My Review of ‘The Steel Helmet’ (1951)

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This movie has the distinction of being the first one about the Korean War. It was also a breakout film for director Samuel Fuller (who also produced and wrote the screenplay).

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The story opens with the sole surviving member of a captured infantry unit crawling out of a foxhole (where he’d been left with numerous others for dead). This would be Sergeant Zach (played stoically by Gene Evans), who survived because his helmet (presumably steel, per the title) deflected a bullet meant for him. Zach’s hands are bound behind him, until a South Korean orphan (played by William Chun) wanders by and cuts him loose. Zach nicknames the kid Short Round and repays his kindness by referring to him throughout as a gook. Until, well … you’ll see.

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Gene Evans puts up with William Chun.

They wander about in the mist for a bit, running into the occasional other survivors in various ranks and numbers, including an African-American medic, Corporal Thompson (played by James Edwards), and a patrol led by a wet-behind-the-ears Lieutenant Driscoll (played by Steve Brodie). Despite the flaring of different racial tensions, the soldiers are forced to work together.

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Via RareFilm

Eventually, their wanderings lead them into a sniper attack. This compels them to set up a defensive base at a Buddhist temple.

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Via Offscreen

This film is remarkable for a few reasons. First, it was made in 10 days with exactly two locations. Fuller (who served in Korea as an infantry soldier) wrote the script based on his experiences in a week. I think that bears repeating. This movie screenplay was written by a Korean War veteran in one frickin’ week and the movie was made in 10 frickin’ days. In two (2) locations!

The movie also delves into issues of American racism (against black people and Japanese-Americans from that previous war) in the most honest and unflinching manner. It was the first Hollywood film to even mention the Japanese-American internment camps. All this goes on while the soldiers are on the constant lookout for snipers and other enemy attackers.

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Via Densho Blog

The U.S. Army provided assistance to the film producers in the form of stock footage, only to become upset with the filmmakers over a particular scene (which you’ll have to watch the movie to learn more about-let’s just say it wasn’t the best form of PR for the Army).

On that note, this has to be one of the most weirdly controversial movies of the time. The military didn’t like it because of something related to the main character, and the Communist newspaper called the film a right-wing fantasy. It’s obvious to anyone who knows their history that perception of this film was affected by the Cold War. No matter where you fell on the political spectrum, the movie had something to offend everyone. Apparently.

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Opening and closing shot.

For my own part, I think the film is brilliant. It may get a touch preachy at times, but what war movie doesn’t? The limited locations give it the feel of a cleverly-filmed stage play. And it was a movie way ahead of its time. Almost like a preview of movies to come about another civil war involving communists in Asia that would generate its own set of controversies after the Yanks came marching in.

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A must-see for all war film fans, movie lovers, and anyone who can appreciate irony.

PS: If you enjoy the film reviews and videos posted here, I hope you’ll consider supporting me on Patreon.

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Thank you! 🙂

PPS: Here’s a video review I found that reveals plot details I didn’t and is just great! 🙂

New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, including the Sam McRae Mystery series. Screenwriter, podcaster, and blogger. My website: www.debbimack.com.

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