Original Air Date: October 4, 1963
Writer: Richard Matheson
Director: Don Weis
“Get that pile of junk outta here!”
“Sports item, circa 1974: Battling Maxo, B2, heavyweight, accompanied by his manager and handler, arrives in Maynard, Kansas, for a scheduled six-round bout. Battling Maxo is a robot, or, to be exact, an android, definition: ‘an automaton resembling a human being.’ Only these automatons have been permitted in the ring since prizefighting was legally abolished in 1968. This is the story of that scheduled six-round bout, more specifically the story of two men shortly to face that remorseless truth: that no law can be passed which will abolish cruelty or desperate need—nor, for that matter, blind animal courage. Location for the facing of said truth: a small, smoke-filled arena just this side of the Twilight Zone.”
In this wonderful little tale from Richard Matheson, two men (Lee Marvin and Joe Mantell) are transporting a lifeless body covered in boxing robes from a bus in Maynard, Kansas –the body is actually the figure of “Battling Maxo,” a prized B2 robotic boxer. The time period is the noir-esque and futuristic world of August 1974! In the future, professional boxing has been banned and fights are now conducted exclusively by androids (notably at the time of this episode’s release there were several high profile boxing deaths and the Pope labeled the sport “barbaric”).
Just before the fight, Battling Maxo malfunctions so Steel Kelly (Lee Marvin’s character) decides to fight in Maxo’s stead even though human fighting has been outlawed. In the old days, Steel Kelly used to be a celebrated fighter but he was never knocked down. On this night he faces off against a stronger B7 android model called Maynard Flash. Steel Kelly is quickly beaten in the first round after he fakes being knocked out within two minutes, and thus the two men are only paid half for the fight. From the ground of the locker room, Steel Kelly gazes up into Battling Maxo’s cold, lifeless eyes and promises he will be fixed.
“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.”
I kept wondering if there was going to be a twist at the end of this episode. Would Battling Maxo suddenly come to life and admit he faked being damaged in order to avoid another fight? Would Steel Kelly reveal he is actually an android? At any rate, this brilliant little episode explores the fear of suddenly becoming irrelevant in the face of advanced robotic machinery. Replacing human strife with robots can pose all manner of new problems, rather than solving old barbarities.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- This episode is based on a 1956 short story of the same name by Richard Matheson. “Steel” was Mr. Matheson’s only venture into a story about a heavyweight. In contrast, Rod Serling wrote several boxing stories including Requiem For A Heavyweight which was featured in 1956 on Playhouse 90 and was later turned into a major motion picture.
- Richard Matheson later claimed in numerous interviews and essays that this episode was his favorite of the sixteen that he wrote for The Twilight Zone. The chief difference between the teleplay and the original short story is that the year was changed from 1997 to 1974.
- This was Don Weiss’s only directorial effort for The Twilight Zone series.
- This was the first episode sponsored by Procter & Gamble (which was alternating sponsorships with American Tobacco). They usually pitched Crest toothpaste, Lilt Home Permanent, and Prell shampoo among their other products. Much to his relief (no doubt) Rod Serling was not required to endorse any of Procter & Gamble’s products at the end of the episodes.
- At the time, boxing was mired in controversy after Emile Griffith killed his opponent Benny Paret in a nationally televised and particularly brutal 1962 match. With Paret’s death, as well as the death of Davey Moore from a neck injury sustained in a 1963 contest, Serling predicted the sport would be banned in five years time. Even the Pope called the sport “barbaric.”
- Each of the cast members in this episode had previously appeared in another Twilight Zone episode. Lee Marvin starred in “The Grave” (October 1961), Joe Mantell starred in “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” (October 1960), Chuck Hicks had an uncredited part as a mover in “Ninety Years Without Slumbering” (December 1963), Merritt Bohn was a truck driver in Twilight Zone’s second episode, “One for the Angels” (October 1959) and Frank London was a driver in “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (February 1961).
- Less than a year after this episode’s release, Lee Marvin appeared in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
- William Tuttle crafted the humanoid effects for this episode which make the androids look partly life-like, partly mechanical. He used life-masks of the actors plus ping-pong balls to cover their eyes.
- “Steel” was the inspiration for the 2011 film Real Steel starring Hugh Jackman.
Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.
Steel could certainly qualify as one of the most totally original Twilight Zone classics since the first two seasons. Lee Marvin was excellent as he was in The Grave.
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