[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.