Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet is more than a war film. It’s a film about America in the early 1950’s, about race relations, and our changing viewpoints on war itself after the end of World War II. The Steel Helmet was the first film about the Korean War released only eight months after that conflict began. It was also Fuller’s first foray into war a subject he would return to several times during his career.
Fuller, an infantryman during World War II, used his own experiences and those of returning GI’s from the Korean Peninsula to craft the tale of Sergeant Zack and a group of soldiers given the task of occupying a Buddhist temple as an observation post. The film was made for less than $200,000, but was a box-office success establishing Fuller has a legitimate director in Hollywood.
The Steel Helmet like many of Fuller films does not shy away from controversy, and it centers on two main themes race relations and the horrors of war that stay with our soldiers. At the time it was considered by some to be “pro-Communist.” Scenes involving a North Korean POW asking an African-American and Japanese-American how they could fight alongside the white man borrows from Communist propaganda used during the Cold War. Both soldiers dismiss the POW, and the average American might agree with the soldiers, but it is clear Fuller is using the POW to bring up topics rarely seen in theaters in 1951.
By the end of The Steel Helmet the soldiers we have been following are either dead, injured, or in shock. For those remaining nothing will be the same, they’ve all seen death too many times. It’s not a happy ending, but it shouldn’t be.
The Steel Helmet is not just a great war film, but a great film in general. It is tense and filled with action while making the viewer think. It is a credit to Fuller as a writer and director that he is able to combine the two without letting one overtake the other.