Friday, May 23, 2014

The Steel Helmet

Memorial Day weekend is almost here, and with that means TCM's annual marathon of war movies. One that I've never recommended before is Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet, which you can catch Saturday afternoon at 1:45 PM.

Gene Evans plays Sgt. Zack, whom we see at the beginning of the movie among a bunch of dead bodies, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Korea. All these dead people had been taken prisoner by the North Koreans and summarily shot, but Zack didn't die because his helmet miraculously deflected the bullet in just the right way. Zack is discovered by a young boy scavenging the bodies for whatever he can find, until the boy realizes that Zack is in fact still alive. Zack calls the boy "Short Round", and Short Round, having lost his parents, wants to go with Zack, something Zack doesn't want. Short Round, however, knows the territory better than any of the Americans, so it might not be such a bad thing to have a guide, even if it is a juvenile guide.

Eventually, Sgt. Zack and Short Round run into a larger group of straggler American troops, led by one Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). Driscoll's ragtag band includes black corporal Thompson (James Edwards), who is also the medic; Japanese-American Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo), and conscientious objector Bronte, among others. Driscoll doesn't really get along well with Zack, but since Driscoll outranks Zack, Driscoll insists that they complete their mission, which is to find a local Buddhist temple where they're supposed to set up an observation post.

The group gets to the temple eventually, and makes certain that there's no North Koreans hiding out at the temple. Having done a thorough search and not finding any enemy soldiers, the Americans set up camp. But apparently, they weren't thorough enough, as there is one North Korean officer in the temple, who manages to kill one of the Americans and destroy the radio equipment before they capture him. They'd like to keep him alive, since he would prove a valuable intelligence tool, but he proceeds to sow dissension among the ranks, much like Eric Portman's Hirth tries to do in 49th Parallel. The fact that there's a black man here, and a Japanese man who saw his parents sent off to internment camps just a decade earlier, gives our North Korean quite a bit of ammunition. But that's the half of the Americans' problems. What they don't realize is that they're about to be set upon by a ridiculously large North Korean force....

The Steel Helmet is a low-budget film, with a story line that's not complex at all, and relatively few sets. I tend not to be a big fan of war movies, but The Steel Helmet is a very well-made movie. It's grim, as war really is, although not unrelentingly; there's some comic relief involving a character who wishes he weren't bald. It also presents the Americans as less than heroic, or more accurately, having human failures and doing terrible things in the face of extreme emotion. It's human nature, but suggesting American soldiers could be anything less than heroic is still controversial in a segment of our society. I can only imagine what it would have been like back in 1951. Ultimately, it gives The Steel Helmet the effet of being a more honest movie, although I have no idea how truly accurate any war movie can really be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I have no idea how truly accurate any war movie can really be."

You should have stopped at, "I have no idea."