He was also something of an Asia-phile with no less than four of his movies either set in Asia or Asian America. Besides Crimson Kimono, there was House of Bamboo (1955), set in occupied Japan and starring “Shirley Yamaguchi” (aka Ri Koran and Yoshiko Otaka); China Gate (1957), the first Hollywood film set in Vietnam; and the subject of this essay, The Steel Helmet (1951), the first Hollywood film to depict the Korean War.
(I’m also fascinated by Yamaguchi, whose various incarnations include Nisei pin-up girl, superstar singer, Japanese propagandist in occupied China, wife of Isamu Noguchi (and with him, part of the model “Nisei” couple), American movie star; and postwar Japanese politician, among other things. But we’ll leave her for another time.)
Samuel Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1912 and moved to New York with his family after his father died when he was eleven. As a young teenager, he began to sell newspapers, which led to his becoming a copy boy, then a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic, a notorious scandal sheet, at age 17. Intrigued by California, he headed west in the mid 1930s and eventually broke into Hollywood ghostwriting screenplays for established screenwriters. After serving in World War II—including landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day—he established himself as a screenwriter in Hollywood under his own name. Independent producer Robert Lippert gave him a chance to direct his own screenplays in 1948, beginning with I Shot Jesse James.
It is a familiar trope in war movies, westerns, and other genres: the diverse group of misfits and survivors thrown together by chance who overcome their personal differences to band together and successfully achieve their mission. The group here is particularly diverse; as one contemporary reviewer sardonically observed, “… the infantry has assembled in brotherhood a group of men representing every American type except the anti-vivisectionist.”
POW: You got the same kind of eyes I have.
There are many reasons for the rapidly changing view of Japanese Americans during this time period, but the setting of The Steel Helmet highlights one of the main ones: the Cold War/anti-Communist tenor of the times. In the battle for the hearts and minds of the Third World, racial discrimination undermined the Western cause. The patriotic war veteran Fuller portrayed an American military united across racial lines that comes together to achieve their mission. But unlike many others, he is also willing to point out the racism that still infected American society, explicitly and literally illustrating how it could be used by the enemy to criticize the American way and maybe even to disrupt American unity.
The film opened on January 11, 1951 and there were two somewhat unexpected outcomes. One is that some observers—most notably the anti-Communist New York Daily Mirror columnist Victor Riesel—accused the film and the proudly patriotic Fuller of promoting Communism. In interviews and in his autobiography, Fuller recounts being called to the Pentagon and grilled over the content of his film. The key objections were that the soldiers were not portrayed in a heroic fashion—many were portrayed as cowardly or incompetent—that the main character shoots the POW and goes unpunished for doing so, and that U.S. racial discrimination is criticized. The other is that the low budget film was a substantial financial success. Because Fuller worked for a share of the profits, the film ended up making him a wealthy man (in his autobiography, he reports clearing $2 million after taxes), which no doubt contributed to his ability to keep making idiosyncratic and personal films for the next two decades.