STEEL HELMET, THE(director/writer: Samuel Fuller; cinematographer: Ernest Miller; editor: Philip Cahn; cast: Gene Evans (Sgt. Zack), Robert Hutton (Pvt. “Conchie” Bronte), Richard Loo (Sgt. “Buddhahead” Tanaka), Steve Brodie (Lt. Driscoll), James Edwards (Cpl. “Medic” Thompson), William Chun (“Short Round”), Harold Fong (The Red Major), Sid Melton (Joe, 2nd GI), Richard Monahan (Private Baldy); Runtime: 84; Deputy/Lippert; 1951)
“This low-budget film from Lippert Studios is probably the best film they ever made.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The screen opens to a steel helmet lying on the ground. After the credits roll by a gruff-looking bearded sergeant named Zack (Gene Evans) emerges from under the helmet, hiding from a North Korean sniper in a ravine, where he is lying tied-up and unconscious. A South Korean orphan, nicknamed by the sergeant “Short Round”(Chun-a short round is a bullet that doesn’t go all the way), unties and wakes him, as they look around and see all the other American PoW’s who are lying there dead.
The sergeant is a loner, not interested in company, seemingly busy patching up his wounded leg, sticking the stub of a cigar in his mouth without smoking it (tough army guys always chew cigars without smoking them–it’s a time-honored movie cliche). He seems to be interested in just surviving and killing as many “gooks” as he can. He has no political savvy and seems unconcerned about the reasons for the Korean War and what it means. When he mistakenly calls the kid a gook the indignant kid, who speaks a perfect English, tells him he is South Korean. The kid desperately wants to tag along with the sergeant and tells him that it is a Buddhist custom to look after someone whom they rescue: “Your heart is in my hands.” The kid has pinned on his back shirt a paper with a prayer to Buddha.
The wooded area is foggy as they try to get back to the American lines; a black medic, Corporal Thompson (Edwards), appears out of this soup-like fog. He is the lone survivor of a unit ambushed and captured by the Reds. As the three move into the dense wooded area they come across a lost unit of infantrymen, some new recruits and a few are veteran enlistees. Lt. Driscoll, the 90-day wonder, is the company leader. Zack resents him because he didn’t serve his time in WW11 and was made an officer by an Act of Congress, and he seems to be a novice. When the hard-nosed sergeant is asked to take them to a Buddhist temple, he tells them to get there on their own. When they are soon set-upon, the scraggly group sticks together and fires back at the snipers. The sergeant gives in and says he will take them for a box of cigars to be presented on arrival of their destination point.
The picture is violently graphic. It could be read as an allegory about the war except Fuller keeps it as a no-nonsense story, one where man is on his own to make of the war whatever he wants and not relying on compassion or sentimentality to survive — but his own instincts. The most important thing, is to come out of it alive.
In the Buddhist temple, a sniper hides out and kills one of the soldiers. Zack nabs the sniper from behind one of the huge Buddhist statues. The contradiction is inevitable, as the war takes place inside this sanctuary of peace. It’s a place that honors a man who stood for non-violence above all else. The men are using the strategically located temple as an observation post, as an instrument of war. What they are observing is quite different from what Buddha meant by observation.
There is a friction between Zack and the officer in command. When Zack is wrong about something and is challenged by Driscoll he fires back: “If I was right all the time, I’d be an officer.”
When one of the soldiers plays Auld Lang Syne on the hand organ, the kid sings the South Korean national anthem which has the same tune.
In one of the most pertinent scenes, the sniper captured in the temple is revealed as a Red major (Fong) who tries to bait the black medic into going against the Americans. He mentions the segregation policy in the States and that he is a fool to fight for a country where he is a second-class citizen. The medic tells him: “Some things just can’t be rushed.”
The scene is repeated with the Japanese-American soldier (Loo), who is reminded about the prison camps the Japanese-Americans were put in during WW11. The result gotten from the major, is the same as the one he got from the medic.
When the unit is surrounded by a massive Red force and there are very few American survivors, Zack comes out of it dazed just as an infantry relief unit comes to the rescue. Zack is as hard-boiled as ever; but, perhaps, with a new perspective.
This low-budget film from Lippert Studios is probably the best film they ever made. The cynical white racist sergeant embodies the way Fuller saw the war. He does not glorify the soldier as a hero or try to explain the madness of it, he just lets things happen. This is a beautifully done B&W action film, one of the most powerful war stories ever made. Gene Evans, in his debut movie role, is nothing short of sensational as a personification of mindless violence and irrationality. The film is taut and grim and is excellently paced, holding one’s interest throughout.
REVIEWED ON 1/8/2000 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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