A story dedicated to the brave American souls who fought and lost their lives in the Korean War of the 1950s, The Steel Helmet is a rare opportunity to divulge information about a war that has yet to be fully exploited by the mainstream of Hollywood. There’s a reason for that, and simply put, it’s because of the muddled politics, the lasting impact, and the harsh treatment of those that fought as Korea was torn into two pieces. It’s not as flashy as World War 2 can be on camera, a truly sad state of affairs that Hollywood would value how often it can pull a flashy visual or sell a story, based vaguely on some hero of a war against the deadly traits of fascism.
We’re thrown into the fray without ample time to gather our bearings, and, thanks to some amazing direction from Samuel Fuller, there’s some immediate tension and horror. Musical cues that provide frighteningly tight orchestral horror, high-pitched strings dedicating themselves to following up the fear presented to us on screen. Some of the dialogue is superb, too, pockets of pure poetry from time to time, and with Gene Evans at the helm as the angered and gravely masculine Sergeant Zack, it all comes to a head with inevitable repercussions. It’s a strong performance from Evans, almost immediately established as a man tapping into the adrenalin of his fear, turning that rage and anger into hatred for the people he has no choice but to kill.
A ragtag bunch of soldiers come together, poorly equipped and demoralised beyond repair. They face an uphill struggle against an enemy far bigger and badder than they could ever hope to be, but an optimistic force holds them together with questionable results. Early scenes show Zack as a sadist, hellbent on being correct, his hardened war face never breaking in the build-up to conflict, at the cost of lives on both sides of the war. I do think there’s an intrinsically compelling tale at the heart of this film, but it’s lost somewhat along the way, the group dynamic didn’t come together as well for me as I first thought it would. Perhaps the passive harshness of Zack was too out there, the hardline soldier leading a ramshackle bunch to the silver lining of survival a trope as old as time itself, and even before Hollywood dug their claws into it, The Steel Helmet stagnates from time to time.
It’s hard to ignore the strengths of this piece, though, of which there are many. Thankfully it relies more on the performances than the meaning behind the work of Fuller’s writing, which shines in the early moments but completely loses its way when more than two characters are on screen. He takes pockets of tremendous anguish and fear, condensing it down into a tight eighty minutes that look to showcase the horrors of the Korean War. The horrors are captured on the fly, the real tragedies some thousands of miles away from the movie sets and production, but The Steel Helmet does an admirable job of shedding light on a war that isn’t highlighted by Hollywood.