Tuesday, June 19, 2007

5.02 "Steel"

Season Five, Episode 2

Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Don Weis

An inventive take—as though, from The Twilight Zone, you would expect anything less—on the John Henry legend, Steel opens on a bustling small-town street, where a Greyhound bus is pulling up. Two men, "Steel" Kelly (Lee Marvin) and Pole (Joe Mantell) disembark wheeling what looks like a restrained, Hannibal Lechter style, mental patient. Upon closer inspection it resembles, perhaps, a wrapped-up mannequin, but whatever it is it's creepy as hell; the obvious elephant in the room, writer Richard Matheson takes his sweet time addressing it, and no passersby or fellow bar patrons—the two men have stopped off for a top off—acknowledge that anything might be out of the ordinary.

Kelly and Pole bicker like an old married couple, a spirit of combativity that continues throughout the entire episode. These are two men obviously together a long time, deeply in love, platonically, but buckling under the pressure of their dire straits. After a drawn-out, snarkily cryptic conversation about a need for parts and repairs, a bit more becomes clear—Kelly is a "manager", Pole is a mechanic, and the neatly wrapped-up mystery man is a robotic pugilist, or more accurately an android, as Serling corrects in the opening voice-over. The year is 1974 (the episode was broadcast in 1963) and boxing matches between two lumps of living flesh has been outlawed since 1968, when the expression "fists of steel" went from figurative to literal. Pole and Kelly have an outmoded B2 roboboxing model, by the memorable name of Battling Maxo, and have traveled from the East (Philly) to the West, Nowheresville to be exact, aka the fictional town of Maynard, Kansas, for just about the only bout they can book. No one's battled anything less than a B4 in years, they're told—as if they didn't already know!—but with Kelly's passionate commitment to their fighter and Pole's passionate commitment to Kelly, they prepare for a battle with a vastly superior B7.

Not only are they lugging around an inferior model, though, but it's in desperate need of repairs and new parts, which they can't procure, if they could even afford them, since nobody uses B2s anymore. (Akin to my trouble finding a typewriter ribbon, I suppose.) Kelly, though, is foolhardily fixed on going through with the fight; Matheson's script, in a consequence of the medium's prescribed brevity, largely underplays Kelly's motivations, but Marvin picks up the slack, three-dimensionalizing the character by delivering a moving show of desperation and a sympathetic, regretful understanding of his own obsolescence; Kelly, as he explains in a movingly pathetic scene, used to be, back in the day, a blood-and-bones boxer, and they nicknamed him Steel because he never got knocked down, no not once. Replaced by machines, like many a worker, Kelly finds himself with nothing to do but wheel around a hunk of metal as outdated as himself. He tries to brag about his glory days to the manager of the stadium and his money-counter, but they never heard of him and they could care less—they've got work to do and cigars to chew—and Marvin is reduced to just another sad, rambling old man, the sort that should've been washed away years ago and now wanders an earth wherein he no longer belongs.

So he slunks off with Pole, since they've got some work of their own to do, like getting Battling Maxo (love that name!) ready for the fight. "We got ourselves a piece of dead iron here," Pole insists, trying to drive home a point that Kelly just won't acknowledge—the robot needs repairs and he can't fight. But Kelly insists they'll go through with the fight, and then be able to use the money they make to not only get back on their feet, but to get Maxo back on his feet, too; in a symbol of his deteriorating state, a wheel on his right foot keeps popping off. After a few minutes of preparatory sparring, a spring pops loose from Ol' Maxo and leaves the two men with nothing but a busted and irreparable robot. Kelly refuses to believe they can't get the parts until Pole finally breaks down screaming. "Dontcha understand?" he pleads with the monomaniacal Kelly, "they don't make 'em anymore!"

Well, that's that then, I guess. So, whatta you wanna do tonight, Kelly? But rather than offer the familiar, "I don't know whatta you wanna do?" Kelly madly decides that he'll fight, in defiance of the law. "You'll get killed!" Pole protests, to which Kelly replies, cool as a cucumber in a moment of suicidal fanaticism, "then I will." Kelly needs the money, but he also needs to prove to himself that he's still "got it in him", so to speak, that not even a machine could knock down the super man they called Steel. Moreso, he needs to prove to himself he's not as broken down as that feeble machine, that he still matters. So, unbeknownst to the crowd and owners, it'll be "Steel" vs. steel in an allegorical supermatch; as the children will sing, Steel Kelly, Steel Kelly was a steel-punchin' man, Steel Kelly was a steel-punchin' man, man, man...Kelly, painted-up to look palely mechanical, is of course nearly beaten to death by his opponent, the soulless automaton, after about only two minutes of fighting; watching that supergadget bear down on that poor man, his humanity oozing out of his face in dark red puddles, is heartbreaking if not terrifying, as the robot's emotionless rubber-face and Stepford eyes (halved Ping Pong balls, painted black) are the stuff of nightmares. (And Van Cleave's deliriously atmospheric score, from darkly swinging jazz to frenetic string lines, only makes it creepier.) The crowd jeers, "get that pile of junk outta here!" and though they think they're gibing a robot, their characterization is apt. Kelly's in over his head; he's just an old piece of junk.

The man who never fell has been felled, proving, in the general sense, that even the strongest man can't compete with the strongest machine; in a more specific sense, Kelly has realized he's licked...this time, at least. Pole wheels him back to the locker room, where he immediately and dramatically collapses to the floor. "Did you get the money?" Kelly eventually manages to muster through his broken, bloodied teeth. Only half, Pole admits; after all, he only went one round instead of the agreed-upon six. Kelly protests but Pole quashes it; forget it, Kelly, it's Maynard, Kansas. While Matheson's script points towards a tragic defeat of man by machines and, by implication, of age by youth, Serling offers a glimmer of hope in his closing narration; though he points out the tale is "proof positive that you can't outpunch machinery," he offers an inspirational caveat: "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." Kelly may not be dancing around the ring—he may be a broken hunk of Steel rather than gloating over one—but hey, he's still alive and he's got $250 to show for it. Men can do one thing that popped-spring machines and mere boys can't do, and that's to keep on keeping on.

For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.

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