Monday, May 30, 2011

Great 70's Dads, Memorial Day Special: THE STEEL HELMET ('51)

"He got up on Easy Red beach,. and he yelled 'there are only two types of men on this beach - those who are dead and those who are about to die, so let's get up off this beach and die inland' - and that officer I give my steel hat to any day."
There's few genius auteurs who are legitimate survivors/firsthand witnesses of serious Nazi shit the Second World War, liberating concentration camps (or losing parents to them). I can only think of two offhand, Roman Polanski and Samuel Fuller, both are Jewish so...

But hey, this is isn't a post about Jewishness, neither one of them brings that up in any way as to underline one's persecution or specialness, neither is typical "Jewish" the way, say, Woody Allen or Steven Spielberg are.

I mention the latter as I wish to make comparison of style between tough cigar chomping war vet Sam Fuller--whose war films are miles away from the righteous sheepishness of Spielberg's authorial avatars in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and SCHINDLER'S LIST. The real survivors of war and oppression are free from having to depict anything but their own firsthand observances. Those of us who come after can only nose amongst the wreckage and monuments like guilty bystanders, imagining what we would have felt and done were they there, which is impossible to predict. Fuller barely mentions his own Jewishness when addressing the horrors of the concentration camp he helped liberate - for him it's a crime against humanity... He's capturing the necessity of fraternal closeness when living month after month in the maw of death. All illusion and false worries turned down effortlessly as the only way to sharpen and survive is the now. Even a prayer for a balding man to grow hair is a fleeting precious glory. In his biography Fuller mentions his general bringing the entire outfit to the local synagogue after liberating a camp, because "we were all Jewish that day." For Fuller there's no need to separate his people from the flock, there are no atheists in a foxhole, and no time for self-righteous differentiation. His soldiers are the kind who automatically light each other's cigarettes, and/or take them out of each other's mouths, or use their helmets as a railing to get down into a foxhole, or rub each other's feet when they get frostbite.  It's camaraderie of the sort no second hand auteur would know about.

Think of RYAN for a minute, a film I used to love but is starting--with the passage of time--to seem ridiculous: nervous pisher Jeremy Davis hides in the rear during combat but then runs up like the ghost of liberal future, trying to stop Hanks from shooting prisoners and Ed Burns almost deserts because "this mission is FUBAR!" Dude, what mission wasn't FUBAR? Both men should have been shot too. RYAN was the movie that made FUBAR a household name. Well my buddy John's bar was called FUBAR and it was destroyed by a falling crane, Mr. Spielberg! Look at this picture I have in my hands Mr. Spielberg!

I actually admire Spielberg's directorial skill and desire to tell an important story, I was as furious as anyone when ENGLISH PATIENT won the Oscar instead of RYAN in 1998, but we don't watch and love Spielberg's harrowing D-Day action set piece for deep analysis of memory and observational detail, we love it for duplicating the sickening trauma of actually landing at Omaha or getting us as close as anyone has yet -- we presume. Fuller's D-Day (in THE BIG RED ONE) is the trauma of remembering it, one dogface's experience, zig-zagging along Omaha beach, ducking machine gun fire and hopping over the corpses of bodies washing in and back out in the tide, looking for ammo or medicine or other officers. Fuller didn't feel the need to 'duplicate' the experience in our minds, as much as record his experience. He didn't have a chance (or the budget) to get all fluid with elaborate interwoven big scale group action. His war films, such as STEEL HELMET, FIXED BAYONETS and THE BIG RED ONE are chronicles of remembered anecdotes and observations. Like any good journalist he trusts these copious real details will be enough to garner the 'right' response from the audience: that war is more complex than mere conservative patriotism or liberal ashen dismay can encompass.

Then there's the issue of a character acting his biological age: these guys who died were young and in Fuller's films they act their age: they talk trash while acting courageously, saintly in deed, foul in speech, not the reverse. And you see how survivors of combat have their trauma volume turned way down on everything else. You can see this in the voracious way Gene Evans devours a melon while debating whether to retrieve a set of dog tags from a fallen soldier in a minefield. That's how it has to be, if you are to survive, ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, forgoing the dubious comfort funerals (and liberal hand-wringing). You can imagine Spielberg deciding Evans is the bad soldier for not crying and pounding the sides of the foxhole when he realizes his buddy is dead, dead dead! Instead, Evans just lights another cigar, and finishes his melon. But it's only because he knows pounding the sides of the foxhole will only draw the attention of the enemy and is useless, and without that cutting out of sentiment in favor of jaded toughness survival is unlikely. Evans and his ragtag group of stragglers could be wandering through zombie infested Pittsburgh for all we or they know - it gets to the same core of why we love those films, the escapism when we're reminded how easily all our paltry problems and obsessions are just a distraction, a sleepy curtain, veiling this raw simple real of whoever's on your team vs. whatever else comes along.

Fuller's actual war experience makes his spirituality move far beyond religions or borders, or even life and death. When Sgt. Zack (Evans) watches his young war orphan guide Short Round (Spielberg used the name for Indy's sidekick in TEMPLE OF DOOM) turning a Buddhist prayer wheel or singing "Auld lang Syne" which is also the Korean national anthem, for example, you can feel Zack's respect for even this simple gestures, he knows they are so much more important than things like dog tags, burials and objectives and rank. Fuller's awareness of the power that little motions like this can have--butterfly wing tsunami-style--in the greater scheme of war. In a situation where every movement might be your last, everything is imbued with profound significance, and in this the American soldier of Zack's strange integrity begins to understand how the Asian Buddhist mentality works.

But none of this is enough to make Zack 'break' in the emotional manner of Spielberg's "The Mission is the Man" heart-bleeders. I think there is a lot of great moments of emotional group acting in RYAN, especially in the scene when they're gathered around the dying medic played by Giovanni Ribisi, and Tom Sizemore's character seems inspired a bit by Sgt. Zack, though the idea of lugging around 'dirt' from different countries in an already heavy pack seems like something made up by a screenwriter.

For Fuller, though, humanity outflanks mere respect for each others' differences - especially around the varied reactions to the Buddha statue in the temple where the second half of the film plays out. Though eventually when Zack jumps on the the statue and uses at as cover during the climactic firefight, you realize that when  push comes to shove, it's just a statue. That's the difference, again, between Spielberg's queasy sentiment and Fuller's iron-clad compassion. 

I love the casual way these guys bump into each other, light matches off each others' helmets, using them as hand railings when climbing over each other like a litter of puppies, sticking cigars in each others' mouths, guiding their progress with hands on their chests, saying cool stuff like "I'd be crossing the Army if I brought you luck to live." -  a whole code of issues about the best jobs to have and various companies are seamlessly integrated into daily talk. I noticed this when having lunch with a bunch of Rangers headed for Iraq about five years ago. Their favorite word was 'jihad' -  "I'm putting a jihad on this waiter if she doesn't bring us more coffee" -- Zack has that same hard-won, hard-bit sense of humor too, as with his insistence on the splendor of infantry life. When a soldier in his ragtag outfit complains about 'beetle-crushing' and dreams of joining the Air Force, Evans replies "in war there's nothing like Infantry. You get hit and, dead or alive, at least you're on the ground." It's a good point that indicates knowledge of countless stories of drifting at sea on life rafts for weeks, or getting eaten by sharks, or burning to death in a plummeting B-17. To a soldier for whom every minute of life is a grace (the hole in his helmet a reminder he should be, and maybe is, already dead), the presence of the ground beneath his feet is a constant reassuring miracle. The ache in your boots lets you know you're alive; when the ache stops --you worry. Your feet may have been just blown off by a personnel mine.

In war, normal boundaries are dissolved and boundaries between soldiers seems (in Fuller's films at least) the first thing to go, as when Zack comes tumbling into a ravine with a bunch of pinned down soldiers, all clumsy and awkward, then pops up completely relaxed, like a love-in version of a mosh pit. Like a foxhole monk, Evans examines and blesses his crew, Short Round particularly, finally tapping their helmet right where their third eye is, like a holy benediction. This kind of hands-on camaraderie creates intimacy without weakness. Like a good 70s dad, Evans creates the space for the others to enjoy and relax; he keeps Short Round alive and even paints him some dog tags; he takes pride in making some sense of safety possible, without bothering to participate in it directly. His natural grumpiness serves him well. His love is tough, and if it wasn't, he and his charges would already be long dead.  They may not last the next hour, but they're here now.

As Fuller notes in his autobiography, producers first wanted John Wayne and then Larry Parks for the Sgt. Zack role, with Fuller threatening to quit each time. As a decorated war veteran, Fuller actually had business meetings with the army brass over elements like Zack shooting a Korean prisoner of war, then demanding he be kept alive ("if you die, I'll kill ya") shooting up a Buddha statue, and mentioning Jim Crow and Japanese internment camps in the soldier's dialogue. The North Korean officer they caught even has an American accent, and bad teeth and a whole Commie rap to lay down. And Fuller fought his way through to having it all included. Never try and fight with a veteran! No 20th Century Fox mogul can ever hope to be scary to a guy like Fuller unless he's got a fleet of Panzers or German 88 artillery.

At the end of RYAN, Matt Damon's elderly grandfather asks his wife "am I a good man?" While I never fail to cry at that moment, I still think it's not a question Sgt. Zack would ever ask himself. War is not a place where dying for a friend requires a pre-agreement to 'earn it.' War is just a fucking bloody mess, and the idea of 'earning it' implies a core sanity or rightness which is the death of true courage. "Buddha bless you," Zack snarls to his dying prisoner, and the gruffness somehow makes it all the more effective - you feel it like a kick to the back of the head. That's better.


  1. Erich, I just watched this last Saturday. Thing is, Zack does sorta break, doesn't he? I liked the way Fuller set him up as a potential one-man army, then exposed him for not being a team player. Overall, I share your positive view of Helmet, but by current standards it'd definitely be considered "PC" if only for its spotlighting minority soldiers. I found the scenes when the North Korean tries to turn them amusing and historically interesting. The implicit stance of both men is that, sure, whitey treats us like crap, but being treated like crap in America beats equality in a Commie hellhole -- but there's never any overt anti-Commie preaching. Propaganda or not, it's worth watching either way.

  2. Thanks Samuel. I agree on the commie issues. I'd say yeah Zack breaks, but not in a cheap forced kind of way - it's a natural shaking off of accumulated emotion, a "kill 'em all" moment ala the big Mai Lai-esqye crackup in PLatoon.

  3. I think "the first Buddhist war movie" would actually be Kon Ichikawa's "Harp of Burma" [SEE: ]

  4. Whoops -- you're right -- didn't check the date on Steel Helmet...


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