Made for just $10,000, it’s surprising just how well The Steel Helmet works on so many different levels. It’s ostensibly a straight forward story: we follow Zack (Gene Evans), the sole survivor of an American POW unit, and a South Korean orphan (William Chun) across the war torn landscape as they group up with another infantry unit of misfits to establish an observation post. However, Samuel Fuller, whose superb dialogue is bested by his visual authority, uses this template for more than just a thrilling tale on the traumas of war (which is impressively powerful and belies its low budget).
The Steel Helmet examines conflict within and without. Fuller highlights many of the contradictions of war through his display of its ineffectualness. Nobody seems to be sure why they’re fighting, and Fuller films most of the action in way that obscures or completely hides the enemy from view. In The Steel Helmet, the external conflict, and thus confusions and contradictions, of war stem almost directly from internal confusions and contradictions. The ragtag group of racially and culturally diverse misfits (and war orphans, in the case of Short Round and Zack) only coalesce together once the North Korean snipers in the trees begin firing down upon them. Fuller’s narratively unnecessary sequences, then, that depict the infantry interrogating innocent civilians seem to suggest that sometimes the enemy is projected and created externally in an attempt to focus and understand internal problems.
It’s an American infantry, and thus these internal conflicts are largely American. “I’m not a dirty Jap,” says the cool-headed Tanaka to a North Korean POW who brings some of America’s social and racial problems to light, “I’m an American.” Fuller’s script is full of crackling dialogue that suggests these internal confusions are as confusing as the war itself. Racial and cultural tension are externalized into a scapegoat that allows temporary unification, but at the end of the day everyone’s wearing a steel helmet. At the center of these contrasts is the relationship between the battered, veteran Zack and the spiritual Short Round, and Fuller often communicates these contrasts through image and metaphor. One of the film’s most powerful images is of a bazooka and an ammunition box with a Catholic Priest’s half-blown-off name on its side leaning against a statue of Buddha. It might be critically passé to say that a film is about something as grand and abstract as “America,” but the parallels that Fuller draws between war and the country back home (as well as highlighting many of the conflicts that persist today), make it difficult to resist. The end title card prophetically states that “There Is No End To This Story.”