Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) is part of a US Army unit that is captured, tied up, and then massacred by the North Korean People’s Army. Zack survives when an enemy bullet is deflected by his helmet.
An orphaned South Korean boy (William Chun) happens upon Zack, frees him of his bonds, and tags along thereafter, despite Zack’s annoyance. Nicknamed “Short Round” by Zack, the boy insists that Zack refer to him as “South Korean” and not as a “gook.”
The pair encounter Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), an African American medic – also the sole survivor of his unit – before merging with a patrol led by the untested Lieutenant Driscoll (Steve Brodie).
The white soldiers express suspicion that the black medic might be a deserter but the squad is pinned down by snipers and Zack and Japanese-American Sergeant Tanaka (Richard Loo) join forces to neutralise the enemy snipers.
Thereafter, the small unit sets out to establish an observation post at a Buddhist temple, but not before one of their party is killed while inspecting a booby-trapped corpse.
They reach the temple but Joe (Sid Melton) is killed that night by a North Korean major (Harold Fong) hiding inside. Subsequently captured, the enemy officer tries but fails to win over Thompson and then Tanaka by pointing out the racism they face in their own country.
Sergeant Zack prepares to take his prisoner of war back for interrogation, anticipating the reward of a furlough. Before he leaves, Lt. Driscoll asks to exchange helmets for luck, but Zack refuses his request. Short Round is the next to die, killed by another sniper.
After the North Korean major mocks the wish that the boy had written down (a prayer to Buddha that Zack would like him), Zack flies into a rage and shoots his prisoner.
The North Koreans attack in force and Driscoll has Private Baldy (Richard Monahan) call in artillery support.
When the enemy soldiers realise the artillery is being directed from the temple, they attack en masse, supported by a tank.
The Americans repel the assault, but only an obviously shell-shocked Zack, Tanaka, Thompson, and Baldy survive.
When they are relieved, Zack is asked, “What outfit are you?” He responds simply, “US infantry.” As they leave the temple, Zack goes to Driscoll’s grave and exchanges his helmet with the one marking the grave.
Using a no-name cast, a plywood tank, stock combat footage, and 25 UCLA students playing both American and North Korean soldiers, Sam Fuller shot The Steel Helmet in just ten days in October 1950 for a little over $100,000.
Exterior scenes were shot in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, using direct sound and natural light.
When the film opened in the US in January 1951, it was denounced as pro-communist and anti-American while the Department of Defense objected vehemently to the scene where Zack kills a POW, an act expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention.
Called to respond, Sam Fuller pointed out that he had personally witnessed such war crimes in WWII. General George A. Taylor – Fuller’s former regimental commander – verified the truth of his claim.
The controversy surrounding the film helped produce phenomenal box office results of $2 million in receipts – 20 times more than the movie cost to make.
North Korean Major