May 1, 2012  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet

The Steel Helmet. 1951. USA. Directed by Samuel Fuller

These notes accompany the screenings of Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet on May 2, 3, and 4 in Theater 2.

After many years of ambivalence, I have decided to like Sam Fuller (1911–1997). In April, we featured directors who were either classical (Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Charles Chaplin) or classy (Joseph Losey). Fuller strikes me as having been struck with an entirely coarser brush. (Well, he probably would have thought that was funny.) What I mean is that sometimes directors come along who pass all the other tests of being genuine artists or auteurs, but they still make me uncomfortable. Perhaps they seem too adolescent, too undisciplined, or, even, too crazy. Sam Fuller is one of these directors. Somehow, however, beneath the cigar chomping and behind the Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart, beats the heart of an artist.

Fuller had taken time off from his career as a B-picture Hollywood writer and pulp novelist to almost singlehandedly win World War II. He didn’t get a chance to direct until he was almost 40, and The Steel Helmet—the first of his several war films and the first American film about the Korean war—was only his third effort. Like all his work, it reflects Andrew Sarris’s cogent assessment of the director as an “authentic American primitive.” In The Steel Helmet, Gene Evans seems to be the embodiment of Fullerian crudeness, lacking in common social grace. Although the actor was still in his twenties, he seems world-weary and cynical way beyond his years. He was to appear in numerous other Fuller films before assuming a similar persona for Sam Peckinpah. Evans shares the same kind of awkwardness and timidity one finds in Boris Karloff in James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) before the big oaf loses any incentive to try to get along with his human tormentors. He also reminds me of Louis Wolheim in Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), a crude Caliban with a heart of gold.

The Steel Helmet is ostensibly an anti-war film, but one wonders whether Fuller’s use of caricatures, his realization of the genre’s cinematic possibilities, and the sheer strangeness of his vision doesn’t detract from his message. (One might also question whether his experiences—his personal heroic destiny—might not have left him a little too in love with war to be fully committed to its abolition.) In any event, when one thinks of Fuller, one does not think of fully articulated and coherent ideas. One might suggest without being too disparaging that Fuller’s soundtracks are closer to the grunts of a Tarzan picture than the intensely cerebral dialogue of an Eric Rohmer or Robert Bresson film. Yet, as Sarris has cautioned, Fuller’s work must be judged as cinema, not highfalutin literature. I think most of us discovered the movies as kids, looking for fun—something, indeed, along the lines of Tarzan—not seeking a challenge to our intellect. Tarzan worked because it brought us pleasure to see him swing through the trees, converse with the animals, and occasionally wrestle one or two of them to the death. One hopes that our horizons have now expanded to include Rohmer and Bresson, but that doesn’t negate the childlike enjoyment coming from a movie rich in diversion but poor in intellectual explication. Of course, I don’t mean to dismiss Fuller’s films as equivalent to Tarzan movies, merely to make the point that cinema, as the most comprehensive and plastic art, has room for all kinds.