Dec 14, 2007

The Steel Helmet

Samuel Fuller’s Steel Helmet is probably the most honest war film of its time. It presents honest character flaws, racism, inner demons, nihilism, and other very controversial ideas. Steel Helmet was able to offend both ends of the political spectrum.
Fuller was also summoned by the Pentagon because of a scene in the film showing the shooting of a POW. America had never seen this side before, yet the Steel Helmet was loved by audiences. Fuller’s honesty and brutality reached them.

Race is central to the films plot and confronted from the beginning. The film’s not so likable protagonist Sgt. Zach, is rescued by an orphaned North Korean boy. Zach thinks little of the boy but eventually lets him tag along. Throughout the film slight signs give you the impression Zach is warming up to the boy. When the young boy is killed, Zach breaks down emotionally but tries to cover it up by blaming the boy. In an emotional rage Zach machine guns a POW for insulting a letter the boy has written. The barbaric Zach has finally broken through his strong emotional defense mechanism. Unconventional relationships like Zach’s and the young boy had never really been portrayed in war films before Steel Helmet.

Another controversial part of Steel Helmet was baiting of a black and Japanese American soldier by the North Korean POW. The POW mentions to the Japanese soldier that American’s put his people in concentration camps. He tells him that America does not like people with their eyes. The Japanese American seems to be already desensitized and accepting of the position he has taken as ethnically the enemy. The Japanese American considers himself American before anything.

The crimes of the United States and its allies(mainly the Soviet Union) had not been discussed publicly before the film. Dwight Eisenhower’s death camps have been said to have killed up to 1.7 million German POWs by starvation and Josef Stalin’s NKVD basically shot any German soldier they captured. Stalin also kept Auschwitz open for business.

America’s alignment with the Soviet Union is one of the most disturbing things to consider. The worst part being we allowed Eastern Europe to be enslaved by Communism. The Soviet Union had produced countless Genocidal killers such as Leon Trotsky(real name David Bronstein), Lazar Kaganovich(man made famine starved 7-10 million to death in the Ukraine for resisting Communism), and Genrikh Yagoda which eventually lead to the deaths of up to 100 million Christians and Muslims throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Theses issues, with the Dresden and Tokyo fire bombings, could never convince me that World War II was a war of “Good” vs. “Evil.” Such an idea is absurd.

I found it interesting in the reading Franz Fanon was quoted in the reading. Fanon was very obsessed with the race issue being a Franco-African soldier fighting for France in World War II. Like the minorities in Steel Helmet, Fanon experienced racial discrimination by a country he fought for. Race became central to his various writings. In the later years of his life, Fanon turned to nihilism. The questions that people don’t want to ask caught up with Fanon just as the Japanese American and Black soldier in Steel Helmet. At the end of the film, important questions never truly get answered. The Steel Helmet end title “there is no end to this story” perfectly compliments its nihilistic themes.

The writings also bring up the issue of Jews wearing blackface to become more “white” and “American.” The writing attempted to excuse the Jew from acts of racism in regards to Hollywood blackface. Although persecuted, the Jew had a more privileged place in society. But then again, the Jewish/Black alignment during the Civil Rights era further complicate the issue. The alliance was most likely because both groups became powerful when together. The NAACP was formed by a collection of blacks, Jews, and a German American. Although all groups differ, they could work together for the same cause just as they do in Steel Helmet.

This essay is in response to a boring article I read on Fuller.

-Ty E

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