The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller / U.S., 1950):

Combat isn’t a poetic ballad but a blow to the head, says Samuel Fuller; his riposte to Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun opens with the audience already besieged by artillery shells. The body-strewn aftermath of an ambush introduces the mauled terrain of the Korean War, the bestial sergeant (Gene Evans) stomps through it like bundled dynamite wrapped in a beard, a deranged guide for a deranged conflict. He’s joined by a munchkin dubbed Short Round (William Chun) and an Army medic (James Edwards), then runs into a lost American patrol surrounded by Red snipers. Among the dogfaces is a fellow World War II survivor (Richard Loo), a conscientious objector (Robert Hutton) lugging a mini-church organ, a radio operator (Richard Monahan) rubbing earth on his bald scalp, and a loudmouth comic (Sid Melton) cast as a mute with a faithful burro: A veritable mass of contrasting bodies, skins and ideologies sharing a deserted temple with an enormous, smiling Buddha statue. "Ah, nothing beats the infantry." Deafening hails of bullets, silence pierced by the sound of a grenade pin dropping on the floor, the myth of heroism ground down by devastation, that’s the war Fuller remembers. The absurd is never far off: The brutality of an exploding cadaver chafes against the hooey of the Korean moppet warbling "Auld Lang Syne," irrational prejudice can only be faced with irrational patriotism. (Joseph Heller took note of the threat barked to a wounded prisoner: "If you die, I'll kill you!") In this vision of chaos, the hard-grained mise en scčne crumbles in tandem with the spiritual fortress the characters occupy. As visceral as any film ever made, this is also Fuller's portrait of the collapsing mind, a race into madness—the depleted sergeant snaps in the midst of gunfire, drops his machine-gun and limps out of the infernal screen. From here, it is one extended minefield until the scarred serenity of The Big Red One. Cinematography by Ernest Miller. With Steve Brodie, Harold Fong, Neyle Morrow, and Lynn Stalmaster. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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