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Robert L. Lippert

The Steel Helmet: “I’ve got a hunch we’re all going around in circles”

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

There are two kind of people in The Steel Helmet: those who are dead and those who are about to be; men who have ceased to move anywhere and mean anything, and those whose idiosyncratic, even crazy energy keeps them in motion until they too are stopped by an arbitrary bullet or knife. Dead men are just corpses, places where you can shop for extra sulfa powder, guns, helmets and boots, or get blown up by a booby trap. The Steel Helmet is dedicated to the United States Infantry, but this branch of the military has little of the look of a recruiting poster once it’s been refracted through the very particularized and peculiar directorial lenses of Samuel Fuller. A stranger to Fuller might echo the gum-chewing officer who disbelievingly confronts the film’s survivors—bald, black, yellow, and crazy—with “What kind of outfit is this?” The outfit is mankind and the Korean police action just another chapter in a story, a battleground that has no end, that is existence itself.

A steel helmet marked by a bullethole fills the screen during the film’s credit sequence. That helmer is like a slowmotion stone dropped into the pool of our perception; for the image expands in ever widening circles until it has eroded our literal vision away like a series of figurative dissolves, and that pierced hemisphere becomes a metal microcosm, the world itself, the world under fire. When the helmet is seen to be inhabited, when Sgt. Zack’s (Gene Evans’) eyes appear warily beneath it, the world shrinks to the confines of the fragile circle of a human skull. Not much later in the film, another soldier hits the dirt, jarring off his helmet to reveal the almost obscenely vulnerable nakedness of a hairless head. Here, baldness against earth evokes man’s fate as food for worms. In The Naked Kiss, the denuded pate of a prostitute possesses a perverse sexual allure. In both cases, the loss of that taken-for-granted covering and protection spells a primal vulnerability which both attracts and repulses. That the bald soldier’s head should be massaged with dirt to make his hair grow back completes some dark cycle in The Steel Helmet. When Baldy (Richard Monahan) is assured that “things will be sprouting in no time,” he has every right to querulously inquire, “What things?” Zack barks “Eat rice!” at his South Korean protégé whenever the enemy is encountered. The black medic, Thompson (James Edwards), reports that his officer is “fertilizing a rice paddy with the others,” and Sgt. Zack sloppily crams melon into his mouth as he advises his less cynical lieutenant (Steve Brodie) to stop worrying about a dead American’s dogtags: “A dead man’s nothing but a corpse. Nobody cares who he is now.” Three shellshocked soldiers sprawl against and around a pillar surrounded by the bodies of their entire patrol: “I’m hungry.” “Me, too.” “First we’ll eat, then we’ll bury them.” Rice is nourishment for the living, but in this violently topsy-turvy environment, eating rice means hitting the dirt, avoiding the grave by playing dead. Rice gets fertilized by the truly dead, but the rich earth will make Baldy’s hirsute helmet grow again. Men who are still on their feet eat to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so that they don’t get pinned down, immobilized, dead. Once dead, burial must wait for the living to take sustenance. Man eats so that he has the energy to run toward whatever death is waiting for him. Then he becomes food for other men on the run. A profoundly pessimistic vision? Perhaps. But the momentum and eccentric style of man’s run, his sheer bullheaded energy and endurance equally fascinate Fuller.

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“When it’s night time … “: Myth and the Geography of the Unconscious in ‘I Shot Jesse James’

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

“I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction and the picture to tilt in another. So when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.”

-Sam Fuller, discussing the murder scene in I Shot Jesse James

Sam Fuller does not really seem too preoccupied with the Jesse James story as Western myth. In all of his movies he is too busy delving into the dark corners of human nature to indulge in the more abstract enterprise of mythmaking (or its iconoclastic obverse in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) à la John Ford, Leone, or Peckinpah. I Shot Jesse James, Fuller’s first film as a director, does partake of mythic qualities, but primarily as they arise in conjunction with the psychological dissolution and imminent mortality of Robert Ford (John Ireland), emphatically the man who shot Jesse James. The term “psychological Western”—rife with Freudian undertones—seems a dangerous description, an oversimplification of Fuller’s complexly human drama; Fuller’s people are people rather than symbols. He gets at their humanness through an intensely subjective narrative, emphasizing, through an environment of airless closeups, the interior space of Bob Ford’s informing consciousness. In the process, Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, is not only de-romanticized (Reed Hadley’s abbreviated appearance as Jesse definitely makes it hard to sympathize with him)—he gets pretty much ignored. The angst of a confused man who would shoot his best friend to gain amnesty for himself is much more compelling subject matter for Fuller. The title of the film itself is a sign of this agonizing subjectivity, suggesting both confession and advertisement, the ordinate axes of guilt and potency that delineate the planes of Robert Ford’s inner struggle.

John Ireland as Robert Ford

Fuller has said that he modeled the shooting scene after a version of the legendary betrayal that most people were familiar with from pictures showing Jesse straightening a picture on the wall while Ford calmly plugs him in the back. That image becomes the core of the movie, but in an interesting and unexpected way that allows Fuller to create a delicate interplay between myth and artistic creation by introducing Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), a travelling impresario who stages “heartwarming dramas” with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), Ford’s girlfriend, as his leading lady. Fairly early in the film there is a brilliantly economical and. subtly motivated scene in which Robert Ford and Mr. Kane are in Cynthy’s dressing room playing a simple game of cards for a quarter a hand. As Ford talks on and on about legendary figures like the Dalton gang and some other Western gunslingers, Kane loses hand after hand. Finally we see Kane draw an ace of spades; he glances at Ford and says, “Four.” Ford has a nine. He picks up another two bits and tells Kane that it looks like a real streak of bad luck. Kane agrees and asks if he can see that .45 now—the .45 that killed Jesse James. As he fondles it, he says, “You know, that gun’ll probably go into a museum one day.” “Not while I’m alive to tote it,” Ford replies. While the allusions to Ford’s growing mythic status accumulate (his invoking the Daltons gives us a context of legend from which to view Ford’s ascension to that very same plane of reputed existence), the actual business of the scene—hidden somewhere behind Kane’s dissembling face when he drew the ace and called out a four—still brews unseen, until Cynthy walks in, Kane goes out, and Ford tells her that Kane is going to make him a “special added attraction” in the show. Each night, he will play out onstage the way he murdered Jesse.

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