The Steel Helmet (1951)

Directed by Samuel Fuller

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The Steel Helmet is Samuel Fuller’s anti-war propaganda film, the first made about the Korean War.  It’s a small-scale film following a group of ragtag soldiers who barricade themselves inside a Buddhist temple.  That temple allows the characters to renew their vows to America, so to speak.

Set in Korea, where the Americans are outsiders, the film constructs a world in which the American soldiers are constantly on the defensive.  We meet Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) after he miraculously survives the mass execution of a group of American soldiers.  He meets a young South Korean boy he nicknames Short Round and soon after reunites with the handful of soldiers remaining from another unit.  From there they fend off a sniper attack before hiding in the Buddhist temple.

The film’s climax concerns the raid on that temple by waves of Korean soldiers.  The Americans stand their ground, muttering or yelling patriotic musings, as they fight to survive or willingly die for their country.  In the end the few men who remain march off to join another unit, and the war goes on.

The Steel Helmet feels stubbornly patriotic, and its message comes across as simplistic and proud.  These are a group of unlikely heroes who fight and/or die with honor.  They are characters meant to be admired as they face a mostly dehumanized enemy.  All we see of the communist soldiers are their outlines, running at the Americans from afar.

There is very little nuance to the Korean conflict, and the dynamic is very much ‘us vs. them.’  Still, despite the overt patriotism, Fuller offers examples of the ways in which America has failed its own people.  Each member of the group is made to stand out in some way, and two in particular stand out because of race.  One is an African American soldier, Corporal Thompson (James Edwards) and another is Japanese American, Sergeant Tanaka (Richard Loo).

The unit captures a Korean prisoner of war and refuses to kill him even though the Koreans have executed American prisoners of war.  Why?  Well, because “you’re supposed to be in the United States infantry… just because those little rats kill our prisoners doesn’t mean we have to do the same.”

The Americans are presented as being above the influence.  They don’t dare stoop to the level of the enemy because the Americans are morally superior.  This kind of reduction of the conflict is understandably frustrating (particularly to the communists), but at the same time that Korean POW tries to push the American soldiers around, pointing out painful truths.

He asks Thompson how he can be okay fighting for a country that so disrespects and attacks its black citizens.  Thompson’s response is, “if we get pushed around back home, that’s our business.”

The POW then tries to appeal to Tanaka, referencing how America imprisoned its own citizens following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Tanaka admits that his parents were among those put behind bars, and yet he insists he’s a proud American.

Eventually the POW gets to one of the soldiers, Sergeant Zack, after mocking Short Round following the boy’s sudden death.  Zack, who had bonded with the boy, shoots the prisoner and is then immediately reprimanded.  He broke the rules, we’re told, and though his anger is understandable, his actions are detestable.

So the Americans are the heroes, and the enemy is the enemy.

This perspective feels romantic and deeply flawed, at least when considered with Vietnam and Iraq in mind.  The nature of the war in The Steel Helmet feels like the Vietnam War.  The band of soldiers are isolated, somewhere in a jungle.  They often struggle to see far in front of them, and for much of the film they are unable to communicate over the radio to the rest of the army.

Sequences of the film were shot in foggy sound stages, and when Zack reunites with members of his unit, they can’t see him even though he’s only feet away.  The soldiers are more or less stumbling blind through the forrest, and our introduction to Zack comes right after some kind of massacre.

We start close on his helmet, and it’s not until he moves that we realize someone was wearing that helmet.  We’re made to believe one thing (symbolized by the helmet with a bullet hole), and then the camera pulls back, revealing the broader environment.  This technique colors in our perception of the conflict.  We’re thrust right into the middle or aftermath of extreme violence, and only later do we really understand exactly what’s going on.

This kind of initial confusion reminds me of the ways war is presented in Vietnam films like Platoon and Born On the Fourth of July.  Whereas some war movies intend to make the action clear, so you know who’s who and what’s what, this style emphasizes the confusion and the pure desire to survive.  There is no space for politics or nuance, just a man, a gun and flying bullets.

But instead of using this technique to villify battle, Fuller somehow manages to make heroic his characters.  He’s at once showing the horrors of war while championing the people who fight it.  Other movies will slide more to one side or the other, but this is a film that seems to play both sides at once.

Really that’s just the impression I got.  In one moment it seemed like the movie was trying to turn every soldier into John Wayne, and in others it seemed as though the point was to portray what a nightmare this all was.

Samuel Fuller served in World War II, and he would make more than a few movies about the war.  He served in the infantry and was apart of landings across several different countries.  He took part in the liberation of a concentration camp and documented the footage on a 16 mm camera.  His experiences in the war were recreated in 1980’s The Big Red One.  Like this film, that one celebrated the camaraderie amongst the soldiers.  Even if they were going through hell, they were going through it together.

The effect is like watching the dynamics of a college fraternity amidst extreme, sudden violence.  Fuller admires the group, the ways they come together in spite of their differences.  He never really seems to attack the war in general, but he uses the violence to emphasize the heroism of the group.  Maybe he has no interest in making a broader statement about the war, or maybe he does and I’ve just missed it.  Still, the focus is on the group, the ways they bond and fight for each other.  By ramping up the stakes, he ramps up the image of the unit, turning them from flawed individuals into something like the Avengers.

That faithfulness to the Americans, to his brothers, reduces the enemy to simple terms.  There is no discussion of what they are fighting for, even as the Americans celebrate their own ideology.  So even as this is a story of survival, the characters somehow have the time and thought to say what it is they’re thankful for.

Going a step further, the Americans are on foreign land, and yet by always showing them on the defensive, we get the impression that the communists are attacking them, like they are invading the U.S. itself.  The Americans always stand their ground while the enemy makes the tactical plans.  Maybe it’s partially because the exterior shots were filmed in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park that it’s easy to picture this as a story of the communists invading America.

A final note about the group of American soldiers: “The grouping was “designed” by Fuller to be broadly representative of the Korean War-era US Army. Thus, there is an element of stereotyping in the characters. Among them are Joe, the quiet one (Sid Melton); the former conscientious objector (Robert Hutton); the “intellectual” (the officer); an African-American; the naive radio operator (Richard Monahan); and the Nisei Tanaka.”

So what is this film about?  It feels a little nostalgic, with Fuller understandably drawn to his own experiences in battle, but there is some objectivity, pointing out the flaws within America, only for the Americans to shrug them off.  It’s both of the old guard, showing Americans as heroic, and ahead of its time, visualizing the conflict in a way later reflective of the Vietnam War.  It’s like we’re watching proud World War II soldiers (“the greatest generation”) fighting in Vietnam, only without the disenchantment.

Up Next: Contagion (2011), Gaslight (1940), Cedar Rapids (2011)

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