“What a fouled-up outfit I got myself into” – Sgt. Zack
Samuel Fuller always had an eye for the visually dynamic and a nose for controversy. His war picture The Steel Helmet was at the forefront of films about the Korean War, in fact, it was probably the first.
Despite, being shot in a few solitary days in California, he somehow managed to develop a generally atmospheric terrain overflowing with fog of war and overgrown with foliage. It’s an unsentimental, gritty, sweaty storyline. In other words, it’s very Fuller and its cynical lead is Gene Evans as the thick-headed Sergeant Zack weighed down by war-induced pessimism. He’s got a bullet hole in his helmet to prove it. He’s been good enough to last through this game of survival of the fittest thus far, and he hopes to keep it that way.
Zack picks up a peppy young South Korean, the original “Short Round,” and the sergeant reluctantly allows him to tag along as he continues his pilgrimage. Next, comes the African-American medic Corporal Thomson, who like Zack was the sole survivor of his unit. In the forest depths, they run into a band of soldiers led by the experienced Lt. Driscoll. Although Zack wants nothing to do with them, he agrees to stick around after they get pinned down by a couple snipers.
Their mission: to set up an observation post at a nearby Buddhist temple. However, the road ahead includes booby traps and other menacing perils of war. They have one of their hated “gooks” waiting for them, and he causes some havoc before being captured. However, perhaps more insidiously he tries to undermine the men by going after Thompson and the “Buddha head” Nisei vet named Tanaka (Richard Loo). The wily enemy, in perfect English mind you, notes the hypocrisy of an American society where African-Americans can die on the battlefield, but then only get to sit on the back of a bus. He then suggests how he and Tanaka have a great more in common, aside from their eyes, especially since the American government put Japanese-Americans in Internment camps
But the old WWII vet simply acknowledges the facts and retorts with his own piece of trivia. In the all Japanese-American regiment the 442nd 3,000 Nisei “idiots” got the purple heart for bravery. All he knows is that he’s an American no matter how he’s treated. That doesn’t change. Once more Fuller delivers some of the most engaging portrayals of Asian characters ever and the discussions of race relations were way ahead of their time. Both Richard Loo and James Edwards are honorable characters who hardly fall into any common stereotype.
After staving off this psychological warfare, the band calls in an artillery barrage on some nearby snipers. But soon the enemy is swarming them and it’s a wildly thrashing, blasting battle to the death. The fight scenes are sheer chaotic madness, but then again isn’t that what war often escalates to? It just doesn’t make sense. Billows of smoky haze engulfing the war zone. Whirrs, bangs, explosions, and every other sound imaginable except silence. That comes when the bodies are dead and strewn all over the battlefield. In truth, silver stars mean very little when you’re just trying to survive.
Fuller was prophetic by suggesting that there is no end to this story. He was right. It went on for a couple more years and ended in a cease-fire that still continues between North and South Korea to this day. He’s also one of the great economical filmmakers where less is most certainly more. What a stroke of brilliance that he could use a weeks time, the grounds of The Griffith Observatory, and a few minor actors and extras to create such a fascinating film.
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