Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Steel Helmet

Written and directed by Samuel Fuller, The Steel Helmet is the story about a group of American soldiers trapped behind enemy lines during the Korean war. The film is an exploration into the identities of men as they face moral and racial identities in the wake of war. Starring Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, and Richard Loo. The Steel Helmet is a compelling yet grim war film from Samuel Fuller.

After surviving a massacre, Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) encounters a young South Korean boy (William Chun) who frees him as he reluctantly takes the boy along to find safety. In the woods, the two later meet an African-American medic named Corporal Thompson (James Edwards) who had fled a POW camp as the three men later meet a unit led by the inexperienced Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie) as they’re trying to find a temple to seek shelter in. Sgt. Zack and the rest of the ragtag unit were able to find the Buddhist temple as they hope to get radio contact with a platoon to pick them up while they all decide to stay at the temple.

Things seem fine until one of the soldiers is found dead as Sgt. Zack and the unit finds a North Korean major (Harold Fong) as they hope to have him as a POW. Suddenly, things get tense when Lt. Driscoll can’t communicate to his superiors while trouble occurs when the unit sees a group of North Koreans coming leading to an all-out battle.

The film is essentially the story of a hardened, cynical sergeant who finds himself in a rag-tag unit filled with different kinds of soldiers as they seek shelter in a Buddhist temple where they deal with a North Korean who tries to press them on their differences. In this unit are a very diverse group of people that includes an African-American medic, a Japanese bazooka operator, a young bald radio operator, a silent soldier, a former conscientious objector, and an inexperienced lieutenant. Also in this group is a young South Korean orphan who joins the unit as he would write prayers to help the soldiers as he tries to befriend Sgt. Zack. Then there is this North Korean major who would try to egg these men over their differences as he hopes to turn them against each other as it definitely raises a lot of questions in this film.

Samuel Fuller’s screenplay doesn’t carry much of a traditional structure as he’s more interested in these men who are a collective of soldiers that are in a war where there’s tension as well as an uncertainty that is happening. Notably as there’s a conflict between Sgt. Zack who fought in World War II and his inexperienced commanding officer Lt. Driscoll over what to do and such. Immediately moral and racial issues happen as both Corporal Thompson and Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) are often questioned by this North Korean about who they are where both do reveal certain prejudices but also an optimism that is a bit unexpected. Still, Fuller is more interested in a lot of the more grim aspects of war such as the fact that people are killed and soldiers will do things that seem immoral. Notably as some of the dialogue contains very startling information about what soldiers do in war.

Fuller’s direction is quite engaging for the way he creates scenes that doesn’t play to any kind of idealism but rather be engrossed in realism. By creating a chilling atmosphere in some scenes at night including an exterior setting in the woods, it is to emphasize that the enemy is out there and finding a safe place isn’t easy. Everyone has to be in their toes and make sure that they don’t get killed by the enemy. Things do cool down in the temple scenes where Fuller definitely creates some mesmerizing shots where it’s a place that is sacred and these men are aware of that. Still, there is that sense of danger that they’re trapped as they have to deal with a North Korean major and later other North Koreans.

The film’s third act not only is very intense as it involves the battle but also some of the events that occur where there’s an air of sentimentality but also a real cynicism that is revealed about the horrors of war. Notably in the battlefield where Fuller creates some amazing dolly shots of North Koreans running into the battleground. The film’s ending is also cynical for the fact that the war is still happening and that these soldiers still have to fight where Fuller doesn’t try to make a grand statement but rather show something that feels very true about war. Overall, Fuller creates an engrossing yet very gritty film about war and the men who fight these wars.

Cinematographer Ernest Miller does excellent work with the film‘s black-and-white photography to maintain an unsettling mood for the scenes at night along with some wondrous yet stark imagery in some of its daytime scenes including the climatic battle. Editor Philip Cahn does nice work with the editing to create methodical cuts for its suspenseful moments along with stylish uses of dissolves and wipes for transitions. Art director Theobold Holsopple does brilliant work with the look of the Buddhist temple that the soldiers hide out at. The film’s music by Paul Dunlap is wonderful for its orchestral-driven bombast to capture the intensity of the battle as well as some of the drama that occurs.

The film’s superb ensemble cast includes some noteworthy performances from Sid Melton as the silent soldier Joe, Richard Monahan as the radio operator Pvt. Baldy, Robert Hutton as the low-key but intelligent Pvt. Bronte, and Harold Fong as the North Korean major. Richard Loo is excellent as smart and strategic Sgt. Tanaka while James Edwards is terrific as the more humanistic medic Cpl. Thompson. William Chun is wonderful as the young kid called Short Round who helps out the unit while Steve Brodie is great as the inexperienced leader Lt. Driscoll who often spars with Sgt. Zack. Finally, there’s Gene Evans in an incredible performance as the war-weary Sgt. Zack who deals with all sort of issues as he reveals a lot of harsh truths about war and how it eventually affects those who fight.

The Steel Helmet is a marvelous film from Samuel Fuller that explores the horrors and prejudice that goes on in war. With a great ensemble cast at the helm, it’s a film that truly presents war not as something idealistic nor patriotic for a more grim outlook into what is going on. In the end, The Steel Helmet is extraordinary war film from Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller Films: I Shot Jesse James - The Baron of Arizona - Fixed Bayonets! - Park Row - Pickup on South Street - (Hell and High Water) - House of Bamboo - (China Gate) - Run of the Arrow - Forty Guns - Verboten! - The Crimson Kimono - Underworld U.S.A. - Merrill’s Marauders - Shock Corridor - The Naked Kiss - (Shark!) - (Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street) - The Big Red One - White Dog - (Thieves After Dark) - (Street of No Return) - (The Madonna and the Dragon)

© thevoid99 2012


Dave Enkosky said...

This might be my favorite Fuller film.

thevoid99 said...

Of the 7 Fuller films I've seen so far. This is my third favorite. Shock Corridor is first followed by The Naked Kiss.