“The Steel Helmet” delivers punches on race and American identity

Samuel Fuller is a forgotten auteur. He seldom makes an appearance on lists of the great American directors, yet he inspired countless careers (Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard, for starters) and made some of the grittiest, most profound films in American history. Like Walt Whitman before and Robert Altman after, Fuller sought to define a uniquely American form of expression. Film noir had a French name and German origins, Hitchcock and Chaplin came from Britain, Welles was cast out of Hollywood, and Fuller picked up the pieces to try and decipher the countless fragments of the American psyche. This led him to a central preoccupation throughout his career: the paradoxical presence of racism and freedom in the national identity of America. The Steel Helmet, his film set and shot during the Korean War, tries to resolve the problems of having an integrated army in a racist world.

The film opens with Zach, the grizzled war-weary protagonist, bound at his wrists struggling to reach a knife, surrounded by his dead comrades. His unit has just been executed by the enemy, only the bullet meant for him bounced around inside his helmet and exited a few seconds later, leaving him dazed. A young Korean boy comes to his aid, and in a first glimpse of the seemingly necessary racism of warfare, Zach almost attacks him, saying that he looks like a “gook,” or at least a North Korean. The kid assures him otherwise, and they proceed on a trek hoping to find other American soldiers. The two form a strong bond, and Zach affectionately gives the kid the nickname Short Round (which Spielberg and Lucas would later appropriate for the second Indiana Jones movie).

They encounter a black medic, also the only survivor of his outfit, who joins them in their journey. Before too long, they meet up with a unit of soldiers, one of whom has Japanese heritage. These men are headed to a temple off in the distance which they intend to convert to an Observational Post. Much of the film takes place on the way to, or at, this temple–and much is made of Short Round’s devout Buddhism. Zach ridicules his piety, but it enhances the bond between them, and Zach grows to respect it, even asking for a prayer later in the film.

When they arrive, they clear out all enemy troops and believe the place to be secure. However, a few are hiding in the rafters, and they casually take out some of the Americans. When the Americans take one soldier hostage, his perspective on the absurdity of the strange integrated army shakes their convictions to their foundations. The prisoner interrogates two of his captors, both non-white, pointing out the contradictions belying their conscription.

Here is the point at which the film gets incredibly interesting. The POW suggests to both of these soldiers that they cannot simultaneously take pride in themselves and their heritage, and support a nation that has seldom failed to oppress them. How can a Japanese American fight for his country, when that same country imprisoned him and his family six years ago?  His family is still reeling from what were effectively just this side of concentration camps, and he raises arms to defend his oppressors. How can an African American fight for a country that continually debases his race, forcing him to drink from separate water fountains? In both instances, it seems that in order to support the “American ideal” the men must sacrifice pride in their own heritage.

Fuller was the first person to publicly address the internment of the Japanese-American citizens, let alone in such a negative light. And segregation would exist until three years later, when Brown v. Board was passed, although it wouldn’t legally disappear until 1964. America’s history is riddled with these flaws. It seems we cannot bring ourselves to carry out the ideals on which we were formed. Or perhaps it is a little more complex than that. Perhaps, instead, the ideals are contradictory. We have created a veritable utopia, a safe haven for the “huddled masses,” and yet the very idea of protecting it excludes potential American Dreamers.

Every decade there is a new form of oppression, unrecognizable to the generations that precede it, and yet we continue to give ourselves pithy descriptors like “melting pot” or “salad bowl.” Yet none of them truly describe America. Nothing melts here, but it doesn’t stay separate like the salad suggests, either. Instead we borrow from each other, constructing our identity out of the shreds of our various pasts, and what rises out of the smoke is altogether original. If our metaphors are paltry, it is because nothing quite describes the American Beast, which simultaneously absorbs other cultures and exudes its own. Perhaps instead we should view the ideal set for us by the founding fathers as one we have never quite reached. We are the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and our past mistakes are the cornerstones for our own improvement. Will we ever reach that goal? Probably not. But through the struggle in store for us we might learn a thing or two, and begin to embrace our inherent diversity.

– Ben Creech

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