Sam Fuller's career, a somewhat oddball mix of brutal violence, unsubtle drama, and social consciousness is one of the most fascinating to dissect. On one hand, his films have the tendency to appear low-budget almost to the point where continuity suffers. On the other hand, the extremely well-written scripts are rife with fascinating dialogue, characters and in many cases are socially progressive. The Steel Helmet, Fuller's first masterpiece, was a film that I had seen several years back during a retrospective on his career. Within a month's time in 2005, I saw all of these films for the first time: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, Park Row, Underworld U.S.A., Shock Corridor, The Big Red One, and White Dog. I watched The Steel Helmet again this week and was reminded of why I love Fuller. It's the way that he blends his life experiences (War Veteran, Journalist) combined with an economy of storyline which is chock full of honesty, toughness, and strangely....a bit of sentiment. The Steel Helmet is an odd movie and one that could have only been made by its director. It is the work of a true auteur.
The Steel Helmet stars Gene Evans as Sergeant Zack. Zack's entire patrol has been wiped out by North Koreans and he is all alone, hands tied behind his back. A South Korean boy finds him and unties him. Zack reluctantly allows the boy to follow him as Zack attempts to find other American soldiers. The two of them come across a black American medic who has also lost his patrol. Together, the three of them meet up with a small American patrol and form a rag-tag bunch. They all find their way to a Buddhist temple where they attempt to hide out, thinking they are safe there. Things get interesting when they find out they are not alone. There is also a climactic battle scene at the temple where the small, outnumbered group tries to out-last some North Korean soldiers.
One of the great joys of Sam Fuller's films, and this remained fairly consistent throughout his entire career, is the fact that his films were relatively low-budget affairs. To someone who takes these films out of context, I suppose they might appear a bit hokey. I find the low budget quality to be highly endearing. The scenes filmed in the forest during the night are clearly filmed on a set. It almost feels like you can see the back wall. The long shot of the Buddhist temple is clearly a painting. The final battle sequence is filled with lots of inconsistencies....too many to count really. Somehow none of this matters because the script is so good and filled with many socially relevent topics. After the team captures a North Korean, the black medic has a conversation with the Korean about being able to buy tickets on a bus back home, but not being able to sit in front. The Korean then talks to a Japanese-American soldier (who refers to himself as American) about derogatory terms like being called a Jap. Sergeant Zack calls the young boy a "Gook" and the young boy corrects him....causing Zack to hold his tongue the next time he tries to use the term. These moments make the film feel very alive and truthful. These are flawed characters...sometimes offputting....sometimes vengeful and angry, but they feel like real people. Fuller has a knack for how people talk, and his experiences during the war certainly were used to great effect in creating a realistic vibe among the soldiers. There's a great moment when Zack is talking to a bald soldier about why he has bottles of liquid on him. The bald soldier explains that he has bought hair tonic to try to make his hair grow because he lost all his hair when he was a kid from scarlet fever. The details of Fuller's script make this film shine. It's not the action I remember here....it's the interaction.
Another reason for why the film is essential is the magnificent performance by Gene Evans as Zack. Is there a more perfect actor to play a gruff, grizzled Sergeant than this guy? His stubbly beard and greasy, balding head are almost enough to make me accept him, but what takes it over the top is the fact that he is constantly chewing on a half-smoked cigar and talking and giving orders while still chewing on the thing. It is such a perfect accessory for his character. When the young Korean boy, that he somewhat adopts along the way as his son, is shot and killed toward the end, there's a brilliant moment where Zack walks toward the camera and his eyes are closed...his face clenched in anguish. It's as much feeling as he can express in a world dominated by violence and the unknown, and Fuller takes us into that moment and brings us face to face with the anguish of the soldier's grief. His other fantastic moment is the speech he gives to Lt. Driscoll, who has asked to swap helmets with him for good luck. It is the best moment in the film.
Driscoll- I'd like to swap helmets with ya.
Zack- Oh yeah why?
Driscoll - Sounds a little silly, but I thought maybe if I wore your helmet, it would bring me the same kind of luck it brought you.
Zack- I’d be crossin’ the army if I brought you luck to live.
Driscoll- Sergeant I’ve-a, changed my mind about a lot of things in the past hour.
Zack- You’ll have to change more than your mind to get my steel pot.
Driscoll- You’re too dumb to be an officer so ya take it out on us. You’re a sorehead and you’re jealous. That’s why you hate any officer.
Zack- Look I’ll tell you about an officer…and he wadn’t a 90-day act of congress like you. He was a Colonel and he didn’t have to be that. It was D-day at Normandy. When you were wearin’ bars in the states and we were pinned down for 3 hours by Kraut fire... this Colonel, Colonel Taylor…he got up on easy red beach…and he yelled there are two kinds of men on this beach…those who were dead and those who were about to die. So let’s get off the beach and die in-land. That officer I’d give my steel hat to anyday.
Gene Evans was the perfect choice here for this role and also had another great performance in Fuller's Fixed Bayonets (1951). Fuller's portrayal of war is anti-heroic. There is no attempt to blockbuster-ize anything here. There are no glamorous set-pieces...nothing that glorifies the act of war nor those that fight in it. It is a humble, modest, and gritty war film about people trying to stay alive.