Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Steel Helmet: An Appreciation

Released in 1951, Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet remains a revelation. A Korean war movie shot cheaply on sound stages and in the foothills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, The Steel Helmet was released when the war was in full swing. It's a harrowing, claustrophobic portrait of Americans at war in a strange land. They don't understand each other let alone the enemy.

The movie begins with a close-up shot of the titular helmet. It belongs to Sergeant Zack, a grizzled, seen-it-all soldier played by real-life WW II vet and (until this movie) bit player Gene Evans. Zack and his helmet rise over a the side of a hill. The camera follows Zack as he climbs over the ridge and through the dirt, his hands bound behind him. He crawls through a cluster of dead bodies--fellow soldiers recently killed in a skirmish. It's a riveting shot, hard to watch and disorienting, but essential as an opening. We are there with Zack, deep in the shit. 

Zack hears footsteps and plays dead. Instead of a North Korean soldier, the feet belong to a young South Korean boy. The boy cuts Zack loose. Zack is grateful, but he's also a squinting, cigar-chomping, war-weary soldier, and so can't let his soft side show. Short Round, as Zack christens the boy, tags along, promising he knows the way to the nearest river.

Photographed in black and white, the scrub brush and sparse tree cover of the foothills they walk certainly look as though the famous Hollywood sign is just over the next ridge. But the over-bright landscape adds to the feel of men out of their element.

Soon Zack and Short Round are walking through an even more otherworldly landscape, that of a foggy nighttime. With each footfall echo, it's obvious the night exteriors were shot on a Hollywood sound stage equipped with an enviable fog machine.

They run into an American patrol. Zack knows some of the men. He shows his beleaguered courage by helping save the patrol from two snipers hiding in nearby trees. It's a tense scene shown in real time as Zack lays down fire, watches where the return shots are fired from, and takes dead aim at the snipers. It's one of the many examples where director Fuller brings his wartime experience to bear. Another concerns a soldier told to retrieve a dead American soldier's dog tags, only to walk into a rigged bomb.

The patrol eventually holes up in a temple that houses a huge statue of Buddha. Short Round, a Buddhist, begins to pray to the statue immediately. The statue's presence calms the soldiers, and they do their best not to disturb the peace of the temple. This plan is short lived.

With a brimming social conscience, Fuller equips The Steel Helmet's ragtag patrol with a cultural cross section including an African American, a Japanese American, and a conscientious objector nicknamed Conchie. At one point the black medic, while dressing the wounds of a captured North Korean, concedes that he is fighting a white man's war while still consigned to the back of the bus. "Maybe in fifty years I can ride in the middle," he says. It's amazing to think that this movie was made before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Not many Hollywood directors were casting black actors at this time, let alone dealing with race issues.

After the North Koreans discover there's an American patrol hiding out in the fortress, an enemy battalion attacks. The final shootout is almost thrilling in a kind of Wild Bunch way (certainly the way a stationary machine gun is used seems tailor made for a Peckinpah movie). But Fuller doesn't want his audience to feel a thrill; he wants them to feel the call and response of actual wartime battle. He's depicting the reality of death tolls on both sides, and the strain put upon those soldiers that survive. Each soldier fighting alongside Zack has his own quirks and hopes: when they die we too are hit with their loss.

The movie cost $100,000 to make--a tenth of the average movie budget of the time--and was shot in ten days. Technically, it's a bit rough and overreaching; certain scenes seem cramped, perhaps due to the fact that Fuller had to cheat shots to make it appear that his scope was wider than he had the budget for. And the film includes some painfully scratchy real wartime footage of anti aircraft guns going off and the resultant explosions. But overall the movie achieves a unique vision of a single episode in a war full of thousands of such episodes, told by a filmmaker who had the gravitas to pull it off.

Considering that no movie about the Vietnam war was released until about four years after that war ended, you get an idea of the cojones hanging low on Mr. Fuller for releasing this just when America's involvement in the Korean war was getting hot. But the movie was a big success for him, so apparently the audience of the time craved just such brave storytelling.

Samuel Fuller was born in Worcester, Mass in 1912. His career was full of iconoclastic choices, and he continued writing, directing, and even acting in Hollywood movies well into the 1990s. He died in 1998.

Some of his other films as director include:
I Shot Jesse James, 1949
The Baron of Arizona, 1950
Fixed Bayonetts! 1951
Pickup on South Street, 1953
China Gate, 1957
Underworld U.S.A., 1961
Shock Corridor, 1963 (soon to get the full Criterion Collection treatment)
Naked Kiss, 1964 (also getting a Criterion face-lift)
Shark (aka Caine), 1969 (with Burt Reynolds!)
The Big Red One, 1980 (with Lee Marvin and Luke Skywalker!)
White Dog, 1982 (about white supremacist dogs! With TV's Kristy McNichol and Jameson Parker! And Paul Bartel?)


Liz's Mom said...

Beautifully written and very touching.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading. I'll be back to the regular reviews this week.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Great review, Dell. The Steel Helmet sounds fascinating. Thanks. :)

Fiddlin Bill said...

The resonance with the Wild Bunch's "Battle of Bloody Porch" are so strong I wonder if Peckinpah wasn't aware of Steel Helmet. And the ending credit--"this story does not end,"--that's almost exactly the ending of the Bunch, where Ryan and the old codger go off to fignt with the Mexican peasants, in the sense that their war hasn't ended either. There are a lot of similar details in the battles, such as how people take the machine and fire until they are killed, and the shots of the endless and faceless NK soldiers being mowed down. And Short Round is a very important player, a child in the war. Peckinpah uses children throughout Wild Bunch, and it is a child soldier who shoots Pike as he wields the machine gun. Too bad we can't ask Peckinpah--surely he did see Helmet.