“Steel Helmet” was the first movie about the Korean War. It was released during the war in 1951. It was directed by WWII veteran Samuel Fuller. He also wrote and produced the film. It is a classic B-Movie which cost only $100,000. Fuller used a plywood tank and 25 UCLA students as extras. It made $6 million. The movie was “dedicated to the U.S. infantry”.
The movie opens with the survivor of a North Korean prisoner execution (his steel helmet had deflected the kill shot) crawling from the site with his hands tied. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is freed by a Korean orphan who he dubs “Short Round” (William Chun). Zack is a racist who refers to Short Round as a “gook”, but he lets him tag along. They meet up with a black medic named Thompson (James Edwards) and it turns out Zack is an equal opportunity racist. The trio runs into a patrol led by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie) who Zack hates and disrespects. The three go off on their own, but return to rescue the patrol from an ambush by snipers. This is a good scene although it was obviously shot on a sound stage.
The unit moves on to establish an observation post in a Buddhist temple. We have a typical heterogeneous unit including the black medic, grizzled sergeant, hick, conscientious objector, the quiet guy, the by the book officer, etc. Fuller can be excused for wanting his characters to represent the variety of the U.S. Army. Hiding in the temple is a Commie who knifes the quiet guy while the others sleep. They search the temple and Zack captures him. He turns out to be a Major who speaks English which comes in handy as he tries to persuade the minorities to switch sides. First he works on Thompson by pointing out the mistreatment of blacks in America. When this does not work, he reminds the Nisei Tanaka (Richard Loo) of the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. This was the first reference in a movie to this shameful episode in American History. Kudos to Fuller for rattling the cage.
|Zack and Tanaka|
The Reds figure out that the temple is a forward observation post that is raining artillery fire on them. Fuller uses stock combat footage from WWII that does not blend well with the film. The enemy attacks in swarms. Weirdly, the indoor defense does not match up with the outside attack. The movie shifts to a “who will survive” mode. Being a 1951 black and white movie, the deaths come without blood or even bullet holes. (Is that the way Fuller remembered his war days?) If you bet on four surviving, you win. Zack is one of them. They hook up with a relief patrol, but first Zack replaces the helmet on Driscoll’s grave with his lucky steel pot. (Earlier Driscoll had asked Zack to trade and Zack had dissed him.)
This is one gritty film, which is saying a lot for a movie made at a time that grit could not be combined with graphic. In some ways it reminds me of “When Trumpets Fade” with its anti-hero main character. Zack is a great character. How rare to anchor a war from this time period on a dislikable protagonist. Evans probably did the best acting of his career. The studio had pushed for John Wayne, but Fuller stuck to his guns (and his budget). The rest of the cast are B-Movie actors that rose above the class. Edwards and Loo are particularly strong. Both characters could not have existed accurately in a WWII movie. However, the Korean War-era Army was integrated.
The movie is most reminiscent of a Western. The old surrounded-in-the-fort variety. There is a little “Stagecoach” in it as well. The biggest difference is no women to distract our warriors. Not saying that’s an improvement.
Does “Steel Helmet” crack the 100 Best War Movies? It deserves consideration for the balls that went into making it. It is safe to say it is one of the greatest war movies ever made for just $100,000 and shot in ten days.