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Samuel Fuller’s ‘Steel Helmet’ a Tough-as-Nails Look at War

Now that the Persian Gulf War has ended and we’re deprived of our daily dose of military briefings from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Lt. Gen. Thomas W. Kelly, the perfect substitute is Samuel Fuller’s Korean War film, “The Steel Helmet.”

Gene Evans, who also starred in Fuller’s “Park Row” and “Fixed Bayonets,” is Sgt. Zack, the lone survivor of his unit who is befriended by a young South Korean boy and then meets up with a black medic (James Edwards). This multiracial, U.N.-like trio link up with a leaderless squadron and Zack takes over for a series of enemy encounters, climaxed by a blazing battle for a Buddhist temple.

If there is any question about the blunt, brash and war-weary Zack, this observation, fired off after being asked to lead the lost unit, says it all: “You got nothing out there but rice paddies crawling with commies just waiting to slap you between two big hunks of rye bread and wash you down with fish eggs and vodka. Good luck.”

What makes “The Steel Helmet” stand out from other war films of the era is Fuller’s uncompromising, realistic portrayal of the fears and the brutality of a ground war. People die suddenly and without fanfare in the film. There is little time for sentiment; the war goes on.

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And Fuller doesn’t fill his picture with forgettable actor-soldiers; each character is unique--a peace-loving soldier who carries a portable organ with him, a soldier who won’t talk, a tough Japanese-American, a young soldier who only wants to grow hair on his bald pate, among others.

It’s clear from the first frame that Fuller, a highly decorated member of the 1st Infantry Division in World War II, loves the men of the infantry. And he recognizes war as a necessary evil, an unpleasant challenge that men must deal with in their own way. In “The Steel Helmet,” unlike the majority of Hollywood war films of the 1940s and ‘50s, even the toughest of men are broken by the unrelenting danger of warfare.

As the survivors of this battle march out of the temple and on to a new fight, the words “There Is No End to This Story” appear on the screen. That pretty much says it all about the history of man and war.

“The Steel Helmet” (1951), written and directed by Samuel Fuller. 84 minutes. No rating.

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