Samuel Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, is generally considered the moment where the director pulled it all together. His previous features -- I Shot Jesse James and Baron of Arizona -- pointed toward his auteur stamp of following outsiders with an economic, sparse visual style, but they lacked the gruff, tabloid lyricism of his later work. The Steel Helmet, made in 1951 and set in the still-raging Korean War, is unprecedented in its audacity. Even today, Hollywood generally discourages films set in wars that are currently being fought, and when filmmakers do produce them they tend to under-perform at the box office (see the returns for just about every Iraq War film short of The Hurt Locker). Upon its release, The Steel Helmet was decried by the Pentagon as left-wing disloyalty and conversely by Communist newspaper The Daily Worker as a Right-wing fantasy.
That disparity reflects the brutal honesty of Fuller's film, one that addresses ideological and racial concerns in blunt language and unflinchingly depicts the gruesome nature of war. Its protagonist is introduced in the opening credits, though we don't see him until the end. Fuller opens the film with a lingering shot on, naturally, a steel helmet, resting in the center of the frame dirtied and with a bullet hole in the side. Then the helmet starts to move, and the grizzled face of the man, Sgt. Zack, wearing it slowly rises into view. Fuller's film attracted controversy because it does not distinguish between the man and the helmet: both are weathered, hardened (even "steeled," if you love puns that much) and blunt, but also -- as evidenced by the bullet wound on both -- still vulnerable.
Gene Evans commands your attention as Zack, a WWII veteran who found himself in yet another war. Always chewing on a cigar, he speaks only in direct, short bursts, usually with an insult or two to make sure the person on the other end pays attention. Wounded in a skirmish that left the rest of his platoon dead, Zack survives only thanks to the intervention of a young South Korean boy whom Zack dubs "Short Round." Zack attempts to lose the boy but realizes that he's too banged up to go on without assistance, so he lets the fawning kid tag along. Soon, they stumble across Thompson, a black medic who also survived a bad ambush, and Fuller sets the three up as an odd little trio working their way through Korea trying to hook up with an outfit.
Of course, the multiracial group allows Fuller to address issues of race, concerning both foreigners and those of different colors within America. Fuller cut his teeth reporting for tabloid papers and writing pulp novels. Ergo, his writing plays favorites yet portrays his character's with a blunt honesty. When Zack meets Short Round, he uses the term "gook," and the boy immediately defends himself; "I am no gook," he declares, "I am Korean." The trio stumbles upon an outfit of stereotypes, from the intellectual officer to the former conscientious objector to a Japanese-American Nisei. The officer asks what happened to Zack's unit and is satisfied with the sergeant's answer, but he regards the black Thompson with suspicion.
Zack immediately butts heads with the officer struggling to apply logic to the war. Continuing the equation of the helmet with the soldier at the start of the film, Lt. Driscoll asks Zack to swap helmets, hoping for whatever luck has blessed the sarge. The two argue over Zack's insubordination, and Zack gives a devastating speech about how the only officer to whom he'd give his helmet was the colonel on the beaches of Normandy who stood in front of Nazi gunfire and rallied the men with that famous line, "There are two kinds of men on this beach: those who are dead, and those who are dying." His helmet is a reflection of him, and he'd never just give it away on whim. But to a man like that colonel, who knew the blunt truth of war and would risk his life to tell it to his men instead of foisting speech after lofty speech at them, Zack would hand over his steel pot "any day of the week.
Though the dialogue is about as subtle as a punch to the face, Fuller manages to subvert the stereotypes that he's helping to cement: when the outfit stumbles upon a Buddhist temple that offers an impressive vantage point of the surrounding landscape, HQ tasks them with defending it from use by the North Koreans. The men manage to capture a high-ranking North Korean officer, a sure ticket to a nice bit of R-and-R. But the POW seeks to divide them further: he asks Thompson why he would fight for a country that will not even allow him the freedom to choose where he sits on a bus, and later how Tanaka, the Nisei, how he could serve a country that rounded up Japanese-Americans and placed them in internment camps -- this was the first mention of internment in an American film. Both answer in a similar fashion, which is to say that neither gives much reason at all. Both come to the conclusion that, hey, things ain't perfect, but they'll do until the times change. Their willingness to fight for a country that doesn't value them as equals simply because it's their country is contrasted nicely with the decision of the conscientious objector to join the war effort.
Much of the unification comes through Short Round, who is always writing Buddhist prayers and pinning them on the backs of himself and the soldiers. In the film's most beautiful shot, the camera gently moves in front of the boy and rises higher and higher as Short Round walks toward the Buddha statue in the temple. Fuller then cuts to a POV of the soldiers watching the kid, and we see just how massive the statue really is. (When they entered the temple, Driscoll informed the men not to harm the building, and they promptly threw their gear all over the place without a care in the world. Yet they look upon the statue with awe in this scene.) In that sense, Short Round is the personification (incarnation?) of Buddha, selfless and pious, moving among the men and praying for their safety and cutting through whatever denominational differences separate them by bringing them into a religion that is entirely new to all of them (though Zack does call Tanaka "Buddahead" all the time).
As infiltrators and, eventually, wave after wave of assaulting Koreans whittle down the small group one by one, the distinctions between the soldiers slowly fade. All those distinguishing stereotypes dissolve as the faces and actions of each man blurs. When Thompson can't revive a soldier manning a machine gun, he throws off his red cross-emblazoned helmet and jumps on the gun to resume fire. The final shootout is one of the most impressive early action scenes ever filmed; it lacks the technical mastery that would define the showdown at the end of Seven Samurai but, like Kurosawa, Fuller injects all of its deceptively thrilling moments with an undercurrent of tragedy. Whenever one of the samurai or one of the small unit is killed, it genuinely hurts.
Much of this can be attributed to Fuller's visual style, which is every bit as curt and effective as his writing. Though he edits rapidly through the shootout, his camera doesn't move too terribly much in each shot, giving the scenes a strange dichotomy between a breakneck editing pace and a drawn-out style that allows us to study these characters more closely. He never lingers over the dead -- early in the film, Zack says, "Dead man's nothin' but a corpse. No one cares what he is now" -- but their presence is still felt, the weight of each corpse bearing down on the survivors and the audience. In the act of ultimate separation, between life and death, the living are brought closer together by the simple mathematics of shrinking numbers.
When another outfit makes their way to the aftermath to relieve the survivors, they ask the men what outfit they belong to. "U.S. Infantry," the survivors respond. In a perverse sense, these men have truly become an "Army of One," albeit at too high a price. There are no patriotic, nationalist sentiments in this declaration, only a deeply ironic conformity to match the gray flannel nightmare of the '50s. Then Fuller relents, and in the last scene gives us a moment of poetry as a counterpoint: Zack walks over to Driscoll's fresh grave, pauses, then places his helmet on the lieutenant's rifle. But even that scene has an underlying darkness, for if the helmet represents Zack, then the sergeant left himself behind at that hell.