As usual, Martin Scorsese put it best: "It's been said that if you don't like The Rolling Stones, then you don't like rock 'n' roll. By the same token, I think that if you don't like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don't like cinema."

Bold words, but merely accurate. And quietly suggestive, for the films of Samuel Fuller are rock and roll, after a fashion: they're sloppy and raunchy and energizing, all while wearing a genial "fuck you" grin. High Art they are not; Great Filmmaking they certainly are. Fuller was one of the greatest craftsmen of pure American movies: aggressive and good-humored, masculine and earthy.

The Sam Fuller style wasn't born fully-formed; he honed it in writing a dozen or so scripts before and during and after WWII, he honed it as a New York newspaper reporter from his late teens, and he honed it on two Westerns he shot for Robert L. Lippert's Lippert Pictures: I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona. It was his tutelage at this noted house of inordinately quick and cheap B-pictures that turned him into the pulp maverick that far too few of us know and love, and it was his third and final film for Lippert, The Steel Helmet of 1951, that ushered in the recognizable techniques and obsessions that would fuel a 40-year career.

Like many great indies, the stories behind the production of The Steel Helmet are at least as interesting as the movie itself, and they go a long way towards explaining what it is and how it works. Scarcely seven months after US troops entered Korea, it was the first American film set in that conflict; thanks in large part to its frantic ten-day shoot that took place almost entirely in Los Angeles's Griffith Park at a parsimonious cost of $100,000. The film's forthright, even casual acknowledgement of American military brutality and the internment of Japanese immigrants and their descendants during the Second World War (another topic that had never been seen in an American film) led to scandal and controversy and ultimately to Fuller's suffering an FBI investigation on suspicion of Communist sympathies, which didn't keep the film from making a huge return on its investment and giving both Fuller and Lippert the keys to bigger toys in the Hollywood playground.

It's easy enough to lose sight of the film at the center of all that, given such misadventure, but happily, The Steel Helmet is exactly the movie you'd want it to be given all of that. It's cheap and nasty and honest and brutal; that is, a full-blooded Sam Fuller movie.

After a title card dedicating the film to the brave men of the US infantry (in whose company Fuller had once numbered, during his days with the 1st Division, the "Big Red One"), we're dropped into the aftermath of a massacre, as a helmet with a nasty bullet hole in it creeps above a small ridge to reveal a pair of eyes. Such eyes! They belong to Sgt. Zack (the extraordinary character actor Gene Evans), and they are craggy and tired and at the moment, very attentive. Zack is surrounded by a dead squad of American soldiers, and it would seem that they haven't been dead very long, or at least not long enough for him to feel comfortable; when he hears a noise, he drops to the ground, obviously expecting someone come to finish the job. Instead, he finds a pair of bare feet, and the camera tilts up to show the scrawny body on top of those feet, and then finally the eyes of a young boy (William Chun) with a big rifle who proudly declares himself to be South Korean.

In just about two minutes, three significant Fuller motifs have made their presence known: combination pans/dolly shots that lie somewhere between documentary realism and Hitchcockian tension; characterisations communicated with the smallest amount of dialogue possible; and an obsession with the weathered landscape of the human face. This last one is perhaps most important: the boy's bright eyes and the man's weary eyes are shot in virtually identical frames, cluing us in to the primary arc of the story long before any character notices it: Zack the Everysoldier and his contempt for life, and the boy and his boundless enthusiasm, and how the two are brought together as a distaff father and son.

After baptising the boy "Short Round" (making me like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom both a whole lot more and a whole lot less all at once) Zack sets off on a vague journey through the jungle, encountering a lost patrol led by Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie, a character actor of even larger career than Evans). The presence of the Japanese-American Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) and African-American Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards) toss a bit of racial tension into the mix, the director's first time out with that particular pet theme, and hence his first chance to treat it in what would become his signature style: rarely commenting directly on race, instead letting our expectation of racial ugliness simmer while the characters give each other shifty looks. It should be noted that the moments in this film where race is spoken of outright are among its least interesting.

This is really the best part of the film, in my estimation, watching the men wander through the increasingly foggy jungle looking for friendly territory. As he would prove again at the far end of his career with The Big Red One, Fuller had a rarely-equalled knack for capturing the easy rhythm of soldiers just being soldiers, doubtlessly the combined effect of his multiple tours of duty and his journalist's eye for detail. The Steel Helmet is only the second of his war films that I've seen, but I tend to think it better than the 1980 epic, at least as far as the simple act of soldiering goes; the sweat and stubble and fatigue are more palpable here, the men's anger at being tossed into a foreign land more biting. Let no one ever tell you that cheap films cannot be good films, for it is the very cheapness of The Steel Helmet that gives it depth: tawdry stories - and all war stories are tawdry, or at least they ought to be - are best served in tawdry settings, and Griffith Park and the surreal, stagey Buddhist temple that houses the third act fit the bill nicely.

You don't need me to tell you that cheap genre pictures are usually the most honest reflections of American society, not at this point in history: there's little enough riding on them that they don't have to play the Hollywood game of trying too hard to keep from pissing anybody off. Sam Fuller knew that as well as anyone ever has, and that's why, despite his low profile, he's such a quintessential film director; he's a blunt asshole and a pulp genius, and this gritty little war picture from a decade that produced the best gritty pictures in history is as fine a showcase for his talents as you could hope to find.