|Cast:||Gene Evans, James Edwards, William Chun,
Richard Loo, Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton,
Richard Monahan, Harold Fong
"Don't let your emotions get the best of you. Dead man's nothin' but a corpse. Nobody cares who he is now" - Sgt. Zach
Released during the early stages of the Korean War, Samuel Fuller's film seems to look at the war from an individual standpoint. According to his interview in The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera, the first thing that went through the mind of Fuller, who was a corporal for 3 years during WWII, when he made his first kill was "I'm alive and he's dead." It was through this and so many other experiences and incidents he documented during his tenure that he put together his many war films.
The Steel Helmet's cigar chomping protagonist Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans), who stormed the beach at Normandy, seems primarily if not only concerned with once again making it out alive. He appears to be a selfish, uncaring, hardened loner, but selfishness as well as smarts, skill, awareness, and certainly luck are the main reasons he's still around to fight.
One of the things that makes the film so good is there are a lot of individuals. This isn't the typical war movie where a group of clean attractive Caucasians band together to protect American freedom and democracy. The movie avoids this and most other stereotypes typical to war pictures, presenting a unit of scraggly smeared face grubs that aren't heroic and don't do anything glorious or political. What's important about its atypical nature though is the focus is on what could be rather than what is.
The individuals include a medic, Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards), who happens to be black. Normally he wouldn't be allowed to share a seat or a meal with the whites, but here both sides value him because he has knowledge and technique that's needed for their men to survive. There's also a Japanese American, Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo, one of Hollywood's most recognizable stereotypical Japanese villains), who is by a large margin the most valuable in what's left of Lt. Driscoll's unit. Like Zach he survived WWII, but since his eyes are the wrong shape the inexperienced and lost congress elected 90-day wonder leader won't pay attention to anything he says. There are several other outcasts and misfits in this patrol Zach and Thompson hook up with. One of them lugs a portable organ through the jungle, another can't grow any hair due to a childhood sickness, and a third appears to be a mute. Some of the later aren't worth a damn, but they all help break down the common perception of what the people responsible for protecting America look like.
"Do you know how to tell the difference, Fat Paul? He's a South Korean when he's running with you; he's a North Korean when he's running after you," explains Zach. The lack of difference between the individuals trapped on the battlefield is best displayed in the classic opening sequence that is extremely riveting and tense because it continually confounds our expectations by revealing as little information as possible. We first see a steel helmet with a hole in it. It's such an odd opening we probably don't even realize what we are seeing, just assume it outlasted its owner and is now on the grass. When the credits are through we realize there was part of a shoulder there too, as the helmet rises up revealing a soldier peering to see if it's safe. As he starts crawling out of the trench, we see there's something wrong with; he's squirming like a worm. His hands are tied behind his back with his own shoelaces, so he's a goner if the enemy is around. A shot from the knees down reveals an armed barefoot presence lurking. The soldier sees him and tries to play dead, but he's so nervous he can't stop breathing detectably and opening his eyes to check how far away he is. A close-up from the hairline to the bridge of the nose reveals a young slant eye. As he picks up the knife, we expect him to run the soldier through, but he instead cuts him free revealing he's from South Korea. The soldier, Zach, doesn't bother to thank the kid and comments that he "looks more like a dog face than a gook."
There is no explanation of the reasons the countries are fighting, and the quote at the top of the preceding paragraph is about the only explanation of the sides during the entire film. What the withholding of information does here is not make us want to know why the sides are fighting (moviegoers got plenty of that propaganda in the news anyway), but make us focus on the human beings that are fighting. Fuller makes it very clear the sides have little idea of friend and foe, with things like North Koreans being called Russians, and thus are not bound together very tightly. This idea of the individual trying to survive amongst thinly drawn alliances was also present in Fuller's great red scare film Pickup on South Street. Here though, at the same time he makes this point, he also makes us realize how well everyone is capable of coming together. And that the shame of it all is it takes having someone else to blow away for us to forget our mistrust of the other races among our foreign friends and especially among our own countrymen.
The most important character is The Red (Harold Fong), an enemy major the rag tag unit catches that tries to turn the maligned American infantry men on their country by pointing out such ridiculousness as segregation and Japanese internment camps. What The Red doesn't understand is that as long as they have a country things in it can get better, and by proving their worth to their country they can potentially contribute to that process.
Aside from giving Fuller a forum to vent his frustrations on the racial injustice in America, The Red has a second less obvious purpose. His efforts are the same as Zach's, to stay alive. The duo form the perfect Fuller anti-hero and anti-villain combination. You can't really love them or hate them, but you can't really disagree with much of what they do or say. What you can do is understand them, and wonder if you wouldn't be the same if you were in their shoes. But more importantly you can realize that both sides consist of people cast from the same molds.
In contrast to the red major, there's the orphan South Korean boy that saved Zach, dubbed Short Round (William Chun) because Zach says he's not going all the way with him. Short Round is a wide-eyed smiling innocent that knows enough about the area and the tools to be helpful, but not enough to be safe, if there's such a thing when you are in the jungle and look like the people both sides are shooting. Short Round, who was the model for Steven Speilbum's stereotype purporting comic character of the same name in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (overrated Steve also borrowed from this film and seemingly every other very good war film in his oscar mongering Saving Ryan's Privates, and cast Fuller in his dud 1941) isn't one of those annoying cute kids; he's more a model of how we can get along with people that are different. He looks past the ignorance of the Americans toward his race and religion and does his best to be useful to Zach, rather than losing his cool and getting into a fight about it. The thing is by remaining calm he is able to teach Zach about himself. Zach isn't set straight overnight, and he isn't suddenly interested in Short Round's customs and way of life, but he grows to the point he's somewhat respectful of Short Round and his beliefs.
There's one scene where the patchwork patrol accidentally forms a bond. Zach demands the organ be put to some use, and surprisingly everyone knows the tune. The soldiers think Short Round is singing "Old Anxiety" in Korean. Short Round is extremely impressed the American can play the Korean National Anthem so well. No one argues about it, they just respect whatever the music means to the individual, and for once they seem to belong together.
It's through Short Round that we learn about the real Zach. The hardened no nonsense person he shows is just a character he plays to keep the others on their toes and doing what's necessary for everyone to survive, similar to the persona a sports coach might assume. When no one is looking though he spins the Buddhist prayer wheel for good luck. He doesn't believe, but he could be wrong.
Like Fuller, Evans served in WWII. That's actually where he began to act, as he performed in Europe with a theatrical troupe of GIs. This was one of his first roles, and also the first of five with Fuller, including two more of Fuller's most memorable films Park Row (where he's equally impressive as the editor that sets up his own paper to do things better than the majors, and for the right reasons) and Shock Corridor. One thing I like about Fuller's style is the characters can get angry or emotional in a moments notice. He mixes extreme situations in with the ordinary ones, so we get a more rounded sense of the individual, and what they are capable of. His goal was to show every phase of the main character. Sometimes this sent his films in unbelievably or unnecessary directions or was simply hamfisted, but you at least knew what he was going for.
The best acting of Evans dynamite performance is in the scene after Short Round is killed. It's the one time Zach begins to come out of his persona publicly, as he tries to assert "It's his own fault. Told him I didn't want a kid tagging along" while holding back the tears. Then as he walks away so no one can see his face, The Red translates the Buddhist prayer Short Round had attached to his back. It says, "To Buddha, please make Sgt. Zach like me," then Red declare the note stupid, crumbles it, and tosses it to the floor. Realizing his persona led to Short Round going to his grave thinking he didn't like him, Zach shoots The Red full of holes, blaming him for what some other soldier for his country did because of the war. Then when Sgt. Driscoll finally steps up and becomes a leader, making Zach realize he did what he's been preaching against - let his emotions get the best of him - he grabs what's left of the dying Red and screams, "If you die, I'll kill you."
The weakness of the film is the budget. The film was made for a mere $103,000, with concessions like a wooden enemy tank. Even though the film isn't about effects and explosions, once in a while the lack of funds does show. In particular, some of the shots for the Red army attacking the Buddhist temple don't match the color and texture of the rest of the film. That said, the supposedly great Ang Lee just had a budget of more 100 times Fuller's, and came up with something that looks like a PlayStation game that wouldn't even look good enough to justify the rental fee. How good this film does look is a testament to Fuller's ability as a director. This isn't as spectacular as some of his later films where he has the fluid tracking shots, but it's not supposed to be because it's not an exciting, upbeat, and energetic ode to his love for journalism like Park Row. In a way, it benefits from its cheapness because it gives it a grittier documentary type of look. Where it's really good is the camera placement. It shows a great ability for not telegraphing the upcoming action, which especially with the violent outbursts in his films makes it particularly interesting to watch. One scene in Steel Helmet where Zach flashes back to WWII was even used by Martin Scorsese, a big Fuller admirer, as the inspiration for the second boxing match in Raging Bull.
Unlike Raging Bull, the film is not particularly graphic. It contained several things that Fuller really witnessed in the service, for instance the booby trapped body blowing up the would be dog tag retrieving soldier. However, Fuller admitted the one place he lied in his films was having bodies fall rather than showing the true disgust of their pieces being scattered everywhere, basically because he didn't think it could be filmed without glorifying the gruesomeness. He was much more concerned with showing the truth about the issues; it seemed he liked to say his politics were humanity in a way that implied there should be no other type.
Fuller enjoyed showing how ridiculous things were by filling his films with contradictions. This film has one of his funniest, with Zach's group using a Buddhist temple as an observation post. Of course, the kind of observation they are doing, of the war enemy, is close to the opposite of the kind that was intended to be done in a sanctuary of peace that honors a god who is a symbol of non-violence.
By the end of the film, you realize it was not only about the individuals, but the collective identity of the groups, races, and nations they come from. War effects everyone. Fuller has been wise enough not to try to explain the war, how many times was there ever one that was logical and made sense anyway, but to instead show through his characters of different age, race, and side that the prejudices, hate, misunderstanding, and fleeting alliances are just as absurd and insane as the war itself. That's one reason it's best to make sure you stay alive; you never know when something will turn things in your favor.