Lippert Productions, 1951, 85 minutes
Cast: Gene Evans, James Edwards, Richard Loo, Richard Monahan, William Chun, Harold Fong, and Steve Brodie
Screenplay: Sam Fuller
Associate Producer: William Berke and Murray Lerner
Producer: Sam Fuller
Executive Producer: Robert Lippert
Director: Sam Fuller
The end of WWII had left the United States and the Soviet Union as the two global superpowers, and Korea, a Japanese protectorate, was far down their respective lists of priorities. Pre-occupied with imposing control on Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union simply wanted to ensure that Americans troops were not stationed near its borders, so the 38th Parallel was selected as the dividing line between the Russian and American occupation forces. Unwilling to navigate the mix of political factions, the active support of the American occupation forces ensured that American-educated Syngman Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Kim Sung-il, who had served with the Red Army during WWII, became the Soviets’ candidate in North Korea.
Both Rhee and Kim wanted to reunify Korea by force and believed that the other side would fall easily, but their respective backers had different approaches. Aware that Rhee would provoke a war if permitted, the United States had refused to provide the ROK army with planes, tanks and artillery. However, Stalin approved Kim’s invasion plan, supplying the North Koreans with generous quantities of planes, tanks and artillery. When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) crossed the border on June 25, 1950, its large, well-trained army steamrolled through the unprepared ROK forces, starting the Korean War. Believing that remaining neutral would be interpreted as weakness by the Soviets, President Harry Truman won the support of the United Nations for the defense of South Korea, assigning the military response to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the American occupation forces in Japan. Nearly bankrupted by the massive expense of WWII, the American army had been allowed to decline, while reinforcements were sent piecemeal, so the NKPA had gained control of all of Korea by August except for a small perimeter around the port of Pusan. The NKPA had already burned itself out with repeated frontal attacks when an amphibious landing at Inchon caught the North Koreans completely by surprise. Seoul was recaptured on September 25, and the NKPA began to disintegrate.
Deciding to reunify Korea by force, an overconfident MacArthur dismissed China’s warning that it would not permit American troops near the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. The entry of hundreds of thousands of Chinese ‘volunteers’ into Korea in late November transformed the war. MacArthur rashly continued with the offensive despite the changed situation, and the unprepared UN forces were overwhelmed. Although a Marine division fought its way out of the Chosin Reservoir in early December, most of the UN forces were caught exposed, and were forced into a panicked retreat.
Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), the sole survivor of a unit that had been captured and massacred by the NKPA, encounters a young Korean refugee, whom he names Short Round (William Chun), and a small patrol commanded by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Since most of the troops, aside from the medic Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards) and Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), are inexperienced, Driscoll grudgingly accepts the advice of the gruff, short-tempered Zack. The small group makes its way to a Buddhist temple, which is used as an observation post. Establishing contact with HQ, they monitor the area for the enemy, unaware that an NKPA officer is hiding in the temple.
The Korean War had started a few months earlier but information was lacking, so director Sam Fuller wrote the screenplay quickly, relying on the newspaper coverage of the war, mixed in with scenes based on the diary he had kept during WWII, where he had recorded events he had witnessed with ideas on how to film those events in a movie. The fixation with a helmet with a bullet hole as a lucky symbol and the useless death of a soldier killed by a booby-trapped corpse were both taken from his diary. The movie has little to do with the war itself, which enabled the director to show the perspective of infantrymen, who are usually uninformed about the overall situation. Having experienced combat firsthand, Fuller made a war movie where war is simply endless fatigue punctuated by death and terror, so there are several scenes of tired infantry marching. While the script says little about the Korean War, there are numerous references to WWII, specifically the areas where Fuller saw combat: North Africa, Kesserine Pass, and Omaha Beach. In fact, the members of the patrol are rated by Zack according to their service in WWII, so he has no time for the lieutenant who had served in the United States during the war, unlike Thompson and Tanaka, who had both seen combat. Fuller even includes an emotional tribute to his former regimental commander, Col. Taylor, who had said on Omaha Beach during D-Day, “there are only two types of men on this beach, the dead and the men who will die, so let’s get off this beach and go die inland.”
The NKPA did dress as civilians to take the enemy by surprise, so the GIs quickly learned to mistrust refugees, who were often forced by the NKPA to serve as cover.
Fuller does not sugarcoat the soldiers’ racism, so Zack has to catch himself whenever he says ‘gook’ and replace it with Korean. American soldiers constantly referred to Koreans, North or South, as ‘gooks’.
The film starts with the words “This story is dedicated to the United States Infantry.” Later in the movie, a scene where Zack passionately defends the infantry against serving in the air force, the navy or in the tank corps is obviously channelling Fuller’s own love of the infantry.
The movie’s opening scene grabs the attention of the viewer, making it clear that this is not an ordinary war movie. A wounded soldier with his hands tied behind his back drags himself along the ground as he tries to find a knife to free himself. A former crime reporter and the author of several pulp novels, Fuller’s dialogue is sharp and to the point. When Zack asks Short Round where his people are, he responds “With Buddha.” Later in the movie, Zack screams at a wounded man “If you die, I’ll kill you.”
Believing that audiences never actually saw the ordeal experienced by the common soldiers, on either side, Fuller wanted to show the confusion and the brutality that quickly became common during war.
Tired of the simple propaganda of “we are right and they are wrong” that was popular in Hollywood war films, Fuller refused to back away from the racism in the United States. Aside from referring to the Jim Crow laws that made blacks second-class citizens in the southern states, his film was the first movie to openly mention the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII. While scenes of soldiers debating the merits of democracy to explain why they fight are common in war films of that era, Fuller turned that approach upside-down by showing that soldiers were willing to fight even though their country blatantly did not live up to its ideals. Trying to stir up trouble, the captured NKPA major asks Thompson, who is black, why he fights for the United States when he has to sit in the back of the bus. Thompson has no illusions about the racist nature of segregation, but replies that a hundred years ago he could not ride on the bus, now he can sit on the bus, maybe in fifty years in the middle, someday up front. Some things can’t be rushed. The major tries the Japanese-American Tanaka next, but despite the shame of how his family was treated during WWII, Tanaka realizes that the flawed democracy in the United States is better than the communism offered by totalitarian dictatorships. Instead of making his point by demonizing the major, Fuller shows that both Thompson and Tanaka are respected by the other soldiers. In fact, Fuller moves the camera back and forth to give each man in the debate equal time, thus ensuring that the viewers have to make up their own minds.
The film has a fair amount of humor, especially the scene of Tanaka rubbing dirt on a bald soldier’s head to make his hair grow. Actually, the insertion of odd comedy scenes to relieve dramatic tension would become trademark of Fuller’s movies.
Steel Helmet was Fuller’s third movie, so his technical ability had grown and he was more comfortable with the story, since it was told from an infantryman’s viewpoint. His previous film, The Baron of Arizona, had been an ambitious attempt to make a low-level A picture, but its failure meant that he had a smaller budget, so he embraced the limitations and made a high-quality B movie. Aside from stock war footage provided by the military, the combat scenes were filmed with a tank made from cardboard and twenty students recruited from the University of California, Los Angeles to play the NKPA army. The exterior scenes were shot in Griffith Park, a park with more than 4,000 acres in Los Angeles. Even though I knew that Fuller had filmed the climatic battle scene with only twenty extras, I still believed that it was a large-scale battle. Filmed in twelve days with a small budget, most of the movie takes place in the temple, but it is a fantastic set.
The movie ends with the exhausted survivors marching to the next battle, as the screen shows: “There is no end to this story.” It is a strange ending but Fuller believed that until humanity stopped relying on violence to resolve problems, the fighting would continue forever.
A major studio had offered to produce the film with John Wayne in a starring role but Fuller knew that a John Wayne movie would never be anything other than a simple morality tale, so he chose to make the movie with Robert Lippert, who gave him independence, if not much of a budget. The lead role had not been cast when rehearsals started, but Fuller refused to settle for actors who did not fit the part. The screen test for Gene Evans took place in Fuller’s office, and consisted of the director throwing an M1 rifle at Evans. After watching him smoothly handle the rifle, Evans got the part even though he was an unknown actor. Fuller’s determination to have the right actor is understandable. Although only given about five pages of dialogue in a ninety-page script, the character of Zack dominates the film as the centre of gravity that everyone else revolves around.
The movie was a hit, but Fuller was attacked by conservative newspapers as pro-communist and anti-American, while FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had the FBI investigate him, although Fuller did not know at the time. The Pentagon even summoned him to Washington, D. C. to explain a scene where Zack kills a POW in a fit of rage. Fuller found himself facing a room of generals and senior officers who accused him of making a movie that was communist indoctrination. He explained that he had fought in WWII, and had seen soldiers shoot prisoners in anger, but they only believed him after he persuaded them to call Brigadier General Taylor, his former regimental commander, to back him up.
Produced quickly several months after the war had started, the first movie set during the Korean War naturally lacks historical depth but its raw intensity make it a must-see.