The astonishing prelude compresses The Steel Helmet into one devastated tableau, Rod Steiger in soiled buckskin might be Gene Evans in combat except that he's an Irishman in the Virginia infantry on Palm Sunday, 1865. (Scorched earth against cobalt sky is the recurring configuration, the title is stamped onscreen in crimson.) Samuel Fuller chuckles at the notion of the Civil War's last bullet, he knows conflict is an ongoing facet of American identity: His "Johnny Sore-Loser" seethes as General Lee prepares to surrender (the vantage is from inside a blood-soaked medic's tent), then gathers all his pride and hatred to seek a new nation "far west." Out in the desert with the Sioux, a rebirth in smoke and bloody feet, a sense of wholeness with the tough-minded squaw (Sara Montiel) until the return of the wannabe Custer (Ralph Meeker). "Maybe a broken neck is the best for what ails ya." The cantankerous relationship is with Ford, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Searchers in particular (Olive Carey plays the mother with no answers), "to become American again" is the painful trajectory on divided terrain. Fuller slashes into his own canvas for swift and grainy views, and populates it with philosophers and renegades: Jay C. Flippen as the weathered scout with a canteen of whiskey and no stomach for politics; Charles Bronson's oiled-up torso in the middle of a discourse on faith (cf. Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe); Brian Keith as the saddle-sore Yankee captain with an Edward Everett Hale tale. Eternal battle lines, a blasting rendition of "I'm a Good Old Rebel" by a moon-faced banjoist (a most startling close-up), deliverance as a gunshot to the head after a fort raid. The barmy and battered Fuller nationalism, the Stars and Stripes singed in the fire yet clutched at last to the outsider's clammy chest. "The end of this story can only be written by you." The road leads not to Dances with Wolves or even Little Big Man, but to Antonio das Mortes and Le Vent d'Est. Cinematography by Joseph Biroc. With H.M. Wynant, Neyle Morrow, Frank DeKova, and Billy Miller.
--- Fernando F. Croce