Thursday, February 2, 2012

CRACKER? Steel Helmet


     “Steel Helmet” was the first movie about the Korean War. It was released during the war in 1951. It was directed by WWII veteran Samuel Fuller. He also wrote and produced the film. It is a classic B-Movie which cost only $100,000. Fuller used a plywood tank and 25 UCLA students as extras. It made $6 million. The movie was “dedicated to the U.S. infantry”.

     The movie opens with the survivor of a North Korean prisoner execution (his steel helmet had deflected the kill shot) crawling from the site with his hands tied. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is freed by a Korean orphan who he dubs “Short Round” (William Chun). Zack is a racist who refers to Short Round as a “gook”, but he lets him tag along. They meet up with a black medic named Thompson (James Edwards) and it turns out Zack is an equal opportunity racist. The trio runs into a patrol led by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie) who Zack hates and disrespects. The three go off on their own, but return to rescue the patrol from an ambush by snipers. This is a good scene although it was obviously shot on a sound stage.

     The unit moves on to establish an observation post in a Buddhist temple. We have a typical heterogeneous unit including the black medic, grizzled sergeant, hick, conscientious objector, the quiet guy, the by the book officer, etc. Fuller can be excused for wanting his characters to represent the variety of the U.S. Army. Hiding in the temple is a Commie who knifes the quiet guy while the others sleep. They search the temple and Zack captures him. He turns out to be a Major who speaks English which comes in handy as he tries to persuade the minorities to switch sides. First he works on Thompson by pointing out the mistreatment of blacks in America. When this does not work, he reminds the Nisei Tanaka (Richard Loo) of the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. This was the first reference in a movie to this shameful episode in American History. Kudos to Fuller for rattling the cage.

Zack and Tanaka
      Surprise, Zack has bonded with Short Round. Unfortunately, the kid gets killed by a sniper. Zack shoots the Major out of rage in a scene that was protested by the Army until Fuller pointed out that the killing of prisoners was not unheard of. This action by Zach also caused outrage in parts of “Red Scare” America as conservatives called for Fuller’s arrest for treasonous production of an anti-American propaganda film. Double kudos to Fuller for standing up to McCarthyism.

      The Reds figure out that the temple is a forward observation post that is raining artillery fire on them. Fuller uses stock combat footage from WWII that does not blend well with the film. The enemy attacks in swarms. Weirdly, the indoor defense does not match up with the outside attack. The movie shifts to a “who will survive” mode. Being a 1951 black and white movie, the deaths come without blood or even bullet holes. (Is that the way Fuller remembered his war days?) If you bet on four surviving, you win. Zack is one of them. They hook up with a relief patrol, but first Zack replaces the helmet on Driscoll’s grave with his lucky steel pot. (Earlier Driscoll had asked Zack to trade and Zack had dissed him.)

      This is one gritty film, which is saying a lot for a movie made at a time that grit could not be combined with graphic. In some ways it reminds me of “When Trumpets Fade” with its anti-hero main character. Zack is a great character. How rare to anchor a war from this time period on a dislikable protagonist. Evans probably did the best acting of his career. The studio had pushed for John Wayne, but Fuller stuck to his guns (and his budget). The rest of the cast are B-Movie actors that rose above the class. Edwards and Loo are particularly strong. Both characters could not have existed accurately in a WWII movie. However, the Korean War-era Army was integrated.

     The movie is most reminiscent of a Western. The old surrounded-in-the-fort variety. There is a little “Stagecoach” in it as well. The biggest difference is no women to distract our warriors. Not saying that’s an improvement.

      Does “Steel Helmet” crack the 100 Best War Movies? It deserves consideration for the balls that went into making it. It is safe to say it is one of the greatest war movies ever made for just $100,000 and shot in ten days.


  1. Interesting. Why is it a B-movie? Usually that is said, at least as far as I know, when a movie is second rate, and not when the budget was very low.
    What did you mean?

  2. B movie is usually used to refer to a movie that is low budget. It does not necessarily mean the movie is bad, but of course this is often the case. It was most commonly used for Westerns and sci-fi movies, but there are plenty of war movies that fit. You can find DVDs full of them. Thanks for asking.

  3. I think that Steel Helmet is an excellent war movie, although I do not know if I would put it in the top 100. The small budget limited the final battle scene, but Fuller based a lot of the scenes on his own experience in WWII, so the movie has a gritty realism. His next film, Fixed Bayonets, showed what he could do with a budget. I like your comment that it is like a western, I had the same feeling when I was watching it.

  4. Thanks for the input. I personally found "Fixed Bayonets" to be just as low-budget looking and overall inferior to "Steel Helmet". I need to post a review on it. As war movie lovers, we have to pay homage to Samuel Fuller - one of the greats!

  5. Well, I don't know if it ended up cracking your top 100, but it's definitely in my top 20. Long time reader of your blog. Thanks for helping me pick out the best war movies to watch since I've been on a war movie kick as of late. I agree with your reviews about 99% of the time.

    Interesting how the 1950's far right protested this film for Zach's execution of the Korean Major. That actually was probably my favorite part of the movie! Nowadays you'd have the extreme left protesting it because they'd deem the execution as racist. Great movie with a hard edge you seldom seen in war movies from this era.

    Any interest in reviewing the Gregory Peck movie 'Only the Valient?' Not sure how much you get into the U.S. vs Indians military films. Keep up the good work!

  6. Thanks for the compliments. Don't make that 99% comment to any psychiatrists! I will look into "Only the Valient". Have you checked out my Facebook group - War Movie Lovers? Would love to have you as a member.

  7. On the subject of psychiatry my biggest beef with the movie is the scene where Zack suddenly starts re-living D-Day. It seemed unrealistic and took me out of the movie for a moment. Of course it's possible this sort of thing really does happen, but I would be surprised.

    It's a small quibble, though. As you and others have said this is a great movie.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.