The Steel Helmet is a 1951 film directed by Samuel Fuller.
It is set in the early months of The Korean War. It opens with Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans), who is climbing his way out of a ditch. Sgt. Zack is the only survivor after his squad surrendered to the North Koreans and was promptly executed; the bullet meant for his head wound up spinning around his steel helmet and coming out the front. Sgt. Zack still has his hands bound behind him, but he is soon freed by a pre-teen South Korean boy (William Chun). The boy, whom Zack nicknames "Short Round", is a war orphan, who promptly attaches himself to Zack as a companion.
Soon Zack and Short Round stumble across Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards), a black man, and an Army medic, who is also the sole survivor of his platoon. The three of them then encounter an American patrol led by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie), which is trying to find a Buddhist temple that the Army wants for an observation post. With Short Round as a guide, the patrol finds the temple and sets up the observation post. What they don't know is that a North Korean major (Harold Fong) is still hiding inside the temple.
One of the first films ever made about the Korean War, produced in October 1950 just four months after the North Korean invasion and before the Chinese intervention. Also the very first film to make reference to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
- And the Adventure Continues: At the end, most of the squad has died, as has Short Round. However, Zack, Tanaka, Thompson, and the bald soldier survive and are relieved by another squad. They march off to go on fighting the war.
- Anti-Hero: Zack is a Type IV. He's a jerk who mocks and insults his comrades, insults his fellow squadmates, talks smack to his commanding officer and has a condescending relationship with Short Round who he initially calls "Gook". But he's also shown to be in the right.
- Boomerang Bigot: "Red" tries to turn Japanese-American soldier Tanaka against his comrades by appealing to his anger over his childhood in an internment camp. Tanaka gives him a Shut Up, Hannibal! that invokes some Asian stereotypes.Tanaka: Knock off before I forget the Articles of War and slap those rabbit teeth of yours out one at a time.
- Deconstruction: Of war movies in general.
- It specifically mocks the sentimentality associated with Band of Brothers. Your squad is filled with a bunch of people who all want to survive and while they may cohere in a group that doesn't mean that they are going to be friends or eternal pals. Indulging in that sentimentality, such as going back to recover dogtags of fallen comrades is not only foolish, but given that enemies can use them as booby-traps, self-destructive.
- Likewise, to the ordinary soldier, the ideology of a conflict is meaningless. All they want is to survive and go home, and their enemies are merely people on the other side who also want to survive and go home.
- It also attacks the Cold War propaganda. It points out that America is not a bastion of democracy but filled with racism and hypocrisy, and that some of their bravest soldiers are minorities whose service to the country doesn't quite come from unblemished uncomplicated patriotism.
- Dirty Communists: "Red" is still a Hollywood Communist caricature but unlike other movies of the time, Fuller makes him more complicated by giving him a lot of cool lines and having him exploit and criticize the real ideological failings of American society rather than the generic anti-American evil other films made at the time. Where Fuller criticizes him for is his lack of compassion, his general callousness, his indifference and hypocrisy, to Short Round's death, when he is ostensibly the same peasant child a Communist should be defending, since he got killed by a North Korean sniper.
- Due to the Dead:
- Discussed Trope. When one of the men reports finding a dead American soldier, Zack sneers at the idea of doing anything about it, saying "A dead man's nothing but a corpse." Lt. Driscoll insists on sending his man back to retrieve the dead soldier's dog tags. Driscoll's man is then killed when the booby trap below the body of the dead soldier blows up.
- And then at the end, Zack pays his Due To The Dead, leaving his prized bullet-punctured steel helmet at the grave of Lt. Driscoll.
- The End: The last graphic text reinforces the And the Adventure Continues ending."There is no end to this picture".
- Feet-First Introduction: An ominous introduction of a person in bare feet, carrying a rifle (the barrel dragging along the ground), approaching Zack as Zack struggles to free himself. It turns out to be Short Round, who cuts his ropes.
- Hat Damage: Zack has a bullethole in his helmet, which saved him from a North Korean execution squad. He regards the helmet as good luck and refuses to exchange it for another one.
- Heartwarming Orphan: Cute, friendly little Short Round, tagging along with Zack because his parents are "with Buddha" after being hit by artillery fire.
- Infant Immortality: Poor little Short Round is shot and killed by a North Korean sniper.
- In the Back: The North Korean officer springs out of concealment and knifes poor Joe to death In The Back. In the most disturbing scene in the movie, Joe becomes Suddenly Speaking, gasping "Oh no, please, oh no," as the North Korean stabs him several times.
- Jerkass Has a Point:
- The squad agree that Zack is obnoxious and irritating but they do agree he is right about how harsh and dangerous a war zone is, how foolish and dangerous sentiments can be, and how you have to stay sharp and accept reality.
- The North Korean Communist is plainly annoying and callous about the death of a child who he sees as a moron who got a reality check but his arguments about American racism and how little Thompson and Tanaka will be rewarded by the government and society they are fighting and risking their lives for, is pretty much on point. When "Red" notes that Thompson's people are consigned to sit at the back of the bus, Thompson cynically admits that the best he can hope for is maybe move to the middle or a few seats ahead before telling him to shut up.
- The Nicknamer: Zack gives names to his squadmates. Conscie to the religious soldier who was initially a conscientous objector and most famously Short Round. The North Korean officer, for his part, gets named "Red".
- Obligatory War Crime Scene: Near the end Zack shoots "red" the communist. This is a violation of the Geneva Convention and is treated as a major Oh, Crap! moment within the film by his squadmates and Zack gets so upset that he yells to Red:Zack: If you die, I'll kill you!
- This scene was so controversial that Fuller was invited to the Pentagon to explain himself. Fuller insisted that this scene was meant to be a realistic depiction of what soldiers do in wartime and that Zack was hardly an inspiring soldier, and that it was by no means an endorsement. Fuller, a former US Infantryman, also pointed out that this happened all the time during World War II and his own commanding officer testified in his defense. The Pentagon were not amused but they let it slide.
- The film starts with Zack and Thompson's units being captured and executed by the North Koreans, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, with Zack surviving by fluke and Thompson being spared because he's a medic.
- Old Soldier: Zack, a crusty old sergeant who has been in the army at least as far back as Kasserine Pass in North Africa, and also landed in Normandy on D-Day. He contrasts with the other troopers who are mostly newer recruits. Thompson was likewise in WWII, serving in Africa to Czechoslovakia, first as a truck driver in the Red Ball Express before getting the chance to volunteer as a rifleman in the same unit as Zack. Tanaka served in Europe with the Japanese-American 442nd Regiment.
- Poisonous Captive: "Red" tries to be this, attempting to get both the black soldier (Thompson) and the Japanese-American soldier (Tanaka) to turn coat, by citing American racism. Both of them blow him off.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Zack is a boorish American who mocks and insults other people's beliefs, and their sentimental patriotism and despite being friends with Short Round, calls him "Gook".
- Scarred Equipment: The eponymous helmet with its 'lucky' bullethole.
- Shut Up, Hannibal!: Both Tanaka and Thompson do this when "Red" tries to turn them against their white comrades, both telling him to shut up before they beat his ass.
- The Silent Bob: Joe, the one who never talks, only shrugging or nodding when Zack tries to pry some words out of him. Right after Zack fails to get Joe to talk, Joe starts whispering into the ear of the pack mule.
- Sole Survivor: Both Zack and Thompson are the only survivors from platoons that were annihilated by the North Koreans. American racism is dramatized in the sequence where Lt. Driscoll greets Zack as a comrade, only to accuse Thompson of being a deserter.
- Stock Footage: Some stock footage of combat artillery used to fill out the final scene.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: The concussion he suffered during the final battle, as well as his grief over the deaths of Short Round and Driscoll, leaves Zack with one of these.
- Translated Cover Version: Subverted. One of the men plays "Auld Lang Syne" on an organ. Short Round then trots up and belts out the song in Korean. When the astonished men ask him how he knows that song, he laughs—it's the South Korean national anthem. (Truth in Television, as the "Aegukga" anthem really was sung to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne".)
- Unbuilt Trope: This was the first Hollywood fiction film about The Korean War and it was so successful that it inspired a slew of imitators. But unlike those films, Fuller's film is an independent film made outside the studio system and shot on a low budget, it is also a Deconstruction of war movies and its tropes, and pointedly attacks the Cold War propaganda and ideological justifications of the conflict.