Take a Drink: anytime Sgt. Zack saves someone’s life.
Take a Drink: when not listening to Sgt. Zack gets someone killed
Take a Drink: for references to Buddhism
Drink a Shot: for stock footage
By: Oberst Von Berauscht (Two Beers) –
Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) is the lone survivor of his unit, who were gunned down after surrendering. While heading back to friendly lines, he collects two other stragglers in the form of a South Korean orphan and a black Army Medic named Thompson (James Edwards). The three of them eventually join up with a small patrol of troops heading for a Buddhist Monastery, with orders to set up an observation post. The unit is led by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie), an idealist who disapproves of Sgt. Zack’s gruff behavior, even as he acknowledges his experience. The unit soon finds themselves besieged by the North Korean army, and are in a fight for their lives.
The Steel Helmet was the realization of Director Samuel Fuller’s dream to make a war film that bled authenticity. Fuller himself fought as an infantryman in the WWII, and brought to cinemas a movie as immediate in tone as it was torn from the headlines. The tone of The Steel Helmet is dark and cynical, with no hint of jingoistic fury that would permeate most war films until the Vietnam War. The war as depicted here is a cruel exercise, with little reason other than the destruction of human life. The only heroic thing about war for director Sam Fuller was survival. The common foot soldier is as likely to be killed by the enemy as they are to be sent to their deaths by their own officers.
The film was shot and released within just eight months following the start of the Korean War, and was the first movie to address the subject. The Steel Helmet was a series of “firsts”, as the film also directly addresses the recent de-segregation of the military by portraying a racially diverse fighting unit. Moreover, the movie was also the first American film to openly reference the Japanese-American Internment camps of WWII. The film is also notable for featuring an African American character who not only isn’t there for token reasons, but is also a fully rounded individual, and *spoiler alert* doesn’t die.
For all of the above reasons, The Steel Helmet is in a category all its own, particularly for films of its time period. Gene Evans is the perfect casting choice to play the gruff Sgt. Zack. His character gradually becomes unhinged by his experiences. No matter how tough and experienced a man is in the business of warfare, anyone is capable of breaking, and Evans portrays this with empathy and nuance. Also notable is James Edwards, whose Medic character was a major step forward in cinema. Edwards’ character knows that he’s considered a second class citizen at home, but in combat he proves that he is equal, if not more suited to the task than many white soldiers. Character actor Richard Loo plays Sgt. Tanaka, a decorated Japanese-American soldier from WWII who is well-regarded by his fellow soldiers as a capable leader.
The technical aspects of the film bear some battle-scars, having been shot on only about $100,000.00 and limited with a shooting schedule of only 10 days. Fuller reportedly turned down the opportunity for a bigger budget and John Wayne in the starring role as Sergeant Zack in order to make the film as authentic as he could, and to avoid compromises in the script. These budgetary shortcomings can sometimes hamper the battle sequences, which are clearly shot with minimal extras and an abundance of stock footage. That said, this is a minor technical issue in an otherwise stellar melodrama.
Even contemporary war films fail to address social issues as directly as this. The Steel Helmet is a brilliant anomaly among its peers. Far and away more intelligent than just about everything else from the time period.