If there is one filmmaker who I would call my “spirit animal” — a being who is trusted with guiding one on a journey of self discovery — it would be Samuel Fuller. His films, every one of them, bristle with the life he’s experienced first hand. From old fashioned newspapermen (Park Row) to the horrors of WWII (The Big Red One), Fuller captured the things he lensed with his own eyes in startling detail and dialogue. Even with limited resources and sets, few actors and short production times, he could churn out something to chomp on. Something with passion and vigor. For him, it was all about the story.
The Steel Helmet is a wonderful highlight of these qualities. The opening shot (from a camera) is of a pierced helmet, seated just above a hill. Slowly, it moves up, revealing Sgt. Zack, who crawls among the casualties of his unit. Fuller moves past body after body, pulling back as Zack pushes forward. Right off the bat, the cinematography alone tells all. It highlights the danger of Zack’s predicament, how lucky he was to survive. Furthermore, Fuller restrains from showing the atrocities of the Korean War too soon.
The movie is equal parts poetic wordplay, pulse pounding action and heartbreaking devastation. Through Sgt. Zack, a rough gruff who has served for many years in the infantry and wears his scars like badges, Fuller presents the embodiment of American gung ho-isms. The rabble rousing/rude awakening attitude of “Let’s get ’em!” permeates through Gene Evans’ performance of Zack, who gives everyone he comes across some kind of well meaning but ill advised nickname, usually based on a racial epithet. Zack has seen it all and done it all, but nothing has prepared him for what he’ll come across next.
Fuller’s production covered ground that few films of the time — or even today — would dare try. When a North Korean POW is caught and held in a Buddhist church, two black soldiers get caught up in an attempt at manipulation. The POW brings up Jim Crow and internment camps in short order, trying to weasel from his bonds. The men seem upset, but in a stoic way. They respond that America is a constant work in progress, and would prefer molding it than living under other circumstances. This injection of lofty idealism is refreshing for the cynical era we now see ourselves in, breathtaking and earnest.
Of course, the film’s ideals and statements are in service of the story, which comes first. Zack’s current mission ends in a fury of anger, revenge and heavy gunfire. Knowing the Sgt., this seems inevitable, but it’s still quite shocking to witness. Out of the soldiers presented, he seems the most likely not to crack under pressure, keeping a calm if ugly philosophy on fighting. Beyond his busted up cigars and grizzled visage, he’s as vulnerable as clay. You can only go so far into the breach without losing it all, apparently.
There are flaws in The Steel Helmet, like extras used multiple times or props clearly made of cheap materials, but they are all understandable, forgiven and at the behest of the tale being told. Fuller’s Korean War tome was clearly made on the quick, but long gestated in the mind and soul. It is the result of things seen and thing that can’t be unseen. Answers don’t come easy, but they do come if you’re looking for them. They rise above the vantage point, underneath a pierced helmet.
Watch ‘The Steel Helmet’ at FilmStruck.
Bill Arceneaux (@billreviews) is an independent film critic from New Orleans, and a member of SEFCA.