The Real “Steel”
There’s a certain irony in the title of the Hugh Jackman film “Real Steel.” After all, the story was first staged decades ago as a Twilight Zone episode simply titled “Steel,” making the newer incarnation something of a counterfeit.
That’s not to say the Jackman film is bad. I haven’t seen it, so I’ll reserve judgment. But whether it merits a thumbs up or a thumbs down, it’s worth remembering what made the Richard Matheson original so memorable.
Start, as nearly all good stories do, with an intriguing premise: In the near future, boxing between humans is outlawed. It’s limited to robots — or, as Serling specifies in his intro, to androids — “definition: ‘an automaton resembling a human being’.”
Steel Kelly (Lee Marvin, star of the Zone episode “The Grave“) is a manager who is traveling to a bout with an outdated model — a B2, in a world where the B7 is the latest model. He believes fervently in “Battlin’ Maxo,” but his partner, Pole (played by Joe Mantell, star of the Zone episode “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room”), is just as convinced they’re wasting their time. Why keep trying to hold an old android together with shoestring repairs?
Sure enough, Maxo breaks down minutes before the fight. Pole is ready to throw in the towel, but Steel refuses to forfeit even a modest purse. He insists on taking Maxo’s place in the ring. With a little make-up and the right expression, maybe no one will know the difference. (If you haven’t seen this episode, feel free to bail — spoilers ahead.)
Does Steel stage some miracle fight and beat the B7? That would have been satisfying, in a way. But Matheson, who faithfully adapts his 1956 short story of the same name, goes a different route. Steel is beaten, and badly. But he manages to stay in the ring long enough to qualify for at least a half payment. We leave him on the dressing-room floor, writhing in pain. Yet he tells Pole that they’ll get the needed repairs. Maxo, he’s convinced, will go on to win some fights in the future.
And that’s the point, really. Matheson isn’t trying to give us a miracle victory. He’s making a larger point about perserverance in the face of overwhelming odds. We’re led to believe that even though Steel lost, he won. (Shades of “Rocky,” which came a decade later.) As Serling puts it in his closing narration:
Portrait of a losing side, proof positive that you can’t outpunch machinery. Proof also of something else: that no matter what the future brings, man’s capacity to rise to the occasion will remain unaltered. His potential for tenacity and optimism continues, as always, to outfight, outpoint and outlive any and all changes made by his society, for which three cheers and a unanimous decision rendered from the Twilight Zone.
Adds Matheson in The Twilight Zone Companion: “I saw the Lee Marvin character as the sort of man who never liked to ask anyone for help, but chose, in the old-fashioned way, to take care of things for himself, however mad. To him it was a straight line progression: to get the money to put Maxo back in condition, he had to get that fee — now. So he got it in the most obvious way he could as he saw things.”
“Real Steel” may supply plenty of high-tech, rock-em-sock-em action. But for a story to stick, we need more — characters we care about, a compelling conflict, and a satisfying resolution. Judged by those standards, “Steel” is a clear TKO.
Photos courtesy of Wendy Brydge. For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post. WordPress followers, just hit “follow” at the top of the page.
Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!