Tuesday 7 July 2009

The Steel Helmet (1951)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Star: Gene Evans

Dedicated with its very first words to the US infantry, this was Sam Fuller's third film as a director and and one that he quite a lot about as he'd served in the infantry himself in the Second World War. This one's a Korean War film, made just as it was beginning, and beyond drawing on his own experiences for this film, he cast another veteran infantryman in the lead role because he looked precisely like a war weary GI. He's Gene Evans, playing Sgt Zack, and we meet him pretty quickly in a very neat way indeed.

The credits roll over a steel helmet, sitting behind them with only a bullet hole to distinguish it. In a very neat move, the moment the credits finish, the soldier wearing it hauls himself over a ridge and past a number of his dead colleagues. He's Sgt Zack, not having an easy time of it as he's been shot in the leg and his hands are tied behind his back, but at least he's alive, unlike the rest of his outfit. He's also aware enough to pretend he's dead when he hears a Korean coming.

Luckily for him it's a South Korean boy, one of the good guys, and sure enough he cuts him loose. In a refreshing change from the normal American war film, our soldier asks the kid if he's a dog face or a gook but isn't actually a racist. It's just how it is and he can say such things while holding some respect for the culture of the country he's in. He adopts the kid and names him Short Round, because he's a big fan of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Well actually Steven Spielberg is a big fan of this film and Sam Fuller too, I wouldn't doubt. This Short Round doesn't get to do quite as much as his later version but what he does is pretty much the same sort of thing.

The Steel Helmet is one of the truest war films I've ever seen. It has no stars, so we have no expectation of who's going to do and when. It has no grand message to rally behind or argue about. It's not pro-war or anti-war. It has no real focus in the conflict of choice. It's not telling us how great the Americans are or how evil they are. It's not spouting patriotic propaganda or decrying it. It's not even illustrating that war is Hell or that it's the means of salvation. It simply tells it how it is, without an underlying point of view beyond truth and reality.

War is simply there because it's there and if you have to be in it, here's how you need to do things if you want to survive. Sgt Zack is the last of his outfit, so a proven survivor, though his survival had a lot to do with luck. He meets up with Cpl Thompson, a medic in the same situation, so again a survivor. Short Round is a survivor too, his parents having gone to Buddha. And this trio run into Lt Driscoll's outfit, who are so green that they haven't yet had much of an opportunity to survive anything. Not all of them make it because they don't have the skills needed.

As they learn from grizzled veterans like Sgts Zack and Tanaka, surviving in a warzone has nothing to do with the human side of things or the standard processes that the green recruits think by. Survival is something reserved for those characters who play the game by its own rules. Your best friends are your boots, your helmet and your gun. You don't stop to get dog tags off corpses because they may be booby trapped. You shoot through doors before you go through them. You don't carry things you don't need because it's just added weight. You drop the moment you hear gunfire. You may follow orders from superiors, but you listen to the voice of experience, wherever it comes from. And even then you may get the wrong answer.

The only real commentary here comes in the details. Some of it speaks to friendship, some to expectation. Some of it speaks to preparedness, or the utter lack of it. The more obvious comments speak to racism, something that Sam Fuller would return to again and again, in films like Shock Corridor and White Dog. Here it's wide ranging. At one point our soldiers capture an enemy, a North Korean Communist major, who tries to fathom what makes the Americans tick, especially when talking to two soldiers from minorities.

Cpl Thompson is black, so can only eat with his colleagues when there's a war on. Back home he would have to sit on the back of the bus, so why would he fight with people who would otherwise treat him in such a prejudiced manner? Well, you can't rush these things, he says. Fifty years before he wouldn't even have been able to get on the bus, so maybe fifty years later he'll be able to sit in the front. I'm sure he'd have been happy to find that not much over fifty years later there's a black president in the White House.

Sgt Tanaka has Japanese heritage, so during the last war he and his family would have been rounded up and thrown into a concentration camp. But he sees himself as American rather than Japanese and had no sympathy for the enemy in that war, let alone this one. He's no angel either, having been a con man, but he points out how many Japanese-Americans won purple hearts fighting for their country.

I could talk about the cast but it wouldn't really say much. The major names are Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie and James Edwards, but only Evans could really be called a leading man. It's an ensemble performance of coarse acting that nobody lets down, not even William Chun as Short Round, a twelve year old actor who only made two films, this being the first. The point is that it isn't about these people, at least not individually. It's about the story, this grand unfocused thing that merely says that war happens and here's how it works on the ground. And in that, it's the most honest war film I think I've ever seen.

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