The Steel Helmet is Samuel Fuller’s third film as a director and his first masterpiece and it remains one of the greatest war movies ever made. I write about the film and its history for Turner Classic Movies online.
Shot in ten days, with only a couple of days of exteriors and the rest on studio backlots and sets, on a budget of just over $100,000, The Steel Helmet isn’t a paean to surface realism. Battle scenes were filled out with only 25 extras, students from UCLA who doubled as both American and Korean soldiers, and Griffith Park stood in for the Korean jungles. But what Fuller lost to budgetary restrictions he gained in the freedom to portray the experience of men in war. Where other directors who came out of World War II made films that intently explored the grim face of battle, Fuller’s war movies were about madness and meaninglessness, and that theme began here.
The film opens on a close-up of a banged-up infantry helmet, which rises to reveal a grim, grimy American soldier, staring out from under it with almost dead-eyed desperation. The soldier, his arms bound behind him, his leg wounded, writhes through the corpses of a massacre until he freezes as another approaches. All we see are bare feet, peasant pants and a dangling rifle. Is it friend or foe? That question hangs over almost every incident of the film as the soldier, gruff World War II retread Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans, an unknown in his first starring role), tries to make his way back to the American lines, with a Korean orphan tagging along like a puppy (Zack nicknames him Short Round, “because you’re not going all the way”; Spielberg borrowed the name for the cute tagalong kid in the second “Indiana Jones” film) and ragtag platoon lost behind enemy lines. …
“This story is dedicated to the United States Infantry,” reads the onscreen legend at the opening of the film. It ends with a far less comforting thought. In place of the traditional “The End,” Fuller leaves the audience with “There is no end to this story.” In between, Fuller confronts the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II (it was the first American film to address the issue in any form) and the Jim Crow laws in the South, explores racism within the ranks of the American army and shows an American soldier shoot an unarmed prisoner in a blast of pure rage.
Read the entire feature on TCM here. The film plays on Turner Classic Movies on Friday, January 3 and is available on DVD in the the Eclipse box set The First Films of Samuel Fuller.