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One of the best American war movies ever made tackled the issues of incompetent lieutenants, Japanese American internment and Jim Crow. And you’ve probably never seen it.

The 1951 film “The Steel Helmet” was produced on a shoestring budget and courageously touched many hot button issues of that era.

Steel Helmet Scene

The Korean War is often unfortunately called the “Forgotten War,” having been fought between World War II and the domestic upheaval that coincided with American involvement in Vietnam.

As such, cinematic treatments of the Korean War have been fewer and more poorly funded than those covering the rest of America’s 20th century military history.

However, even with a budget of only $100,000 (which even in 1951 dollars was extremely cheap), Samuel Fuller produced one of the best American war movies of all time, “The Steel Helmet.”

Given the budgetary constraints, the action scenes are not among the best ever produced, though this is not necessarily a fair basis for criticism given that the movie followed on the heels of so many well funded WWII films.

For many viewers, where this film really shines is in its handling of the social dynamics between soldiers of different background within the Army as well as the external societal factors affecting the soldiers at home.

In a few key scenes, all of this plays out as a captured North Korean officer (who is obviously something of a skilled debater) attempts to propagandize some of the soldiers guarding him.  At one point he grills a Japanese American soldier, Tanaka, about his experience in an internment camp during the last war.  Acknowledging what occurred, Tanaka nonetheless tires of the questioning and eventually tells the North Korean to desist or have his teeth knocked out.

Similarly, the officer speaks with a black medic (played by James Edwards, himself an Army veteran) about the discrimination he faced back at home.  The film does not gloss over the embarrassing historical reality, but rather provides a dignified portrayal of a soldier doing everything his country asked of him despite the hardships he faced at home.

For those interested in the dynamics of junior officer-enlisted relations, the relationship between Lieutenant Driscoll and Sergeant Zack will be particularly interesting.  Zack, the grizzled, hardened NCO, is immediately dismissive of the green, know-it-all Driscoll, and at one point scoffs at Driscoll’s suggestion that they trade helmets as a sign of mutual respect.  Zack later reconsiders, but telling anything further would be a major spoiler.  So we will leave it at that.

For a more comprehensive review of this film, please see

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