Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Reviews, Sam Fuller

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.

The cyclical quality of Fuller’s vision lacks the comforting conservation of energy that informs Walt Whitman’s assurance that “grass is the beautiful uncut hair of graves,” that “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death.” Fuller has more in common with an older poet, John Donne, who can locate his own identity, that of his mistress, and their sexual union in the commingling of their blood within the jet walls of a flea. Both Fuller and Donne share a penchant for yoking heterogeneous or incongruous images to produce an explosively resonant reality.

James Edwards, William Chun, and Gene Evans

After Zack raises his head at the beginning of the film, he inches up over the edge of what seems an abyss. Hands tied behind him, he wriggles painfully through a field of corpses. The camera recedes before him slowly, easily … stops … moves again, keeping pace with him. Like the opening sequence of Run of the Arrow, this wordless beginning is grounded in ordinary reality, yet reverberates with an almost archetypal momentousness. How many times has Zack, the grizzled, bloodied retread, crawled up out of that void? What mobilizes that battered body to worm its way back to life? Fuller’s camera does not comment or constrain. It watches. Bare feet approach, flanked by the trailing barrel of a rifle. Zack freezes. Closeup of Oriental eyes—as wary as Zack’s in their careful reconnaissance. The rifle barrel nudges Zack’s cheek. Our partial vision convinces us of the worst. But appearances prove shifty, unreliable in this dislocated environment, and we’ve barely leaped to our conclusions before a full shot reveals a half-grown kid cutting Zack’s bonds.

Throughout The Steel Helmet, other people are initially assumed guilty or hostile until proved otherwise. Even then they don’t become friendlies—just neutrals. Thompson’s black face marks him as a possible deserter, and Baldy’s hair tonic signals homosexual to Zack (“Take off your helmet and let’s see what kind of permanent you’ve got”). A white-robed Korean woman and her companion, formal in black silk hat, kneel by an ornate shrine in the middle of an empty field: under the guise of pastoral piety, an ambush. The North Korean major (Harold Fong), trying to con his way out of captivity, relies on Thompson’s blackness and Buddhahead’s (Richard Loo’s) slanted eyes as racial appearances that should unite them all against white bigotry. But the two Americans refuse to stand still for the major’s incomplete identification. Nor do they immediately fall into Hollywood stereotypes of noble, patriotic representatives of their respective races (as I suspect many audiences anticipate). They remain the freaky, unpredictable versions of humanity that make one exclaim with incredulous disgust and delight: “What kind of outfit is this?!”

Zack has survived two wars by narrowing down his focus and disconnecting certain emotional circuits. Eyes squinted suspiciously against whatever death is currently stalking him, mouth clamped around a necessary stogie, he attends to the practicalities of staying alive. His first—indeed, the first—words in the film are “Where’d you get that rifle?”, and this only after he’s downed pills and dumped sulfa into his leg wound. Zack seals his temporary adoption of Short Round (William Chun) by outfitting the kid in steel pot and clodhoppers (“Take Peewee Johnson’s”); his growing affection for the boy is almost always expressed in concern for the whereabouts of that helmet and those boots; and his final capitulation occurs when he contrives a makeshift dogtag for Short Round. When collecting another set of dogtags from a dead booby trapped American gets a young G.I. (Neyle Morrow) blown up, Zack’s pressing concern is for the soldier’s box of cigars—his price for guiding the patrol to its appointed observation post. We easily categorize him as heartless, inhuman, a military machine, though we throw in a little grudging respect for his professionalism. Again, Fuller explodes our easy cliché. Short Round, having saved Zack’s life, insists that he must follow him because now “Your heart is in my hand” (“My what is in your where?!”). The metaphor becomes almost literally true: Zack’s armor is breached and his heart and mind are ultimately broken. It does not pay to love, to become emotionally anchored in a world in which standing still can make you an easy target. Zack’s request for “Auld Lang Syne” on FAT––– PAUL’s organ and Short Round’s unexpected rendition of the Korean national anthem to its melody create one of those strange Fullerian erasures of national or cultural distinctions—but it also results in the realization of just how many old acquaintances Zack must have made and lost during the long war that has been his life. Zack’s seasoned squint, his watchful reconnoitering of a milieu reliable only in its hostility, fails him when he looks inward and finds booby trapped memories and affections.

Gene Evans as Zack and Richard Loo as Tanaka

Appearances in The Steel Helmet may shift and reveal initially unseen, unknown realities—one reason it’s good to be consistently on guard, ready for the ostensibly harmless to turn lethal—but on the other hand, sometimes the best defense is not to see too much, not to go further than first, uncomplicated, uninvolving impressions. See a portable organ stamped FAT PAUL? Let it go as a peculiarity, a transiently amusing episode between bullets. Meet the organ’s owner, a guy who missed World War II because he was a conscientious objector; call him “Conchie”, get him categorized as another curiosity, and forget it. Don’t go up and examine the dogtags too closely. Finding out that part of Father Paul’s name got burnt off the organ in a firefight, that Father Paul was another casualty, and that Conchie (Robert Hutton) carries the organ as ammunition in an ethical war as terrible as the actual one which puts a period to all questions of ethics—digging up this kind of information can only blur one’s vision so that one walks into the dangerous trap of caring. Conchie defends his extra load by announcing that he’s carrying his specified amount of ammunition. Zack retorts that there is no such thing as a specified amount of ammunition, and indeed there is not—not on any front in The Steel Helmet.

The “craziness” of Fuller’s men at war is no defense against death, their own or anyone else’s, but it’s a way of coping. Their world is quite mad, visually and existentially off-kilter, so that it can kill you as quick as you look at it. They wander in circles through a fog-shrouded forest/set that has no anchor in geographical reality, only nightmare. The balcony of the temple/set where they establish the crucial observation post practically casts shadows on the featureless backdrop beyond it. Economics dictate aesthetics: the unreality of the environment isolates these gladiators from any known world or war, turns their experiences into iconographic encounters with the irreducible facts of living and dying. Fuller’s camera looks down on sprawled bodies—they could be dead as easily as sleeping men—tilts slightly to move slowly up the bulk of an expressionless Buddha. Dissolve to the temple balcony where Joe (Sid Melton), the soldier who never has a word for his buddies but talks a blue streak to his mule, faces the camera, takes his death from behind, and speaks his terrible refusal of, begging off from, that death-“Ah no … Ah no … please”—to us. Cut, and the camera moves down the Buddha to focus once more at a slightly lowered angle on Joe’s unconscious friends. Zack and Thompson awake to the whistling sound of shells, “incoming mail,” “big stuff.” The whistling turns out to be Baldy’s up-close adenoidal snoring. He counters their disgust with “What do you want me to do—stop breathing?” Baldy’s snores sound like shells, and Zack’s badmouthing of Thompson’s medical skills prompts the medic to inquire whether he’d been hit in the mouth. The figurative becomes literal as Zack launches into a description of just such a wound which required skin grafts from his backside: “Now when my face gets tired, I sit down.”

Getting through The Steel Helmeton either side of the screen—is like threading a minefield, and no one survives unscathed. Neither Short Round’s prayers nor our complacent faith that movies—B movies in particular—can’t be booby trapped are adequate defenses against the ruthlessly uneuphemized reality that informs this film. We can’t look to God or Samuel Fuller to take us off the hook by giving us some easy position or point of view from which to rationalize this battlefield version of existence. The only god in The Steel Helmet is the awesome Buddha that dominates the temple. Inscrutable, neither Caucasian nor Oriental, male nor female, it takes no sides, displays no compassion or contempt for the humans who live and die beneath it, and offers no solace of anything after death. Through its eyes we survey Short Round below, lighting candles to punctuate the darkness in which he stands. The shot signals nothing, no benison, not even indifference—just the act of seeing. The statue’s upraised hand supports plasma for a dying man, and during the final battle Zack uses its torso as a coign of vantage from which to fire at the enemy. Yet the camera comes back to its face so frequently that we begin to expect some change, some sign in that implacably unmoving countenance. But it does not come. The statue watches, observes, and that is all. As Fuller’s camera watched Zack crawl back to life in the beginning of the film, so those eyes watch—condemning man to a terrible freedom, imposing no constraints but certain death. While the North Korean major attempts to erode Thompson’s loyalty by taunting him about the non-status of blacks in America, the camera pivots from one man to the other, allowing the weight of the argument equal time, taking no position but that of observer. The major’s argument fails to move Thompson because the former puts his faith in a political frame of reference which doesn’t take into account the black man’s eccentric individuality. But the camera doesn’t force the issue; Thompson has the freedom to take his own position. Fuller’s vision is by no means neutral—his images are potent weapons against the kind of death that passive, detached audiences indulge in—but in The Steel Helmet he refuses to mitigate the way he sees the world by safely containing it within the familiar and comfortable frames of patriotism, religion, or even clichés like happy endings. There are no frames of reference that make for dependable sense or survival in The Steel Helmet—and there’s no handydandy philosophy that can really nail down or name the location of Fuller’s values. For those values aren’t staticized in ideas: they’re on the move in every expression of his characters’ outrageous individuality. They announce themselves in Sgt. Zack’s ruthless mouthing of a cigar or Short Round’s laborious “I get it” wink or Buddhahead’s slightly offkey dogface slang or any of the other signatures of personality that make these men uniquely themselves. Larger than life, without propriety or even sanity, they are the candles Fuller lights against the darkness. When those flames are extinguished you can be sure they do not go gentle into that good night. And neither do Samuel Fuller’s films.

Deputy Corporation / Lippert Productions. Screenplay: Samuel Fuller. Cinematography: Ernest Miller. Art direction: Theobald Holsopple; set decoration: Clarence Steenson. Editing: Philip Cahn. Music: Paul Dunlap. Production: Samuel Fuller; executive: Robert L. Lippert; associate: William Berke. (84 minutes)
The players: Gene Evans, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, William Chun, Richard Loo, Richard Monahan, Robert Hutton, Sid Melton, Neyle Morrow, Harold Fong, Lynn Stalmaster.

© 1976 Kathleen Murphy

A pdf of the original issue can be found here