Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Friday, February 28, 2014

The Steel Helmet

Directed by Samuel Fuller
The United States of America

In his landmark study The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, Andrew Sarris wrote of Samuel Fuller:

[His] ideas are undoubtedly too broad and oversimplified for any serious analysis, but it is the artistic force with which his ideas are expressed that makes his career so fascinating to critics who can rise above their political prejudices...It is time the cinema followed the other arts in honoring its primitives.

With all due respect to Mr. Sarris, there is nothing primitive about Fuller’s greatest films. His 1951 Korean War film The Steel Helmet may have only been his third film, but it demonstrates a clarity of vision, a ruthlessness of purpose, and a single-minded skill the likes of which eluded many of his contemporaries who were industry veterans.

Largely inspired by his service during World War Two fighting with the 1st Infantry Division of the US Army, The Steel Helmet follows a rag-tag patrol of US Infantry who are tasked with capturing a Buddhist temple and establishing an observation post. First among them is the cynical Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), the sole survivor of his unit after they were captured and executed by North Koreans. A bitter, grizzled veteran of World War Two, he is rescued by a South Korean orphan (William Chun) that he quickly nicknames “Short Round.” Despite his wishes, Short Round follows Sgt. Zack as he meets up with Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic whose unit was also wiped out.

In a foggy jungle (in reality a tiny set that Fuller tricks the audience into thinking is a sprawling jungle via tight close-ups and clever frame compositions), they meet up with a straggling patrol led by the inexperienced Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Once together, they have their first fire-fight with a small group of North Korean snipers. It is here that the ingenuity of Fuller’s technique comes into focus: the fighting is portrayed as a dirty, terrifying, and intimate affair via close-ups, realistic fighting (weapons jam, enemies are largely obscured and unseen, and the violence occurs in occasional spurts interspersed throughout panicked calm), and a palpable sense of fear.

In creating The Steel Helmet, Fuller had deliberately wanted to portray an accurate cross-section of the US Infantry. Therefore the patrol is made up of characters who defy the traditional war genre stock characters like the ingenue farm-boy and the tough-talking, cynical Joe Whats-His-Name from Brooklyn. There’s the war-weary Nisei Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), an ex-conscientious objector who lugs around his old priest’s hand organ named Private Bronte (Robert Hutton), a soft-spoken radio operator who lost all of his hair to Scarlet Fever nicknamed Private Baldy, and a mute pack mule caretaker known simply as Joe.

Once at the temple, Joe is killed by a hidden North Korean soldier who is quickly taken prisoner. Sgt. Zack wants blood, but Lt. Driscoll’s superiors want a prisoner for interrogation. For the next few hours their prisoner tries to sow discord among their ranks. He asks Thompson how he can fight for a racist country that deprives him of rights and freedoms. He asks Tanaka how he can kill other Asians for a country that locked up Japanese citizens in camps during World War Two. Both of these scenes caused great controversy with the US Army which had provided the production with stock footage. In fact, The Steel Helmet was reportedly the first American film to acknowledge the Japanese internment camps. Ever the hard-hitting reporter, Fuller refused to back down from these controversies.

In one last moment of scandal, Sgt. Zack guns down their prisoner for mocking Short Round after he is killed by sniper fire. The Army was appalled by Fuller’s implication that Americans executed POWs, but he fought back by having his former commanding officer, Brigadier General George A. Taylor, contact the Pentagon and confirm that such instances were historically accurate.

The film climaxes with a devastating North Korean assault on the temple in which most of the patrol is killed. The sequence is both a breath-taking piece of film-making and a semiotically charged phantasm. The entire film was shot in only ten days for $104,000. As per the film’s shoestring budget, Fuller was forced to transform 25 extras from UCLA into the rampaging North Korean Army. For scenes that he couldn’t replicate with stock footage, Fuller filmed the extras in long distance shots and swift medium close-ups that obscured his actors’ faces. Much like how Sam Peckinpah managed to create the French Army in Major Dundee (1965) by filming a small group of costumed extras several times in different locations, Fuller tricks the audience into thinking that they are watching an entire army.

One of the reoccurring symbols in The Steel Helmet is the massive, towering Buddha located in the temple. It is Fuller’s semiotic invocation of the Buddha that proves that he is not an enthusiastic amateur. Utilizing what Christian Metz referred to as “bracket syntagma,” wherein individual shots are grouped together to create certain associations,  Fuller transforms the Buddha from scene to scene. When the soldiers first arrive, the Buddha seems like an imposing enigma from an unknowable culture. When they make camp, Fuller’s continuous framing of the Buddha in the background of shots transforms it into an omnipresent spectator. When their prisoner finally dies, the Buddha’s bleeding hand makes him an angel of mercy. And finally, as the temple is obliterated by artillery shells and gunfire, the Buddha becomes a stoic monument of the impermanence of humanity against the implacable nature of infinity.

Fuller’s means may have been primitive, but his creations were not. The film was a hit when it was released, grossing more than $6 million and becoming the first independently produced film to play at Loew’s State Theater in New York City. The Steel Helmet also brought Fuller to Hollywood’s attention, scoring him a contract with Fox.

From there on Fuller would direct some of the most daring and iconoclastic films of the late Hollywood Studio System. Fuller’s ultimate masterpiece is widely considered to be The Big Red One (1980), a film that followed the exploits of his beloved 1st Infantry throughout World War Two. But I still feel inclined to declare The Steel Helmet as his best war film. With its go-for-broke mentality and sweaty aesthetic, The Steel Helmet is as good a war film as was ever made about the “Forgotten War.”