The Steel Helmet (1951)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
This movie is a good example of why placing films in their proper context is so important. When I first watched Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (I rented it on VHS many, many years ago) I couldn’t get past the cheapness of the production or the amateurish acting by some of the cast. The exteriors are clearly filmed in California and the interiors are a combination of cheap sets and obvious soundstages. I don’t even think I finished watching it.
Flash forward to right now. For the last several years I’ve immersed myself in the films of the 1940s, and now that I have a really good sense of how war movies told their stories during and right after World War II, I can confidently say that The Steel Helmet is a groundbreaking film. Not only was it the first film made about the Korean War, but its depiction of the toll of combat is raw and uncompromising.
It also features an incredible lead performance by Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack. Evans was an actor who’d appeared in bit parts in a bunch of B-movies prior to this, but had never had a lead role before. (He get an “introducing” line in the credits.) Incidentally, one of those B-movies was Armored Car Robbery (1950), which also featured Steve Brodie, who plays the idealistic and naive Lt. Driscoll in The Steel Helmet.
In The Steel Helmet, Fuller casually tackles huge issues like the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and racial segregation back home, all with his uniquely blunt sensibility. He throws in oddball characters like a soldier with alopecia who can’t stop applying hair tonic to his bald head, depicts the enormous statue at the heart of a Buddhist temple with a reverence that borders on frightening, and portrays combat as an unending series of horrible events that will continue long after the movie’s runtime is over.
At his heart, Samuel Fuller was always a pulp novelist. His writing was often hackneyed and he assembled his films from crude materials. At first glance, his movies look no different from countless other low-budget productions. But once you really start to investigate the man’s work, you see that his films overflowed with ideas that most other filmmakers wouldn’t dare touch, and whatever their shortcomings, they have an impact that most Hollywood big-budget productions never will.
The Steel Helmet made almost 20 times its original budget at the box office, and opened doors in Hollywood for Fuller. His next film was another movie about the Korean War, Fixed Bayonets! (1951), made for 20th Century-Fox.