The Steel Helmet (film)
Movie poster. Courtesy of Lippert Studios
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Dramatic film about infantry soldiers in the Korean War written and directed by Samuel Fuller. One of the ensemble is a Nisei soldier and World War II veteran played by Richard Loo. It is likely the first Hollywood film to note the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in a disapproving manner.
Film and Director Background
A prolific writer and director of critically acclaimed and provocative "B" movies in the first two decades after World War II, Samuel Fuller (1912–97) retains an avid cult following. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and moved to New York with his family after his father died when was eleven. As a young teenager, he began to sell newspapers, which led to his becoming a copy boy, then a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic , a notorious scandal sheet, at age 17. Intrigued by California, he headed west in the mid 1930s and eventually broke into Hollywood ghostwriting screenplays for established screen writers. After serving in World War II—including landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day—he established himself as a screenwriter in Hollywood under his own name. Independent producer Robert Lippert gave him a chance to direct his own screenplays in 1948, beginning with I Shot Jesse James . 
The Steel Helmet was his third movie for Lippert. As with his other early movies it was shot quickly and on a low budget, just ten days and $104,000 respectively.  It was filmed in October of 1950, with Griffith Park in Los Angeles filling in for Korea. The first Hollywood film set during the Korean War, which had started just six months prior, it was also the first of several Fuller films that were set in Asia and/or featured Asian or Asian American characters. 
Overview and Reception
The movie is about a ragtag group of American infantry soldiers brought together by chance in Korea. Zack (played by Gene Evans), the lead character, is the lone survivor when his platoon is slaughtered by the enemy; shot in the head, the bullet pierced his helmet but rattled around inside, leaving him unharmed. When the movie begins, he is discovered and unbound by a South Korean orphan boy (William Chun) of around twelve who follows him despite Zack's discouragement. The pair come across another lone soldier, an African American medic, before coming across a lost unit assigned to set up a surveillance post in a Buddhist temple. The group eventually finds the temple and a lone North Korean soldier is discovered in it after he kills one of the Americans. When the boy—whom Zack and men become attached to despite themselves—is shot by an attacker, the captured soldier—now a potentially valuable POW—makes a sarcastic remark about a note the boy had written wishing he could get Zack to like him. Zack impetuously shoots and kills the prisoner. The soldiers subsequently repel an enemy attack, though only four (including both racial minorities) survive.
Sergeant Tanaka, the Nisei character played by Loo, a Chinese American actor from Hawai'i who was best known for playing Japanese villains, is portrayed as a cool, experienced, and heroic figure in contrast to most of the rest of the men.  He and Zack, the experienced hands who had served in World War II, stoically repel a sniper attack while the other men run for cover. Later, when a cowardly lieutenant accidentally pulls the pin from a grenade and panics, Tanaka cooly resets it.
When the Communist POW (played by Harold Fong) is captured and guarded by the men, he talks first to Corporal Thompson (played by James Edwards), the African American, then to Tanaka, pointing out the discrimination each man faces in the U.S. in an attempt to covert them to his side or to least discourage them. To Tanaka, the POW first notes their common Asian origins, then asks if he feels like a traitor. Rebuffed by Tanaka, he continues pointing out, "They threw Japanese Americans into prison camps during the last war, didn't they? Perhaps even your parents. Perhaps even you." After a long pause, Tanaka replies, "You rang the bell that time. They did." With seemingly sincere puzzlement, the POW comments that the Nisei "are incredible" and "make no sense." The rest of their conversation:
POW: (chuckles) Were you one of those idiots who fought in Europe for "your" country?
Tanaka: 442nd Combat Team. And you know what? Over 3,000 of us idiots got the Purple Heart. You can't figure that out, major, can you?
POW: No. That's what I don't understand. They call you dirty Jap rats and yet you fight for them. Why?
Tanaka: I've got some hot infantry news for you: I'm not a dirty Jap rat, I'm an American, and if we get pushed around back home, well that's our business. But we don't like it when we get pushed around by... ah, knock off before I forget the articles of war and slap those rabbit teeth of yours out one at a time
Mainstream reviews of the film were mostly positive, despite the obvious limitations of the low budget and the seemingly familiar set-up. Arthur Knight in Saturday Review writes that Fuller "has fashioned a tight, tense, exciting little picture" while Rob Edelman calls it "an exciting, gritty, realistic, and skillfully depicted drama." On the other hand, the reviewer in Christian Century wrote, "Made quickly on low budget, film has artificial, amateurish air that keeps it from being convincing, and its people are stereotypes." Several reviewers noted the novelty of the ethnic minority characters. Robert Hatch in New Republic calls it "modish in that it carefully represents our minority groups (in this case a Negro and a Chinese American (sic)) and permits them to acquit themselves valorously in defense of a country for which they express strong approval." John McCarten in New Yorker writes sardonically that "... the infantry has assembled in brotherhood a group of men representing every American type except the anti-vivisectionist." 
The film opened on January 11, 1951. "All hell broke loose as soon as The Steel Helmet was released. Despite, or maybe because of, the controversy, the film did great business," Fuller wrote in his autobiography.  He reported that he became the subject of FBI investigation and that he was called to the Pentagon and grilled over the content of the film. Produced in at the peak of the McCarthy era, sensationalist columnists—most notably anti-Communist New York Daily Mirror columnist Victor Riesel—accused the film of promoting Communism, with the objections being that the soldiers were not portrayed in a heroic fashion, that the main character shoots the POW and ultimately goes unpunished for doing so, and that U.S. racial discrimination is criticized.  As Fuller notes, the film was a commercial success, and it made him a wealthy man since he worked for a share of the profits.  Despite the Pentagon's objections, the film was shown uncensored at army and air force camps. 
As was true of other Fuller films, The Steel Helmet has been read differently by different viewers at different times. In contrast to those who read it as left-wing, others read it as a right-wing statement in the context of when it was made. In Magill's Rob Edelman calls it "unabashedly anti-Communist" and "a reflection of its era, containing dialogue that might resemble a hysterical editorial of the New York Daily News ," while Xiaofei Wang cites it in his 2009 doctoral dissertation as "glorifying the anti-communist cause."  Nora Sayre notes these conflicting readings and writes that "... Fuller's work suggests an anarchist's sensibility that defies any engine of authority—rather than a right-wing point of view." 
- For biographical studies of Fuller, see Lee Server, Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground: A Critical Study, with Interviews, a Filmography and a Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1994) and Samuel Fuller, with Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes. A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).
- These figures come from Fuller's interview with Lee Server in Sam Fuller, p. 26. Other sources claim different figures; for instance in the review of the movie in Newsweek , the budget is noted at $165,000 on a twelve day shooting schedule. Newsweek , Jan. 29, 1951, 90.
- These include House of Bamboo (1955), set in occupied Japan; China Gate (1957), the first Hollywood film set in Vietnam; and The Crimson Kimono (1959) set in Los Angeles Little Tokyo.
- According to Larry Tajiri , Loo took these villain roles when Japanese American actors refused to take them. But after speaking at a rally protesting discrimination faced by the family of Kazuo Masuda , a Nisei war hero posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Loo "mended his cinematic ways and hasn't taken any roles offensive to Nisei." Larry Tajiri, "Vagaries," Pacific Citizen , February 26, 1954, p. 8, accessed online on Jan. 11, 2018 at http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-pc-26-9/ .
- Arthur Knight, "SRL goes to the Movies: Violence on a Low Budget," Saturday Review , Feb. 3, 1951, 25, accessed online on Dec. 10, 2012 at http://www.unz.org/Pub/SaturdayRev-1951feb03-00025 ; Rob Edelman, "The Steel Helmet," in Magill's Survey of Cinema, English Language Films, Second Series, Volume 5 , ed. Frank N. Magill (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1981), 2271; Christian Century , Mar. 14, 1951, 351; Robert Hatch, "Hollywood in Korea," New Republic , Feb. 12, 1951, 22–23; John McCarten, New Yorker , Feb. 3, 1951, 74.
- Fuller, A Third Face , 262.
- Server, Sam Fuller , 26–27; Fuller, A Third Face , 262–65; Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War (New York: The Dial Press, 1982), 184
- In his autobiography, he wrote that his profits were "a couple of million bucks after taxes." See Fuller, A Third Face , 264.
- "The Steel Helmet," in American Film Institute Catalog: Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911–1960, edited by Alan Gevinson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
- Edelman, "The Steel Helmet," 27; Xiaofei Wang, "Constructing Japaneseness: War, Race, and American Cinema, 1924–1992" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 2009), 267.
- Sayre, Running Time , 182.
|Producer||Samuel Fuller (Producer)|
|Starring||Gene Evans (Sgt. Zack), Robert Hutton (Pvt. Bronte), Steve Brodie (Lt. Driscoll), James Edwards (Cpl. Thompson), Richard Loo (Sgt. Tanaka), Sid Melton (Joe), Richard Monahan (Pvt. Baldy), William Chun (Short Round), Harold Fong (The Red)|
For More Information
Rob Edelman. "The Steel Helmet." In Magill's Survey of Cinema, English Language Films, Second Series, Volume 5. Ed. Frank N. Magill. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1981. 2271–73.
Fuller, Samuel, with Christa Lang Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes. A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Sayre, Nora. Running Time: Films of the Cold War . New York: The Dial Press, 1982.
Server, Lee. Sam Fuller: Film Is a Battleground: A Critical Study, with Interviews, a Filmography and a Biography . Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1994.