If you look at that small subgenre that is the Korean War movie, the efforts of Sam Fuller stand head and shoulders above the others. That’s not intended to disparage those other films which deal with that largely forgotten conflict such as Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill or Anthony Mann’s Men in War. However, Fuller’s Korean movies have that gritty believability that really set them apart. Both The Steel Helmet and the later Fixed Bayonets! deal with small groups of grunts caught up in desperate battles against overwhelming odds. Fuller’s presentation of war is a bleak one where there are no false heroics; just a bunch of regular guys doing what they have to in order to stay alive.
The Steel Helmet opens with Gene Evans’ Sgt. Zack, bound hand and foot, dragging himself along the ground amid the bodies of his massacred comrades. He’s just had the luckiest of lucky escapes – an execution squad bullet having entered his helmet and rattling round inside before exiting harmlessly. From here on the story follows Zack and the rag-tag bunch of stragglers he picks up as they make their way to an abandoned Buddhist temple to set up a forward observation post. Fuller never relents and the intensity of the story builds satisfyingly to the climactic assault on the temple by the communist forces.
Along the way the members of the group are revealed to us, and through this we get a glimpse of post-WWII American society. Among this odd group there’s a black medic and a Japanese-American veteran who serve to point up the racial prejudice prevalent at the time. There are also the quirky characters of the young soldier who lost all his hair through scarlet fever, and the silent G.I. whose only dialogue comes, poignantly, at the point of death. The locals are presented through the contrasting figures of “Short Round”, the South Korean boy who befriends Zack, and the malevolent, rat-like North Korean major. It is the sneering and callous reference to the boy’s fate by the red major that provokes Zack into an uncharacteristic, yet very understandable, reaction.
Which brings me to Gene Evans. His portrayal of Zack is the lynch-pin that holds the whole thing together. He is the consummate professional soldier – weary and cynical but dedicated to getting the job done and undeniably human. Evans would give a similar performance in Fuller’s next Korean drama Fixed Bayonets! and you have to wonder why his career never really took off from here. He plays the kind of three dimensional man’s man that is sadly absent in today’s cinema – well, that’s progress for you.
I’m not sure if anyone has seen any parallels between Fuller’s work and that of Howard Hawks. To me, both directors were attracted to the concept of the small group under siege and the emphasis on professionalism. However, while Hawks would use a lightness of touch, Fuller’s direction is like a pile-driver battering your senses.
Released by Criterion last year as part of their Eclipse series, The Steel Helmet comes in a set with I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona. While the film doesn’t appear to have undergone any restoration, it looks just fine and is worth the price of the set on it’s own.