Monday, November 16, 2009
Reeling Backward: "The Steel Helmet"
I wonder what the cinematic heroes of most World War II movies would make of Sgt. Zack, the protagonist of 1951's "The Steel Helmet."
Zack has guts, but he's certainly not what you would call heroic. His biggest priority is making it out of combat alive. He's gruff, insulting and racially insensitive. When a South Korean boy saves his life, he calls him a "gook."
"Steel Helmet" was released just a few months into the fighting of the Korean War, and was the first Hollywood movie made about that conflict. Writer/director/producer Samuel Fuller shot it in just 10 days for a little over $100,000 -- peanuts, even in 1952. According to legend, Fuller wrote the script in one week.
The story opens with a static image of a soldier's helmet. Eventually, the helmet rises and we see the eyes and then the face of the man wearing it. Zack is bound by the hands and by all rights should be dead. After his unit surrendered, the GIs were tied up and shot. A bullet pierced Zack's helmet, but just grazed his head. His left leg was not so lucky, taking a direct hit. But he was left for dead, and after the Korean boy rescues him, Zack's only mission is to make it back to headquarters in one piece.
The boy is played by William Chun, and is quickly dubbed "Short Round" by the bearded, limping sergeant. It seems likely that Steven Spielberg borrowed the moniker for his sidekick in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
Sgt. Zack is played by Gene Evans in one of his first film roles; he would go on to a long and healthy TV and movie career playing cops and tough guys.
I was astonished to learn that Evans was just 29 years old when he made this movie. His grizzled features and the world-weary slump of his shoulders bespeak a man decades older. But going to war ages a man, physically, mentally and in his soul. The scars he wears on the outside are just mild reflections of the ones inside.
Not that Zack doesn't have his external scars, too. When he first meets with a black medic named Thompson (James Edwards), the latter comments that he must have been injured in the mouth at some point. Zack nods and says he was hit by an "88" on D-Day. In his own inimical way, Zack indicates he had surgeries to repair his mug.
"Most of my back(side), I'm wearing on my face. When my face gets tired, I sit down."
The threesome meet up with a tattered platoon on their way to establish an O.P. -- observation post -- at a nearby Buddhist temple. One of the notable things about "Steel Helmet" is that the actors use real soldier lingo, and it's up to the audience to pick up on the meaning of various phrases.
The lieutenant (Steve Brodie) asks Zack to come along to help school his squad of greenhorns, but is refused. Zack makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the young officer, who lacks field experience. Zack himself is a "retread" -- a soldier who also served in WWII. Thompson is also a retread, as is the squad's bazooka man, a Japanese-American named Tanaka (Richard Loo).
After Zack and Tanaka bail out the group from a sniper attack, he agrees to see them as far as the temple in exchange for a box of cigars one of the men is toting.
In perhaps the film's most shocking scene, the soldier with the cigars discovers an American body, and is ordered by the lieutenant to search it. Zack, slurping his words around a rind of melon from a patch they'd stumbled upon, lazily discourages such an action. When the soldier does search the body, he's blown up by a booby trap. Zack shows absolutely no remorse for the death of the man, only asking if he had his pack on him when he died. When he learns the pack is still at camp, Zack brusquely rifles through it for his cigars.
Eventually they reach the temple, where a North Korean major is hiding out. After killing one of the men and trashing their radio, the enemy soldier is captured. Zack eagerly looks forward to marching the prisoner back to headquarters for interrogation, which he figures will earn him a furlough. But when Short Round is killed by a sniper and the major taunts him about his affection for the boy, Zack angrily shoots the unarmed prisoner, mortally wounding him.
At the center of Zack's ethos is maintaining composure under fire. When he was about to leave with his prisoner, the lieutenant asked to exchange helmets with Zack for his bullet-ridden one, figuring it will bring luck. The sergeant refuses, letting the "lou" know that he may be wearing stripes, but he hasn't earned them yet.
Of course, Zack himself loses his cool in the film's climactic firefight, dropping his weapon and hazily wandering around, muttering something about krauts. Here, at the height of battle, the "hero" of the movie suffers from a post-traumatic stress flashback.
It's not the sort of depiction you expect out of a war hero, but that's why "The Steel Helmet" stands apart from other war movies of its era. Like "Battleground," reviewed here a few months ago, this movie is more interested in seeing through a soldier's eyes than glorifying him.