The first Korean War film, Steel Helmet was released mere months after the war formally began, and it benefits from the kind of irrevocable, in-the-moment anxiety that all of director Sam Fuller’s films do. Frankly, the master narrative about the war was still a bundle of unconnected nerves with no central focus yet, so Fuller did what a good Fuller was accustomed to doing: he grabbed the nerves by the claw and jostled them even further. Steel Helmet is infused with an earthy, ramshackle vitality and as sense of vicious, viscous dirt seeping into every crack that Fuller so astoundingly tightens up with garrote wire. This is catgut filmmaking, muscular and taciturn and brutish in the manner of a war of attrition mixed with a combustible blitzkrieg, and more importantly, its expediency ensures that the film cannot bother with the tangled geopolitical board-room ideologies of war in a broad sense. Because the war had no overarching narrative (yet), the film only had one choice, the Fuller special: to leave the board rooms behind and make things deeply, uncomfortably intimate, as in camera-too-close-to-the-character-sweat intimate.
Steel Helmet is not, as most distended, gluttonous war films tend to be, an especially visionary film. It keeps its imagination way low-to-the-ground, almost slinking through the dirt in the best possible sense of the word. This gnawing nastiness is fittingly encrusted in the opening credits, a low-slung close-up of a steel helmet resting like an impenetrable monolith to mankind’s inescapable knack for death. An iconic image, but the real standout is the sound design. Aural shrapnel flying overhead threatens the sanctity and safety of the frame, acclimatizing us to how most films refuse to sink into the murky cognizance of peripheral vision. The noises in this film are masterfully brutal, always suggesting the sloppiness of real experience outside of the characters’ vision and outside of America’s vision in even the most nominally heroic scenes, of which there are brutally few. While Fuller’s film is laser-focused, it is never myopic or stranded in the American mindset of mid-century hope. Rather than overlooking the anxiety of scouring left and right and potentially affronting yourself with the knowledge of the world outside of your limited mindset, Fuller’s camera wanders into the gutter away from mid-century American hope. If you try to defang it, you’ll just get torn to tatters.
Eventually, a pair of nervous eyes peak out from above the frame and etch out a forward path, the soldier wearing those eyes inching forward on the ground as the blocking reveals lifeless bodies all around him. The blocking on the soldier’s body itself renders him some malformed object. Even though he has use of his entire physical body, some mental hang-up seems to constrict him into inhuman form. A wonderfully energetic, scrappy, combative conversation breaks out between the American (Sgt Zack, played estimably by Gene Evans) and a young, family-less Korean boy who appears, the latter confronting the war like Zack does: another day in the life. While insouciant, the conversation carries stiff undercurrents of blunt mortality in the earthy, matter-of-fact lack of equivocation with which they speak about the casualties around them as utilities for them now, cadavers to materialize and scrap whatever tarnished materials they can from. Befitting the title, this is a hard-headed, no-nonsense film, but a sense of bitter loneliness and hesitance about friendship in a hostile world (for every character, regardless of nationality) ring through.
Marshalling their energy to step suspiciously into a nearby jungle, the two meet Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic, while the three quickly run into a stranded platoon without effective leadership. The unvarnished skepticism with which Zack ambivalently speaks to the black man suggests a racism that Zach then forgoes for a near-hostility to the platoon, refashioning Thompson as one of his few compatriots. But most starling of all in the film’s negotiation of military relationships is how the film never explains Zack’s change-up or even marks his shifting attitudes toward Corporal Thompson as a “thing’. Fuller, a reporter before transitioning to a writer-director, writes with a kind of bristling, hurried, neurotic forward energy like the fear of death is behind the film prodding it ahead. Time for exposition is a luxury the film does not have. Race, while invoked throughout the film, no longer feels like a superimposed theme or an issue but a fact of existence, a slightly ajar closet containing the bric-a-brac and unpackaged artifacts of American history that are still very much of the present. Rather than a top-down extra layer onto the film, race creeps in, revealing itself suspiciously, skulking by as something always present but often obfuscated. These men keep things close to the vest like that, afraid that any verbal slip could lead to getting their tongue cut off.
Which is to say: Steel Helmet does not have a thesis about race, nor is the film beholden to an argument. It feels out race, much like all of the interpersonal conflicts in the film, with charcaters like Zack exhibiting a racial attitude that is non-monolithic but sketchy, confused, unfocused, non-foregrounded. Feelings as hidden in reaction shots and questions of character blocking and visual positioning (which is, in essence, exactly how race manifests insidiously rather than overtly in real life). Audiences have to ride the knots and waves and energies of experience and shifting mental realities and character identities that are only ever just suggested. The feelings each character holds to the world is a process of discovery and provisional assumption to be inferred.
Even when race is heated up as an anxiety-induced centerpiece of conversation, The Steel Helmet is still ambivalent, but never cagey. When the Americans finally capture a North Korean soldier, he proudly ripostes them when they antagonize him: “I’m no Russian, I’m a North Korean communist”, spoken with a defiant human sense of personality, pride, and disdain that keeps the enemy from feeling like an anonymous Other. The North Korean man preaches racial awareness to the black soldier who is uneasy company among the white soldiers, asking him “you can’t eat well (in America) unless there’s a war?”. Responding with a determined but threatened resignation: “Yup”, the black soldier resists but does not actually defy the prisoner by remarking that his experience in America will always be one of strife and that there is, bluntly, nothing to be done about it except to soldier on. Even his most defiant response, “Some things just take time” (I’m paraphrasing), is spoken with a wounded hollowness. It implies a ritual of sorts, a need to expel from his mouth that which he only tenuously believes as if to remind himself more than the North Korean prisoner that he can continue believing America’s fragile promises.
In fact, there is little sense of solution or genuine belief in American progress in these conversations, or anywhere in the film. We’re left grasping at a tired, crumbling, battle-scarred understanding of the world spoken, and shot in Fuller’s unvarnished style, as a series of compromises. The non-white soldiers speak about American opportunity not as totems to minority assimilation in America but as people tirelessly stumbling forward with whatever hang-dog scraps of imperiled belief they can muster. Their own attitudes about America are fundamentally unresolved, and any audience member who takes their words as iron-clad emblems of Fuller’s belief in an America trucking along on the tracks of progress only needs to eye the film’s conclusion. A racial melting pot huddled together, rescue and escape for the remaining soldiers is merely one step on an unending road to nowhere. Fuller’s word is not a promise but a sigh: “There is no end to this story”.
Fuller would take a symbol and stab it in the dark, but it is difficult not to read the film’s sense of endlessly centrifugal circling as a criticism of the assumption that the soldiers’ actions, and America’s actions both at home and at sea, necessarily bind a world toward teleological purpose, growth, and racial togetherness. The film suggests not moving toward a future of opportunity but returning to a previous state. Even still, Fuller’s attitude is more skepticism than nihilism. He’s simply raising one eyebrow about America’s action higher than any other filmmaker at the time, and maybe outstripping the filmmakers of today.
Turning blasphemy into beauty like that is one of Fuller’s hallmarks, and if the moral questions don’t win you over, the film’s formalism had better. Fuller’s films are too muddy and tactile to ever feel otherworldly, but as much as the forest that takes up the film’s first half invokes the hostility of the real world not interested in human conflicts, it also suggests a forest of the damned. Fog roles in, evaporating your feet from your body and rendering you a non-human specter just floating around for your doom. Harsh brambles and thickets of grass and trees mimic the knotted anxiety between the men who form an uneasy camaraderie. The lack of visible enemies seems informed by criminally underrated pre-Code war films like John Ford’s The Lost Patrol that remake war as some sort of endless, circular vortex or a death walk to and from nowhere.
And Fuller’s trademark camera track/pan motion twists and stirs the space around the characters. It moves with a mixture of the journalistic impulse to explore reality and a more weaving, prowling desire to gin up a fascinatingly suspenseful movie location to complement his sweltering dissection of the human face in all its messy, befuddled, volatile, implosive, and indecisive glory. The film’s three-day sand-paper stubble is profuse, matched only in pungency by the briny sweat that just about invades your olfactory system with hostile intent. Cinematographer Ernest Miller was not a household name even among cinephiles, but if this, his final film, is anything to judge by, rush, don’t walk, to his films.
Furthermore, nearly free-associative shots puncture the screen with bullets that seem to come from and arrive at no one. The lack of cause and effect to the shot structure pervades the film with a sense of ineffectiveness, raising questions about America’s virility (we rarely see bullets aimed and then hitting their marks). The film invokes the fragile logic of conflict, and the inability of those men in the thick of war to even cohere the ideologies of the conflict around their heads, in the day-on-the-job verisimilitude of not knowing what is going to happen next and filling in the time with whatever random goal you can find. Whether anything these men are doing is meaningful except as a way to keep their heads together is an open question.
At one point, when one character is mercilessly stabbed from behind, all he can muster before collapsing is a series of gutted, staggered “aww no’s” as though actively figuring out his death and that no one can hear him in-media-res, dying before he can even fully understand the implications. The reaction is less dramatic than we expect, deeply unsure of itself, but more haunted and mournful for its essential defiance of the melodramatic impulse. That, in essence, sums up Fuller’s attitude toward filmmaking: shoot the entire film through with a gritty attitude that nonetheless undercuts any sense of swagger, resonating as an attempt to expel whatever energy he can while skeptical that even his own declarations are doomed to remain unheard and unfinished.