THE STEEL HELMET (Samuel Fuller; USA; 1950)
FORTY GUNS (Samuel Fuller; USA; 1957)
Watched these back-to-back, to catch up on Fuller, see what all the fuss is about. A war and a western, guns aplenty. I'm curious to see how, or if, one informs the other by seeing them side by side.
World-weariness and melancholy hover like dank clouds over both films. In The Steel Helmet, this world-weariness reflects an inescapability from the vicissitudes of war. Here, war is ceaseless and cyclical. Near-identical shots of soldiers walking to their next skirmish bookend the film. In Forty Guns, there's almost a listless atmosphere, gunfighting-by-numbers. Years before Peckinpah started to paint his melancholic 'demise of the Western' pictures, Fuller divulges a painful self-awareness around the gunfighter, a character all too aware that his profession is becoming an archaic enterprise. “I'm a freak!”, yells the protagonist at his younger brother, attempting to deter him from following his obsolete footsteps. (Clearly Peckinpah must have acknowledged this film as a prototype for his own attitude to Westerns, for he used the lead actor in Forty Guns, Barry Sullivan, in his own 'end-of-an-era' Western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid).
But melancholy by no means entails limp rhythm and turgid pace. Both films are coiled up tight, ready to spring open and unravel at any moment. In The Steel Helmet, as soldiers are picked off one by one inside a temple, one begins to feel that the temple itself has deceived the soldiers, lulling them into a false sense of security. In Forty Guns, Barbara Stanwyck's brother seems ready to burn up the screen any time he appears, always on the brink of exploding.
Both films love faces. Grimy, steeled, gurning, brutish mugs in the war film, sly smirks and seductive barely-there smiles in the western.
And both films have incredible beginnings. The war film is claustrophobic, the western is panoramic. After the opening credits flash over an image of steel helmet lying on the earth, the helmet moves, a soldier is revealed, he looks furtively around, then crawls frantically forward, camera slowly tracking back to show that he is hand-cuffed and injured. In the western, a horse-drawn cart has its leisurely amble through a valley interrupted by the sound of thunderous hooves, as a swathe of riders surge over the crest of a hill, and swarm past the cart, engulfing it in dust and a deafening rhythmic patter. Both scenes embody their titles straight away, focusing on a steel helmet and forty hired gunfighters respectively, and therefore provide that delicious joy in making the very title of film itself a palpable and sensual component of the cinematic experience.