Feb 20, 2008
Movie review by Richard Parks, photographic consultant Roger Rohrdanz
Review By Richard Parks
6 out of 8 Sparkplugs
The Gone Racin’ column reviews movies, books and other cultural arts that pertain to hot rodding and automotive racing. The Steel Helmet is a war movie set in Korea and the tie to the car culture is the star of the film, Gene Evans, who was the brother of Bud Evans. The movie thus has two credentials, the two Evans brothers, and because it is a classic film of the 1950’s, one that we would have watched at a drive-in or as a second film to the main feature movie. Bud Evans is one of the original drag racing announcers at the Colton drag strip and was chosen to go on the first NHRA Safety Safaris by my father, Wally Parks, as the group’s announcer. The original members of the Safety Safari included Bud Coons, Eric Rickman, Chick Cannon and Bud Evans. Coons had been a respected member of the Pomona Police department and worked diligently to get car clubs to use the new drag strips to race their cars rather than the streets. Rickman was one of the best racing/action photographer. Evans handled the announcing and Cannon was the chief inspector. These four men traveled around the United States showing car clubs how to organize safe and sanctioned drag racing on quarter-mile courses. Gene Evans has passed away, but his body of cinematic work remains as a testament to him. He was the Vic Morrow of his era, a no-nonsense, grizzled man whose common sense and strength usually was called upon to save the day. Evans was also Superb as the villain, whether he was a sailor, cowboy or soldier. His first movie was It Happened Every Spring in 1949 and his last movie role came in The Shadow Riders in 1982. Evans acted in sixteen movies, but The Steel Helmet was his starring role and he was called upon to carry this movie, which he did admirably. The Steel Helmet is 84 minutes long and was written, produced and directed by Samuel Fuller in 1951. It co-starred Robert Fuller, Steve Brodie, James Edwards, Richard Loo, Sid Melton, Richard Monahan, William Chung, Harold Fong and Neyle Morrow. The director of photography was Ernest Miller and the music was composed by Paul Dunlap. The Steel Helmet was released by Robert L. Lippert and Weiss Global Enterprises.
Samuel Fuller found the perfect actor to play the part of Zack, a sergeant whose platoon was wiped out during the chaos of the Korean War. Fuller wrote and directed a cast that exemplified the darkness and horror of war. There are few scenes that evoke hope. But it is an honest film dedicated to the infantry soldier who has to bear the brunt of war, no matter what the outcome. The North Korean and Chinese are perfectly evil and murderous. Even the Americans have come to see death, killing and survival as the values that have any true meaning. Zach is a grizzled and weather-beaten sergeant who has seen his share of battles in Europe and now in Korea. He is the only survivor of his platoon and with the help of ‘short round,’ a young Korean boy, finds other units who are simply trying to survive. The battle lines are hazy and the war has degenerated into survival at any cost. The Steel Helmet shows a realism of war, racial stereotypes and cultural values far ahead of its time. Zach and ‘short round’ find other men who have been cut off from their units and who need the leadership that he has learned. Gradually a new platoon emerges with Zach and a young lieutenant, though the sergeant lets it be known that he has a low regard for officers and green recruits. The ragged band of infantrymen fight their way into a Buddhist shrine where they capture an enemy soldier. The North Korean major is more of a nuisance than an informer and attempts to drive wedges between the GIs, especially the black American Medic and the Japanese/American corporal. The movie ends with the loss of men who have bonded together. The remnants leave the shrine and trudge down the dusty road to fight another battle, in a never ending series of battles.
Gene Evans is not your normal romantic lead. He plays a specific part and he does it well. Fuller is a director who insists that you look at the world as it really is and not as it is normally shown on the silver screen. Fuller is the prototype of directors to come, such as Quentin Tarantino, Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese, where a sense of bleakness shows us reality. Tarantino brought us Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, both bloody and dark. Polanski’s Chinatown seems to exude ugliness of the spirit. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver shows the seaminess of life. The Steel Helmet shows us what war is like, albeit in a cleanlier form, suitable to the tastes of the audiences in 1951. No heads are lopped off, no limbs are blown away, no blood trickles into pools and yet there is an unsettling realization of hopelessness. Gene Evans brings Zach to life. He is your Ernie Pyle type of sergeant. Zach is a man in the trenches, trying not to get too emotionally close to those he has to lead into battle. He is a bearded, lonely man, full of demons of his own; giving allegiance to the God of Survival in a world that has gone mad. Evans plays these flawed heroes and villains as well as any actor ever could. It seems that Gene Evans is comfortable in the characters that he plays like a method actor. Could it be that the real Gene Evans and the roles that he plays are one and the same? The Steel Helmet is a movie that I would recommend for the guys who want to remember those days in the post WWII era when they were called to serve. As a date movie with your significant other it probably would be too dark and dreary. It isn’t the best war movie that I’ve ever seen, but it ranks up near the top. Check with a movie rental store or go to www.hotrodmemories.com to see if they have this fine movie in their stock. I rate The Steel Helmet a 6 out of a possible 8 spark plugs.
Gone Racin’ is at RNPARKS1@JUNO.COM.