Monday, March 9, 2009

#127: The Steel Helmet

(Image by Eric Skillman)

The Steel Helmet
Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
Released February 2, 1951

"If you die, I'll kill ya!"

The Steel Helmet, one of director Samuel Fuller's earliest films, was made on a shoestring budget over the course of 10 days. It's a little firecracker of a movie, bravely facing issues of violence, war and -- most importantly -- race, nearly a decade before the birth of the Civil Rights movement.

Remarkably, it's a Korean War film that was made and released a mere half year into the United States' war with Korea. This is no piece of pro-war propaganda; in fact, Fuller was subsequently investigated by the FBI (under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover) for possible Communist sympathies.

One of the primary reasons for Hoover's interest was the mention in Fuller's screenplay of the United States' practice of internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I'm sure his ire was also drawn from the complex questions about the dilemma of race in America through passages of dialog like the following exchange between a Korean P.O.W. and the African American medic tending to his wounds:

P.O.W.: I just don't understand you. You can't eat with them unless there's a war. Even then, it's difficult. Isn't that so?

Medic: That's right.

P.O.W.: You pay for ticket, but you even have to sit in the back of a public bus. Isn't that so?

Medic: That's right. One hundred years ago I couldn't even ride a bus. At least now I can sit in the back. Maybe in fifty years, I'll sit in the middle. Someday even up front. There's some things you just can't rush, buster.

If you ask me, that's pretty frigging progressive for a movie from 1951.

Of course, none of this progressive thinking would matter if there wasn't a good movie from which to hang all of these interesting ideas. The Steel Helmet does not fail to deliver with brutal action, humor and even touching friendship in its 83 minute running time.

I love a great entrance in a movie, and few introductions can top Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack crawling across the battlefield with his hands tied behind his back. He is aided by a young South Korean boy who has been orphaned by the conflict. The movie has barely begun before the race issue is breached, with Sgt. Zack barking at the boy, "You look more like a dog face than a gook!"

With the young boy refusing to leave his side, Zack nicknames him Short Round (yes, Indiana Jones fans) and they're off. Soon Zack stumbles into a platoon of survivors from other battles who bribe him into joining them. It's basically The Bad News Bears by way of the second half of Full Metal Jacket.

I'm not sure what compelled me to watch The Steel Helmet... perhaps the cool black and white photo of Evans on the DVD cover, grimacing in reaction to what turns out to be a crushing revelation. Having seen the movie, I feel lucky to have given it a shot. It's a powerful, groundbreaking and ballsy "independent" film with a great performance from Evans.

For more on The Steel Helmet:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.

Holy shit! Tarantino, Scorcese, Jim Jarmusch and Samuel Fuller talk about The Steel Helmet. If this doesn't sell you on the film, I give up:

No comments: