The Steel Helmet

United States, 1951

Directed by Samuel Fuller

With Gene Evans (Sergeant Zack), William Chun (“Short Round”), James Edwards (Corporal Thompson), Steve Brody (Lieutenant Driscoll)

The hat, dirty, battered, and with a hole, is the first thing shot, in close-up, filling the screen. Then the head wearing it sticks out, a round face with a beard and the wrinkles of combat fatigue. This is Sergeant Zack, the only survivor of an attack by the Communist forces he and other soldiers sent by the UN are fighting in the Korean peninsula. He would rarely be out of the shots for the rest of the running time of this first war movie by Samuel Fuller; actually he is “The Steel Helmet”.

West meets East, alas, as the temple will soon become a battlefield

In the first part of his adventures he goes all over a hostile countryside to reach his division’s base with two rather unexpected companions for this tough guy who entered the US Army during World War Two: a South Korean boy, who has become fond of the gruff soldier ever since he helped the soldier tending his wounds and is nicknamed “Short Rounds”, and a stranded Army medic, an African American Corporal named Thompson. After an encounter with a platoon led by Lieutenant Driscoll which is viciously attacked by the enemy, Sergeant Zack decides to help the soldiers setting up an Observation Post inside a Buddhist temple. This self-imposed mission enables the film to expand its chronicle of a fighting army to offer a direct confrontation with the enemy’s culture and view, with the capture of a Chinese soldier who has tried to kill as much soldiers as possible and now tries to talk them into quitting as an essential development. Heavy fighting brings a brutal conclusion to the adventure: the temple is put under siege and most men, including the Korean boy, lose their lives, except two infantrymen, and a shell-shocked Zack.

Zack is undoubtedly a colorful character, stubborn, cynical, and sometimes downright unpalatable, but he is spurred into action by his competence he earned on the battlefield the hard way, his guts and some good instincts. Always chomping a cigar and rattling off scathing remarks, he stands as the quintessential veteran whose bravado impresses or annoys. The camera likes to put him front and center of the shot compositions, but the screenplay takes care not to paint him with only one color; his relationship with Short Round points to a more human and nicer side, though it is a bit formulaic.

The interesting point, beyond the shock and awe of the fight, is the unexpected bond war can create between men even as social and cultural differences would set them apart. The Chinese attempts to use them to sow discord; this proves to be a futile exercise in the plot but the reactions he elicits and other lines still present a sly and cutting comment on the fault lines inside the American society (racism and inequality) while the background of the majestic temple is a reminder foreign societies are no mere battlegrounds but cultures worth exploring (and respecting as Lieutenant Driscoll highlights when his first order, before unpacking, is to forbid any graffiti; war is also a cultural experience and the camera a tool to explore the outer world).

If the main character feels like a monolith, the film’s viewpoint on war is more nuanced and kinder to the plight of soldiers. Their weariness is plain to see on their faces and to hear in their hopes, and the sad finale is a moving and startling depiction of the depressive exhaustion the simple fact to have survived a fight brings about.

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