Given the complex inner workings of the American psyche in the post-World War II, Korean War era, it behooves one to think that The Steel Helmet must have been a deceptive experience for audiences in 1951.

At the time, war films were a much more vital part of American patriotism (or propaganda, depending on how you view it). It was a good way to get the masses pumped up about another assured win abroad, if the previous decade’s victory in the seemingly insurmountable Second World War was any indication. What’s even better is that the genre allows for many minute variations: you can pretty much produce a movie about every section of every army involved in every combat action of every battleground. The possibilities are endless, and Hollywood has been all too happy to try them all out.

Viewers would have surely flocked to see a movie about war called The Steel Helmet – its very title suggests the stiff, metallic will of the American people – expecting a John Wayne jingoistic extravaganza, but consider this: a major studio wanted to produce Fuller’s script, but with Wayne as the lead. Fuller declined that guaranteed success in favor of shooting a film over a 10-day period on a miniscule budget with only minor character actors rounding out the cast. As for the results, it’s shocking that audiences of the time didn’t burn down the theater in response. Instead of John Wayne, we have the burly, bearded Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack, a cigar-chomping soldier with an ever-present bullet hole in his helmet – the only survivor after North Korean soldiers execute his entire unit. After being saved by Short Round, a young, Buddhistically pious South Korean orphan, the pair hook up with a black medic (another sole survivor) and a squad of soldiers (diverse enough to have a Japanese-American sergeant) with a mission: to hole up in an abandoned Buddhist temple and turn it into a vital post for the war effort.

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The “hole up in a temple” part comprises the real meat of The Steel Helmet, taking up a good portion of its second act. In writing about The Big Red One, Roger Ebert noted that “‘A’ war movies are about War, but ‘B’ war movies are about soldiers,” and The Steel Helmet embodies that latter species. Budget surely required Fuller to save the big shootout for the very end, but his writing makes genre conventions irrelevant. Drawing from his own experiences fighting in World War II (as he often did for his war films) and living in New York City, he paints a colorful cast of ragtag characters that seem more appropriate for a goofy comedy than a serious film about life during wartime – the bald (by scarlet fever) guy trying to regrow his hair, for example – yet gives the film a greater sense of verisimilitude than The Steel Helmet’s more expensive, white-bread cousins.

That’s because Fuller seems interested in giving America a cold shower, not offering another tempting dose to keep the V-Day high going, and thus imbues The Steel Helmet with a strong sense of realism. Sgt. Zack – like Fuller himself, a World War II veteran – remains stoically pragmatic for much of the movie, aware of the futility of retrieving dog tags from most assuredly booby-trapped American corpses and having experienced the senselessness of war by sheer dumb luck. Fuller also takes the opportunity to address racism and even the all-too-recent Japanese internment in very blunt terms. This realism was a source of controversy in the film’s day, as the U.S. military objected to the film’s depiction of the murder of a P.O.W., a bit of ugliness that Fuller saw firsthand. This sense of grit makes up for any jarring transitions from outdoor locations to foggy sound stages to obvious stock footage.

Even more interesting is Fuller’s paradoxical setting of the peaceful Buddhist temple that, to the film’s G.I.s, is just a building that happens to have strategic value. After 20 minutes of Zack dismissing Short Round’s written Buddhist prayers, there’s an impropriety to this situation, as if Fuller is acknowledging the inherent wrongness of soldiers in a foreign land through this heightened image. While there’s a silent soldier in the film, the really silent character in the film is the giant Buddha statue that towers over them, looking down as an otherworldly presence in this gritty war film. Sometimes it looks forward past the mere men below; other times, he looks down upon them as Fuller’s camera takes an over-the-shoulder position above the statue. It’s near supernatural, but the soldiers are the ones who don’t belong here.

Fuller neglects to end the film on any surety except that the shooting in this particular area eventually stops. As a writer, he chooses his deaths wisely – just enough of them are surprising to lend this battle senselessness, especially as his camera stops bothering to discern who’s who. Our last shot in The Steel Helmet is of the soldiers, faceless as they walk away through the gates of the temple, the words THERE IS NO END TO THIS STORY emblazoned across the screen in Magritte-like effect. Fuller knows this violent territory all too well, and as a director making a fictional film about something as big, nonsensical and real as war, he knows too well the treachery of stories.

Despite all this, The Steel Helmet was a hit and helped Samuel Fuller score a seven-picture deal with 20th Century Fox (only six happened, with the famously unproduced Tigrero being the seventh). Curiously, the first film of this partnership and Fuller’s follow-up to The Steel Helmet was Fixed Bayonets!, another film about the Korean War.

by Danny Djeljosevic

See Also: Oeuvre: Fuller- The Baron of Arizona

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