Prod Co: Deputy Corp/Lippert Productions Prod, Dir, Scr: Samuel Fuller Phot Ernest W. Miller Ed: Philip Cahn Art Dir: Theobold Holsopple Mus: Paul Dunlap
Cast: Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Richard Loo, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, William Chun, Sid Melton, Harold Fong
Shot on location in Griffith Park over ten days, costing $10,000 and earning over $2 million at the box office following its release seven months after North Korean troops crossed the 38th Parallel, The Steel Helmet has received extensive analysis in the fields of auteur and genre criticism. Its dynamic visual style and reputation as the first Hollywood film to depict the Korean War testify to its deservedly high critical reputation. Fuller’s radical style and thematic preoccupations arose at a particular historical conjuncture that allowed this great practitioner of low budget cinema to examine the nature of his own culture at war with a supposed “other”, and critically expose its contradictions.
As Steve Fore notes in his doctoral dissertation, American Korean War films operated in a more dialogical and less consensual manner than their World War II predecessors (1). Although Hollywood did not initially view Korea as a different kind of war, battlefield reversals, the threat of the Atomic Bomb, and the fact that there was to be no easy victory, led to a disunited Korean War genre that soon became as “forgotten” in popular culture as the war itself (at least this is how it is conceived by many historians). Not incidentally, The Steel Helmet was directed by an actual combat veteran of the previous conflict refusing to “retread” conventions but instead ruthlessly exposing flaws within the combat genre and the America he dearly loved. As Fore comments,
This is a very nervous film, an exercise in coping with a brave new world. Just as the veneer of Eisenhowerian placidity and materialist complacency overlaid an America made increasingly skittish by the bomb, McCarthy, and wars hot and cold, so The Steel Helmet is a film of contradictions. It adheres to basic generic conventions (e.g. the melting pot squad of infantrymen, the largely faceless enemy, and the cathartic concluding battle) but there is a disturbing subtext here which disrupts and subverts audience expectations of the war movie genre. (2)
After providing a dedication to the United States Infantry, the credit sequence shows us a steel helmet with a bullet through it. The martial music we hear is punctuated at three points: a title accompanied by the whizzing sound of a bomb before it explodes, and credits introducing the central actor (3) and director. After the director credit appears accompanied by the same sound, the helmet slowly begins to move. We next see Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) crawl out of a ditch, pass the bodies of his executed platoon, until he then stops upon hearing the sound of an approaching character, who turns out to be the war orphan Short Round. Zack is essentially also a war orphan, after having miraculously escaped death when the bullet ricocheting inside his helmet was jettisoned and left a scar clearly visible on his forehead. The bullet in his helmet signifies a ricochet effect that foreshadows the overarching structure of the film. Rather than representing a linear-directed odyssey that reaches a certain goal, The Steel Helmet announces itself as a circular exploration of the collisions and contradictions within America that may never achieve resolution. This is also reiterated in the film’s final title-card, “There is no End to this Story”. Although The Steel Helmet may initially appear to reproduce the familiar theme of American redemption through a little boy (seen most gratuitously in Jim Hutton’s role in The Green Berets [Ray Kellogg and John Wayne, 1968]!) or that of war’s brutalising effect on an individual soldier (played by Aldo Ray in Men in War [Anthony Mann, 1957] and The Naked and the Dead [Raoul Walsh, 1958]), Fuller emphasises instead the contradictions affecting the America represented by virtually all the players in this drama (4). Like the Buddhist prayer-wheel seen in the Temple, the film’s issues will continue circulating like the bullet that penetrated Zack’s helmet, never achieving any form of satisfactory resolution unless directly confronted by an America that doesn’t really want to know.
The dialogue, as well as the visuals, highlights the deliberate use of collisions and contradictions. Commenting on Short Round’s speech, “You talk more like a dogface than a gook”, the Korean boy responds, “I’m no gook. I’m a South Korean.” When he later sings what appears to be “Auld Lang Syne”, he corrects his audience by stating that it is the South Korean National Anthem. As Phil Hardy notes, if Zack gradually becomes humanised by his encounter with Short Round, the boy also becomes a dogface by wearing steel helmet, boots, and by resembling Zack “with chocolate smears round his mouth, which give the effect of a moustache and a heavy growth of beard” (5). Fuller blurs boundaries in a highly dialectical fashion in accordance with his particular brand of American historical materialism. This seasoned veteran does not engage in postmodernist gamesmanship. He instead raises contradictions in his audience, not in the hope that they will be solved according to the correct handling of contradictions in the manner of Chairman Mao but as colliding elements designed to escape rigid ideological closure. He does so in the hope that viewers may move forward to that goal contained in the final caption of Run of the Arrow (1957): “The end of this story can only be written by you”.
One of the most striking images in The Steel Helmet is that of the Buddha’s silent face in the temple. While Zack briefly pauses before the statue of a warrior with axe outside the temple, the Americans enter the temple as a group pausing in silence before the huge object as Short Round previously did in reverence. The image’s resemblance to silent G.I. Joe (Sid Melton) is not just humorous (as the interaction between them shows) but also a serious suggestion that the Americans can never escape their internal problems no matter how different the landscape. Buddha has a recognisably American face suggesting that it is now impossible for America to project internal tensions elsewhere as a convenient scapegoat. The silent North Korean Major kills Joe, who only speaks in the last few seconds of his life. When captured, he repeats Short Round’s refusal to be stereotyped, “I’m not Russian. I’m a North Korean Major.” He tries unsuccessfully to exploit internal racial contradictions by provoking both the black Corporal Thompson (James Edwards) and Nisei Sergeant “Buddhahead” Tanaka (Richard Loo). Both experience discrimination from an America they now fight for. The sequence depicting the last moments of the Korean Major’s life begins with the camera tracking down from the head of the Buddha and reveals the blood transfusion device attached to the statue’s finger. When he dies, affirming Buddhist (and not Marxist) beliefs, the camera tracks towards Zack showing the Buddha’s head dominating him. Short Round had written a prayer hoping that Zack would like him. The nearest this brutal soldier ever gets to exhibiting this is making a wooden dog-tag, something he throws away not long after Short Round’s death. Straight after this scene is a diagonal overheard shot showing the Buddha at the left of frame as Private Baldy (Richard Monahan) suddenly enters right foreground to announce the North Korean attack. During the assault, Zack uses the Buddha statue as cover in the same way that the North Korean attempted to conceal himself behind another statue before his discovery.
Everyone in the film encounters confusing worlds that contain historical contradictions. No type of national identification is sufficient to protect them from personal trauma. The famous line, “If you die, I’ll kill you!” is no malapropism – no matter how much certain audiences believe themselves superior to its implications – but a verbal signifier of the impossibility of resolving contradictions. It complements the contradictory image of the Buddha. Like Thompson, Zack is a World War II “retread” feeling superior to the confused Korean War melting-pot platoon he encounters. He caustically refuses Lt. Driscoll’s (Steve Brodie) attempt to repair the breach between them, recounting his D-Day experiences when another officer, Colonel Taylor, uttered a memorable war cry: “There are two kinds of soldiers: Those who are dead and those who are going to die. Let’s get off this beach and die.” (6) During the final battle, Zack experiences Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) and cannot distinguish between both conflicts, stating: “Did you hear what the Colonel said? Get those Krauts. Get out of the boat.” At the end of the film, Zack acknowledges Driscoll’s role in the earlier and very different war and finally exchanges helmets. Zack also encounters a World War II conscientious objector, Private Bronte (Robert Hutton), who intends to study for the priesthood. When challenged over the fact that he is now fighting, he replies just before dying, “If a man lives in a house which is in danger and he wants to keep living in it, then he should fight for it”. Bronte will live in neither house, either in America or Korea.
Despite the fact that four characters survive at the end, all exhibit that “thousand-yard stare” well known to combat veterans (7). But Zack clearly suffers the most from P.T.S.D. Despite the fact that he prides himself on being a World War II combat veteran, combining American racial exceptionalism and animalistic survival qualities, these aspects are not enough to save him. The collisions and contradictions existing at the heart of The Steel Helmet overwhelm him. They may also do so for any spectator who does not listen Fuller’s cinematic historical lesson concerning the necessary abandonment of false historical myths – whether in the cinema or just prior to whatever first combat experience they may face in future wars.
- Steven James Fore, The Perils of Patriotism: The Hollywood Film as Generic and Cultural Discourse, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, 1986, pp. 69-73.
- Fore, p. 84.
- Evans was low on the star totem pole but his appearance is essential to effectiveness of the film. He served in the Engineers during World War II and Fuller fought to secure him as lead actor instead of Larry Parks whom the producers wanted to get on the cheap due to his blacklisting problems. See Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, pp. 256-265.
- This interaction between soldier and little boy is, of course, treated in a more complex manner by Fuller. See Nicholas Garnham, Samuel Fuller, Secker and Warburg, London, 1971, pp. 74-75.
- Phil Hardy, “The Steel Helmet”, Samuel Fuller, ed. David Will and Peter Wollen, Edinburgh Film Festival, Edinburgh, 1969, p. 22. See also Phil Hardy, Samuel Fuller, Studio Vista, London, 1970, p. 100.
- Taylor was Fuller’s old company commander whom he phoned when under investigation by the F.B.I. over the scene that shows Zack shooting an unarmed prisoner. By this time a Brigadier-General, Taylor confirmed Fuller’s assertion that such an act did happen despite the Geneva Convention. See Fuller, p.264.
- Any claim that the survivors are fit enough to “go off and continue the battle” ignores the obvious visual evidence. See Albert Auster and Leonard Quart, How the War was Remembered: Hollywood and Vietnam, Praeger, New York, 1988, p. 13. For information on Fuller’s combat experience and relevant studies of P.T.S.D., see Tony Williams, “Vietnam War Studies: A Cultural Materialist Approach,” Viet Nam Generation vol. 4, no. 3-4, 1992, p. 127.