Before The Steel Helmet shows any hint of location or character, the words, “Dedicated to the U.S. Infantry” appear on the screen. Such sentiment gives the initial impression of shiny patriotism, but the film reveals itself to be gritty and complicated in its approach to Americana. The Steel Helmet was the third directorial effort from former soldier Sam Fuller, and exemplifies Fuller’s favored use of controversial themes such as isolationism, atheism, and racism. Despite difficulty with the U.S. Army over perception of the military in his film and accusations of communism from critics, The Steel Helmet would launch Sam Fuller’s career.
The vehicles for Fuller’s success as a writer/director are his characters. The Steel Helmet follows an unprepared group of American soldiers who are tasked with holding a Buddhist temple against a large Communist force during the Korean War. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is the crass, wizened veteran who stumbles upon the untutored patrol and reluctantly commits to helping the unit in hopes of shore leave. Within the troop are Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) and Cpl. Thompson, whose presence as minorities launch Fuller’s dialogue on racism in America.
The Communist Korean Major (Harold Fong) attempts to divide the troop by pointing out the racial injustices in America to Tanaka and Thompson. Both men respond with a blind patriotism—my country may be flawed but it’s my country—that illuminates the issue without properly dealing with the conflict. Even the young Korean boy, known only as Short Round (William Chun), participates in his own from of blind patriotism as he belts out his national anthem, which ironically sounds like “Old Lang Syne.” Fuller seems more interested in pointing out issues in the military and society than having his film offer a solution.
Sgt. Zack is the mouthpiece for all the –isms Fuller brings forward in The Steel Helmet. Zack isolates himself from the group, uses racist phrases like, “gook” or “buddha-head,” and openly mocks any form of piety. He also furthers the idea that drafted men are not of the same quality as men that enlist, which brings him into conflict with the drafted group leader, Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie). On paper, Sgt. Zack is reprehensible and impossible to connect with. Yet actor, Gene Evans, brings out vulnerability in the character that makes the sergeant the ultimate anti-hero.
If anything, Sgt. Zack’s helmet is the main character for Sam Fuller. Just like Sgt. Zack, it is standard issue but damaged. When Lt. Driscoll asks for the honor of wearing Zack’s hat, Zack denies him, saying he is not worthy of the trade. After Driscoll dies in the final battle, having saved Sgt. Zack from debris, Zack willingly trades his battered helmet to lie over Driscoll’s grave. While the trade seems symbolic and moving, it resolves nothing. Sgt. Zack and the decimated troops are forced to join a new patrol, on a new mission. They continue and leave their comrades buried in foreign soil. While the film opens with Fuller’s dedication, The Steel Helmet closes its narrative with the director’s somber reminder that, “There is no end to this story.”