When an American infantry unit surrenders to the North Koreans, the prisoners of war have their hands bound behind their backs and are then executed. Only Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) survives the massacre, saved when the bullet meant for him is deflected by his helmet. He is freed by a South Korean orphan (William Chun), nicknamed "Short Round" by Zack, who tags along despite the sergeant's annoyance. Short Round confronts American racial attitudes when he demands that Zack refer to him as South Korean, not a gook.
They come across Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic and also the sole survivor of his unit. Then they encounter a patrol led by inexperienced Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie). The racial angle arises when white soldiers suggest that the black medic was a deserter. But soon after, a battlefield emergency demands interracial unity when the men are pinned down by snipers. Together, Zack and Sergeant Tanaka (Richard Loo) dispatch the snipers. Zack reluctantly agrees to help the unit establish an observation post at a Buddhist temple. One GI is shortly thereafter killed by a booby trap.
The grouping was "designed" by Fuller to be broadly representative of the Korean War-era US Army. Thus, there is an element of stereotyping in the characters. Among them are Joe, the quiet one (Sid Melton); the former conscientious objector (Robert Hutton); the "intellectual" (the officer); an African-American; the naive radio operator (Richard Monahan); and the Nisei Tanaka.
They reach the apparently deserted temple without further incident, but Joe is killed that night by a North Korean major (Harold Fong) hiding there. The officer is eventually captured. He tries without success to subvert first Thompson, then Tanaka, by pointing out the racism they face in 1950s America. Sergeant Zack prepares to take his prize back for questioning, cynically looking forward to a furlough as a reward. Before he leaves, Driscoll asks to exchange helmets for luck, but Zack turns him down. Then Short Round is killed by another sniper. After the major mocks the wish the boy had written down (a prayer to Buddha to have Zack like him), Zack loses control and shoots the prisoner, who dies soon after.
Then the unit spots the North Koreans on the move and calls down devastating artillery strikes. When the enemy realize the artillery is being directed from the temple, they attack in large numbers, supported by a tank. The attack is repelled, but only Zack, Tanaka, Thompson, and the radio operator survive. When they are relieved, Zack responds to the question, "What outfit are you?" with the statement, "US infantry." As they leave the temple, Zack goes to Driscoll's grave and exchanges his helmet with the one marking the man's grave.Gene Evans as Sgt. Zack
Robert Hutton as Pvt. Bronte
Steve Brodie as Lt. Driscoll
James Edwards as Cpl. Thompson
Richard Loo as Sgt. Tanaka
Sid Melton as Joe
Richard Monahan as Pvt. Baldy
William Chun as "Short Round"
Harold Fong as The Red
Neyle Morrow as First GI
Lynn Stalmaster as Second Lieutenant
In October 1950, Fuller made his film in ten days with twenty-five extras who were UCLA students and a plywood tank, in a studio using mist, and exteriors shot in Griffith Park for $104,000. According to Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, Fuller wrote the script in a week. The Steel Helmet grossed more than $6 million.
The Steel Helmet confronts American racism when a North Korean Communist prisoner baits a black soldier in conversation with accounts of American society's Jim Crow rules. Moreover, the Korean soldier makes the first-ever mention, in a Hollywood film, of the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. The film infuriated the military who had provided assistance in the form of military stock footage. Army personnel summoned Fuller for a conference on the film. The U.S Army was upset over Sgt. Zack's shooting of a prisoner of war. Fuller replied that in his World War II service it frequently happened, and had his former commanding officer, Brigadier General George A. Taylor, telephone the Pentagon to confirm it. Ironically, the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker condemned The Steel Helmet as a right-wing fantasy.
Fuller cast Gene Evans, refusing a major studio's interest in filming The Steel Helmet with John Wayne as Sergeant Zack. Fuller threatened to quit when the producers wanted Evans replaced by Larry Parks. Mickey Knox claimed to have been Fuller's first choice for Zack, but he turned the film down.
The Steel Helmet was met with critical acclaim with much praise going to Fuller's directing. The film has a perfect rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 13 reviews.
The staff at Variety magazine said of the film, "The Steel Helmet pinpoints the Korean fighting in a grim, hardhitting tale that is excellently told." and went on to say that it also "serves to introduce Gene Evans as the sergeant, a vet of World War II, a tough man who is interested in staying alive, and hardened to the impact of warfare. Robert Hutton, conscientious objector in the last war but now willing to fight against communism; Steve Brodie, the lieutenant who used pull to stay out of combat previously; James Edwards, the Negro medic, and Richard Loo, a heroic Nisei, are the other principals who add to the rugged realism."
Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader wrote "Sam Fuller's first major accomplishment is a grim piece of agitprop set in the Korean War, where a battle-worn American sergeant (Gene Evans) forms a survival pact with a Korean orphan. Fuller's powerful direction turns a trite story into a vivid study of national and personal identity."
The Critics of Time Out magazine said the film is "A characteristically hard-hitting war movie from Fuller, charting the fortunes of Gene Evans' Sergeant Zack, sole survivor of a PoW massacre in Korea. Saved by a Korean orphan and joining up with other GIs cut off from their units, Evans' cynical veteran embodies the writer-director's abiding thesis that, to survive the madness of war, a ruthless individualism is necessary. Fuller glamorises neither his loner protagonist nor the war itself: if he clearly supports the US presence in Korea, battle is still a chaotic, deadly affair, and nobody has much idea of why they fight. The action scenes are terrific, belying the movie's very low budget."
Leonard Maltin of Turner Classic Movies Online in his glowing review awarded the film with 3 1/2 out of 4 stars and said "Samuel Fuller. Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, Richard Loo, Sid Melton. Evans is a gutsy American sergeant caught in dizzying turn of events in early days of Korean war; it's a solid melodrama written by Fuller, with surprisingly contemporary view of war itself." Sean Axmaker also of Turner Classic Movies Online wrote that The Steel Helmet is "The first American film about the Korean War [and] one of the greatest war films ever made."