With the end of World War II, the film industry needed a new enemy. The Soviet Union gave it to them with their occupation of Eastern European countries starting in 1945 and the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49. With revelations of Soviet spying in the U.S., Hollywood started producing ”Red Scare” films, releasing more than 50 between 1947and 1954. These pictures, some from major studios but a great many from low-budget operations, dramatized the Communist threat at home, as in I Married a Communist /The Woman on Pier 13 (1949), and overseas.
The 1952 Monogram film The Steel Fist is an example of the latter type. The Red Scare films offered Hollywood what amounted to free publicity thanks to the frequent headlines about the Cold War and the alleged Communist infiltration of the State Department, the American education system and Hollywood. The films also let them recycle many old World War II plots, with the locales changed and Communists replacing Nazis as the villains.
The Steel Fist is just that kind of re-tread. Roddy McDowall stars as a student in an unnamed Central European country who leads a protest against the Soviet Union, which has set up a puppet government in his homeland. With the police hot on his trail, he hooks up with resistance fighters who send him on a perilous journey to the border and freedom. With each move, however, the Soviet police force closes in, taking out resistance workers who’ve been helping him along the way. The situation becomes more complicated when he falls in love with the resistance fighter (Kristine Miller) assigned to sneak him through the mountains and out of the country. His rival is a Soviet officer (Rand Brooks, who had played Scarlett O’Hara’s first husband in Gone With the Wind, 1939) who has no idea Miller is working with the resistance.
One of the most popular child actors of the 1940s, the London-born McDowall had started acting in Great Britain with a small role in I See Ice! (1938). After his mother brought him to the U.S. at the start of World War II, he broke into Hollywood films as the cabin boy who helps Walter Pidgeon escape from the Nazis in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941). The same year, John Ford cast him in the role that would make him a star, as Huw, the son of a Welsh coal-mining family in How Green Was My Valley (1941). He also appeared in a string of popular animal films like My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home (both 1943). Although he never went through the awkward phase that ended some child stars’ careers, he still had trouble landing decent roles as he grew older. In 1948, he signed with Poverty Row studio Monogram, where he continued making animal films like Rocky (1948) and Black Midnight (1949). The Steel Fist would mark the end of his association with the studio. From there he moved to New York and focused on work in the theatre and television. He would not return to feature films until 1960, when he took co-starring roles in The Subterraneans and Midnight Lace.
At least he went out with a sympathetic director. Wesley Barry, who also co-produced, had started out as a child star in silent films. The Los Angeles native was spotted when he was just seven and put into the Kalem short “The Phoney Cannibal” (1915). It wasn’t until 1919, however, that he started the move to stardom after director Marshall Neilan decided to stop covering up his freckles in Her Kingdom of Dreams (1919). Within a year he was starring in films like Go and Get It and Dinty (both 1920). By the time sound arrived, Barry had moved into supporting roles. Eventually, he would switch to the production end, working as an assistant director from the late 1940s and moving into directing with this film, which also marked his move into full producing after work as a production manager and associate producer. Eventually he would return to assistant directing on TV series like Lassie and The Mod Squad.
Barry and his co-producer, William F. Broidy, had just successfully packaged The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, an early TV hit starring Guy Madison and Andy Devine. The Steel Fist went into production under the more obvious title Escape to Freedom. The film’s written prologue and epilogue explain the new title, with the closing title reading: “The burning desire for freedom will continue to melt steel fists wherever they appear.” Posters screamed “It rocks the screen with suspense!” and the title at least made for another, even better, tagline: “No Woman can stand the shame and the pain of The Steel Fist.”
Producer: Wesley Barry, William F. Broidy
Director: Wesley Barry
Screenplay: C.C. Kivari
Based on the story “Flight Into Freedom” by Phyllis Parker
Cinematography: William A. Sickner
Score: Edward J. Kay
Cast: Roddy McDowall (Eric Kardin), Kristine Miller (Marlina), Harry Lauter (Franz), Rand Brooks (Capt. Giorg Nicholoff), Byron Foulger (Prof. Kardin), Kate Drain Lawson (Mrs. Krechow)