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Tag Archives: Richard Loo

The Steel Helmet (Feb. 2, 1951)

The Steel Helmet
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures

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.

Brodie and Evans

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.

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Back to Bataan (May 31, 1945)

BackBataan
Back to Bataan (1945)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

Yes, Back to Bataan is flag-waving agitprop. Yes, it features Anthony Quinn as a Filipino. But under the direction of Edward Dmytryk it’s all done really well. There are a number of gripping battle sequences, and John Wayne in his late 30s was still a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine. The human drama is a little stilted and the politics are simplistic, but when the bullets are flying, Back to Bataan delivers the goods.

The film begins with a battle sequence that depicts the raid at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp, that took place on January 30, 1945. At the time the film was made, the raid was a current event, and was one of the big Allied successes in the Pacific theater. (Filipino guerrillas, Alamo Scouts, and US Army Rangers liberated more than 500 prisoners of war.) After the big opening battle, the film moves back in time to 1942, and tells the story leading up to the raid and the freeing of the POWs. Col. Joseph Madden (Wayne), voluntarily stays in the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his armies pull out. Madden teams up with Filipino guerrilla forces, training them and organizing them. One of his officers, Capt. Andrés Bonifácio (Quinn) is struggling to live up to the reputation of his grandfather, who was a national hero and liberator of the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule. And if that weren’t enough, Capt. Bonifácio’s former fiancée, Dalisay Delgado (Fely Franquelli) has apparently turned traitor, since she now makes regular radio broadcasts radio for the Japanese. Every time he’s near a radio, Capt. Bonifácio has to hear his sweetheart’s mellifluous voice spouting ugly Axis propaganda. Madden, of course, knows that Delgado is actually passing code through these broadcasts, but he’s ordered by his superiors not to tell Bonifácio, so Madden must use all of his skills as a commander to whip Bonifácio into shape and make him a leader of men, no matter how much Bonifácio’s heart may be breaking.

There are conflicting reports of how well Wayne got along with director Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman, both of whom had communist views. According to Barzman’s wife, they had a humorously antagonistic relationship due to their very different politic views, jokingly calling each other “goddamned communist” and “fascist.” Apparently Barzman and Dmytryk also enjoyed tormenting Wayne, who refused to use a stunt double, by devising scenes that would test his limits. Whether or not this was a friendly game, the results are sometimes stunning. There’s a scene in which Wayne is hugging the ground. A shell explodes right next to him, and his body is flung high into the air and dropped at least 20 feet away. If you rewatch the scene, you can see the wires attached to Wayne’s body, but during the first viewing, when you’re not expecting it, it’s a stunning effect.

The film ends with triumphant footage of some of the real men who were prisoners of war at Cabanatuan. They march together, filmed at low angles, while their names, ranks, and cities of origin are displayed on the screen. After seeing so many Hollywood actors playing soldiers in World War II, it’s interesting to see some of the real men who served. Some of them are handsome enough to have played in the movies. Some aren’t. Almost all of them look relieved and happy, but close to being emaciated. All of them, that is, except for one guy from Chicago who’s really fat and looked deliriously happy. I wonder what his secret was.