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.

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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’.”

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Steel Kelly (Lee Marvin, star of the Zone episode “The Grave“) is a manager who is traveling to a bout with an outdated model — a B2, in a world where the B7 is the latest model.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.)

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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.

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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.

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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 BrydgeFor a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook 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!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 10/07/2011, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Beautiful episode – I saw it years ago and still think of it every now and again.

  2. A great episode, and you gave it a great write up! Having just recently read the Matheson story, though, and watching “Steel” for the first time, I’m unconvinced it’s as much of a pick-me-up, hooray-for-the-human-spirit story as Serling’s closing narration would have us believe. My take, humbly submitted for your approval, is at http://thescifichristian.com/2011/10/re-read-and-retroview-richard-mathesons-steel/.

    I only recently discovered your blog, but as a long time TZ fan, I am looking forward to reading much more. Thanks again!

  3. Thanks, Michael. I just read your post as well — very thoughtful analysis. It’s true that the closing narration seems more optimistic that the situation warrants; Steel’s clearly fighting a losing battle, and many people would, understandably, take Pole’s side. But I think Serling’s remarks (and maybe Matheson’s story) are meant at least partly as a tribute to anyone willing to keep fighting, no matter how long the odds.

    In short, Steel’s a fool — but an admirable fool, in a way.

    Anyway, I’ll be checking in on your blog as well in the future. Thanks for the comment. Glad you found me!

    • “a tribute to anyone willing to keep fighting” — Well, I do like that way of thinking about it!

      I’ll definitely be checking back in. Always nice to see the Zone getting some attention!

  1. Pingback: Matheson: In the Zone | Shadow & Substance

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