The 1959 movie, starring Gregory Peck, directed by Lewis Milestone, about taking and holding a tactically meaningless position, “Pork Chop Hill,” is probably the best American movie set within the Korean War (for discussion of others and of the great Korean movie set in the war see here), Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet,” however, is my favorite, one from which Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg drew in “Raging Bull” and “Saving Private Ryan, respectively. (Spielberg also cast Fuller in “1941,” as did Wim Wenders in “The American Friend.”)
“The Steel Helmet” is available on DVD in the barebones (no extras) Criterion Eclipse series, along with Fuller’s baroque tale of forging land records, “The Baron of Arizona” and “I Shot Jesse James” with John Ireland (Red River) playing Robert Ford.
Racism was a recurrent subject for Fuller (most memorably the black “nlgger”-hater in Fuller’s surrealistic 1963 “Shock Corridor). Many Hollywood films set within the Korean War showed black men in the newly integrated US Army proving themselves, none more often than Sidney Poitier. The platoon in “The Steel Helmet” has considerable racial diversity even without the Korean orphan boy who adheres to the very gruff WWII survivor, Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans).
The helmet that is the backdrop for the opening credits turns out to be on the head of the sergeant, who has been tied up. The Korean boy, whom he will dub “Short Round”* (William Chun) approaches with a knife and cuts the bonds. Sgt. Zach doesn’t call him a “gook,” but provides the dubious compliment of saying that the boy “looks more like a dog face than a gook.” Throughout the movie, he resists the attempts of the boy to befriend him or turn him into a surrogate father. The viewer suspects that Sgt. Zach cares more than he admits, and eventually proves it… in a way that was so shocking to American audiences of the time that it led to an FBI investigation of Fuller (a very blunt-speaking WWII veteran, like Sgt. Zach). Back in those days, it was unthinkable that Americans might contravene the Geneva Conventions (let alone contend that there was no need to be bound by them, as the current president’s legal hacks like John Woo did).
A North Korean major (Harold Fong) who has become a prisoner of the platoon goads Zach, along with attempting to establish a solidarity with Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo — who is called “Buddhahead” by Sgt. Zach) on the basis of race and the racism both know to be prevalent in the US, not least in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.
Not that American racism is ancient history within the movie or confined to the US homeland! Like the black medic, Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), Sgt. Tanaka is far more competent than the white soldiers — and the officer too stupid to listen to the voice of experience, when it comes from anyone nonwhite. Despite their ongoing frustrations, neither Tanaka or Thompson takes the bait and pull together against the assaults from without (a low-budget attack) and the Red Devil (communist) trying to mess with their loyalty to their country inside the Buddhist temple that shelters them — and is rather filled by a large Buddha that looms over the proceedings).
The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals (race not being the only basis of differentiation; for instance, there is Pvt. Baldy, who would return along with Evans in Fuller’s bigger-budget but more generic “Fixed Bayonets”).
Rational analysis would question the survival of the small band of Americans through a massive assault and the devotion of “Short Round” to Sgt. Zach can easily be interpreted as racial masochism in ways in which the story participates in rather than clearly critiquing (as would be the case for that in Fuller’s later “Shock Corridor.” I was able to suspend disbelief with ease (much greater ease than for Fuller’s would-be Summa, “The Big Red One”), fascinated by the dynamics both among the Americans and between them and their high-ranking captive.
A remarkable thing about “The Steel Helmet” is that it was made in 1951, while the war was raging, but that is far from being its prime or only interest.
* None of the Americans is interested enough to ask the boy’s name. “Short Round” is insulting in that it refers to a bullet that does not make it to its (lethal) destination. It has some irony in that the boy was not short by American (let alone Korean) standards.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray
Also see my review of Fuller’s other 1951 Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets.