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An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War

Saturday, October 6, 2012
9:00 p.m. The Steel Helmet
Samuel Fuller (U.S., 1951)

Introduction/J. Hoberman

Just as the Korean conflict was escalating, Sam Fuller set about making this grim film about an American patrol lost in the woods. A gruff veteran, Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) is the sole survivor of a North Korean ambush. Bound and crawling through a field of corpses, he is freed by Short Round, a South Korean orphan. The two then begin their dangerous trek back to secured territory. Along the way, they accumulate a motley assortment of GI stragglers. Fuller's disdain for war creeps into every characterization, but it is Sergeant Zack, gritty, emotionless, almost bestial in his lack of sentiment, who calibrates the film's cynicism. The Pentagon distanced itself from Fuller’s heroic gesture, calling the film “vicious (and) full of perversions.” At a private Department of Defense screening, Fuller recalled, “They’d just watched The Steel Helmet before I walked in. ‘Your film looks like communist indoctrination, Fuller,’ said one general.” However, as noted by Hoberman, a DOD memo stated “the consensus of opinion was that if The Steel Helmet was subtle communist propaganda, it was too subtle for the ordinary person to see.” Perhaps it should have been more heavy-handed, like an incoming round.

We recommend taking public transportation to this screening. Parking will be in short supply due to a 7 p.m. Cal football game at Memorial Stadium.

• Written by Fuller. Photographed by Ernest W. Miller. With Gene Evans, Robert Hutton, Steve Brodie, Richard Loo. (84 mins, B&W, 35mm, From Academy Film Archive, courtesy Kit Parker)