The Steel Helmet is an admirable effort from writer, director, and producer Fuller. However, from the start, it’s clear some of the film’s successes will come with qualifications. Fuller, for example, has a great shot a quarter of the time, a terrible shot a quarter of the time, and okay shots half the time. Lousy shots always come after the good ones to emphasize the downgrade.
Fuller, cinematographer Ernest Miller, and editor Philip Cahn have a terrible time putting sequences together, especially when they’re going from set to location. For example, the climactic action finale looks like it’s reused footage from another war movie; it’s not; it’s Fuller; it just looks nothing like the rest of the film.
It’s not just for the action sequences, either. The problem’s present in the first scene and every one after.
There are unqualified successes, of course. Many performances are fantastic, even when Fuller’s script loses track of his protagonist. The film opens with tough sergeant Gene Evans surviving a North Korean ambush. The bullet went into his steel helmet and looped around, leaving only a minor cut. A South Korean orphan, played by William Chun (as “Short Round,” which is apparently where Spielberg got it from for Temple), finds Evans and frees him. They quickly become pals.
On their trip through Oz, they soon meet medic James Edwards. Edwards is Black, Evans is white, and Chun is Korean. There are scenes between Evans and both new friends about race, with excellent character moments for each of them.
Instead of finding the Cowardly Lion, the trio finds a lost squad. Led by officer Steve Brodie, they’re supposed to set up an observation post in a Buddhist temple nearby. Evans knows Brodie and hates him; Brodie’s a dipshit officer. Evans also knows Brodie’s sergeant, Richard Loo. Loo’s Japanese American; Brodie doesn’t listen to him because he’s not white. Fuller, with a lot of gruff and bravado, drags the racism out of its hold enough to look at it in the light before letting it scurry back in.
He’ll spotlight it later when a North Korean officer (Harold Fong) tries to sway both Edwards and Loo away from the actively racist U.S.A. Both attempts are protracted, and neither comes to a substantial conclusion (outside an awkward scene for the actors); however, it was enough to get the FBI investigating Fuller.
The second act is the squad hanging out at the temple, with Evans as the de facto lead, but the focus widened more towards an ensemble piece. Besides Brodie, whose inevitable “dipshit officer redeems himself at the end” arc doesn’t take up a lot of them, there’s also Robert Hutton, Sid Melton, Richard Monahan, and Neyle Morrow in the squad.
Hutton gets the most to do, though Melton’s the most memorable.
Everything’s generally fine until the third act when Fuller tries taking the focus away from Evans and spreading it out. Then, just when he seemingly manages to widen it, he tightens back in on Evans for a lackluster postscript.
Great performances from Evans, Edwards, Brodie, and Loo. Fong’s a little much—Fuller’s script walks a fine line of anti-Communism, anti-officer, pro-infantry, pro-progressive but armed U.S.A.—and Fong gets the worst of it. The mumbo jumbo also screws up Evans’s performance a little, leaving him in limbo as far as his character development.
Still, it’s impressive as all hell, with a great score from Paul Dunlap, and when Fuller hits, he hits. It’s even more impressive given the meager budget; Fuller knows what he’s doing, but there’s just not enough money to realize it.