Fuller's wars

Pictured: Richard Loo, Richard Monahan, and James Edwards in Samuel Fuller’s Korean War classic The Steel Helmet (1951), a portrait of the U.S. military so incendiary that in order to get it made Fuller effectively tricked both the Breen Office and Department of Defense.  (Both organizations were outraged by the film upon its release.)  The Steel Helmet is typical of Fuller’s political idiosyncracies: a pro-military film in which Our Guy Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is an embittered lout who violates the Geneva Convention by shooting a Korean POW, and which calls out anti-black and anti-Asian racism even as Zack himself casually lobs racial slurs at his fellow soldiers.  In his day, Fuller pissed off the right-wing establishment for refusing to treat American institutions like the military as sacred cows; today, liberal viewers are just as likely to be rankled by his films’ unapologetically masculinist ethos.  I, for one, admire Fuller’s films all the more for their scattershot politics.  They suggest the independence of thought and the ballsiness of a truly original artist, a figure whose aggressive, contrarian spirit lives on in such contemporary filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Clint Eastwood. 

Lee Marvin with the concentration camp inmate in The Big Red One.

To watch The Steel Helmet back to back with Fuller’s WWII epic The Big Red One (1980)—the latter heavily inspired by Fuller’s own war experiences—is to get a sense of his deep and complex understanding of soldiers: their values and prejudices, their innocent hopes, their humor, their rituals.  One finds innumerable connections and parallels between the two films, which were made almost thirty years apart from each other.  The Big Red One’s stoic, anonymous sergeant (Lee Marvin) is a slightly more likable double for the irascible Sgt. Zack in The Steel Helmet: both men are humanized by their relationships with children (a Korean boy nicknamed Short Round in the earlier film, a concentration camp survivor in the later one; neither one makes it to the end alive).  The paradoxical figure of the non-violent military man also recurs in both films, in the form of a conscientious objector in The Steel Helmet and a naïve young private afraid to fire his gun in The Big Red One.

The Big Red One also rewrites the climactic scene of The Steel Helmet in such a way that suggests a desire to atone for the sin of Sgt. Zack in the earlier film.  At the end of The Big Red One, Marvin—not realizing the end of the war has just been declared—knifes a German officer who is trying to surrender.  When he learns of his mistake, Marvin sets about tending to the German’s wound and carries him to safety, quipping “you son of a bitch, you’re gonna live if I have to blow your brains out!” (a variation on The Steel Helmet’s classic line, “if you die, I’ll kill you!”).  Marvin’s empathy toward his (former) enemy, and his fidelity to the rules of war, signify as a corrective to the rogue Zack’s shooting of the Korean POW in The Steel Helmet.  But that’s not to say that the later film’s values trump those of the earlier one.  Fuller’s world is big enough to accommodate such contradictions.

Lee Marvin shoulders the German officer he has just tried to kill in The Big Red One.

One final note: if anyone should doubt the influence of Fuller on the auteurs of the twenty-first century, consider the screengrabs below.

Opening shot of The Big Red One (1980).

Opening shot of The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2015).

Second shot of The Steel Helmet (1951).

Second shot of The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012).

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