THE TWiLiGHT ZONE - s:05 e:02

Lee Marvin wasn't created with Cat Ballou: everything he appeared in up to that point played a part in his whiskey-soaked evolution into the bitter, hard badass we all know and love.

John Cribbs got to thinking about how amazing it would be if there were a channel that you could flip to any time of the day and see Marvin in some long-forgotten TV serial. Since nobody's had the inspiration to create such a glorious shrine, he decided to program his own personal Lee Marvin Network by unearthing some examples from the first leg of Lee's filmography and make them part of a series called "LeeTV."

{ LeeTV index }

THE TWiLiGHT ZONE, "steel"
don weis, 1963.

~ by john cribbs ~

I don't really have a favorite movie star, but if you twisted my arm, that act would certainly make me think of Lee Marvin. In whatever role Marvin found himself playing - hardened criminal, wartime soldier, wise hobo, even melodious prospector - he had the mileage in his cracked face and weariness in his gravelly voice to make you believe he'd traveled that character's long and bitter road. He's something of an anomaly: a character actor whose vigorous presence carried him to the ranks of leading man, at which point he never looked back.* From this perspective his career can be split into pre-Cat Ballou and post-Cat Ballou eras, as his 1966 Oscar-winning performance assured that he would no longer be just another familiar face popping up on multiple TV shows or as bad guys in westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would be his last real appearance as an amoral heavy.) Like everyone else, I'm well acquainted with Marvin's work from the latter half of his career, but less so with the 85+ film and television credits accrued in the years leading up to it. And Lee Marvin wasn't created with Cat Ballou: everything he appeared in up to that point played a part in his whiskey-soaked evolution into the Lee Marvin we all know and love.

I was thinking about how amazing it would be if there were a TV channel that you could flip to any time of the day and see Lee Marvin in some long-forgotten TV serial or turning up as a housepainter in an obscure movie from the 40s or 50s. Since nobody's had the inspiration to create such a glorious thing, I've decided to program my own personal Lee Marvin Network by unearthing some examples from the first leg of Lee's filmography and make them part of a series called "Lee TV" (the title's a little misleading since I plan to include early feature films later on down the line.) The subject of this week's premiere installment, in observance of the actor's 87th birthday**, is one I'm already very familiar with: his second appearance on Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, the 1963 episode "Steel."

I wasn't planning on starting the series with this particular segment, but I found it thematically relevant to the non-Egypt related Big Event on television this week (at least, after the nail-biting tension of the Grammy Awards.) Specifically, the Valentine's Day face-off between man and machine, in which two past Jeopardy! champions will be pitted against Watson, IBM's latest marvel of artificial intelligence software. It's being touted as the biggest thing to happen on the show since Alex Trebek shaved his mustache, and is certainly the company's shadiest publicity stunt since Deep Blue played chess against Kasparov. Setting aside that Watson is probably just another spruced-up version of The Turk intended to sell computers, what does it mean if Watson wins the 2-game contest? We'd like to think that any human being could easily defeat something man-made without taking into consideration that machines are built specifically for that purpose (I mean, I never defeated the final stage of Ninja Gaiden, did you?) It's not vastly impressive that a computer could school someone at trivia; it's the Watson program's ability to understand oddly-phrased questions and interpret human language that's gotten all the buzz. Not that there isn't entertainment value in watching a computer lick the emotionally-dead Ken Jennings (it already beat the two players in a practice match staged for the press last month so it's entirely possible), it just doesn't mean anything for its revolutionary algorithms to put the right key words together to form a correct response. Storing knowledge is what computers do; problem-solving is what they're programmed for. Although demonstrating a higher level of communication than my Dell laptop and therefore calling into question the first means of recognizing an AI's inability to "think" as laid out in Descartes' Discourse on the Method - that machines could never use words or put together signs as we do in order to declare thoughts to others - Watson couldn't beat the creative ingenuity outside the rules of Turing's "Imitation Game" to reveal that they are acting not from understanding, but only from the disposition of their organs, Descartes' second limitation.

So it will be a while before there's a hit TV show featuring a cop partnered with a smart-mouthed computer, and much longer before vocal operating systems refuse to open the pod bay doors on principle (or start taunting young gay space EMTs with sexual innuendo.) Anyone terrified by the "Heads in the Sand" objection to Watson, that machines will become superior and take over the world, or we'll be supplanted by machines, should take comfort in the fact that the program isn't composing sonnets or writing moving concertos. It can take apart a joke or to affection and even react to it, but it's still dealing with essentially human characteristics (so no laughing for Data yet.) And this upcoming tournament is in no way a measurement of man's fallibility. No one's ever going to shout "How could he not know who assassinated Lincoln?!" or "Why did she risk all her money on a Potpourri daily double?!" at a computer. Would the marketing ploy be as successful (as it obviously will be) if it were three Watsons playing against each other? None of those implications are relevant or interesting. What is interesting is the Watson game's relation to the progression of technology when placed against human evolution. It's not really about man vs machine so much as it's comparing the history of computers over the last twenty years to the life cycle of a normal human being. Computers as learning tools that are constantly improving are their closest relationship to the people who build them, albeit over a longer period of time. The older models are scrapped as the "healthier," more impressive ones take their place (don't pretend it's not true - what happened to that iPhone you had two years ago?) And that's where its relevance to today's Lee TV entry comes into play.

Mechanical humans were a recurring gimmick on classic Twilight Zone: robots who can love (Jean Marsh in "The Lonely"), oppress (big clanky Robbie the Robot-lookin metal man in "Uncle Simon") and raise children (Josephine Hutchinson in "I Sing the Body Electric"). What's great about the boxing bots in "Steel" is that they're not humanized in any way, making it the only 'zone robot-themed episode to use robots as a means to tell what is essentially a human story. For that you can credit writer Richard Matheson, once again adapting his own short story for Serling's program, whose great talent as a writer has always been to use the most far out of sci fi concepts to focus on his characters' humanity. Thus a post-apocalyptic tale about the last human in existence fighting vampires becomes a study of loneliness; the story of a businessman who begins to shrink due to radiation exposure an allegory of the man's gradually increasing vulnerability and impotence. By that same token, "Steel" takes the oft-visited and deceptively simple parable of machine superiority to and supplanting of humans and melds it with another genre cliche, the washed-up boxer, to turn it into a story about fear of biological degradation. Instead of being forced to experience his twilight years as a boxer witnessing the rise of the younger and stronger fighter, Matheson's dogged hero is forced to see his artificial counterpart made obsolete by newer and better functioning machines.

In the distant future of 1974, human fighting competitions have been abolished. This in itself doesn't seem a likely eventuality; it's like sex being outlawed for the sake of a story about sex bots. But it makes for an interesting contrast to the "bloodthirsty populace sated by worldwide gladitorial sport" sci fi stable from movies like The Running Man and Rollerball. And it's evident how boring a world without flesh and blood boxing would be in a scene where Marvin's stubborn bullhead ex-fighter Sam "Steel" Kelly proudly rattles off his own past statistics, how he appeared in 44 matches and was never knocked down - "not once!" - to a couple of bored promoters who could care less about the zeniths of human achievement. His past days of glory are not impressive, just like old technology is nothing compared to new technology, so Steel finds himself doubly antiquated as the current co-owner and manager of "Battling Maxo," a B-2 model of robot boxer so outdated they apparently no longer even make the parts to fix his faulty spring-loaded left hook. Steel's partner (Joe Mantell, who sounds and acts so much like William Demarest it's uncanny) is ready to throw in the towel, but a sense of purpose straight out of Palookaville motivates Steel to set up a match against a superior B-7 bot named "Maynard Flash."

Steel ekes out a Sisyphean existence, hauling his robot around the country like a crushed ego - a literal shell of his former self - while its front wheel keeps falling off (Matheson offers an even more grueling depiction in his original story: "Kelly had to keep his shoulder braced against it to keep it from toppling over. He breathed heavily and licked away tiny balls of sweat that kept forming over his upper lip.") Marvin portrays him as a likeable blue collar huckster, opening the episode with a glib "Couple of beers honey, huh?" but nobody's buying the act or even cares what he has has to say. Talking with the bookers he tosses in his own achievements as a fighter in between reassuring that his robot is up to snuff without changing tone, never really discussing Battling Maxo at all. So when his lousy B-2 breaks down he barely hesitates before suiting up and taking his fighter's place, claiming they need the money from the fight but not missing the meaning just before he steps up to meet his mechanized oppenent when his partner tells him "This is your last chance, Steel."

The make-up work on the two robots is fantastic. They look like dolled-up fake fighters with inorganic cuts and bruises patched over their plastic faces, wax figures of phony toughness. So of course Steel's masquerade goes undetected because who could pass as a more genuine battle-worn brute than Lee Marvin? He looks like he was created that way! Steel is rolled into the arena to cries of "Hey, Rattling Maxo!" and "Scrap iron! Scrap iron!" which is so perfect: jeers and insults would have no effect on a machine divorced from psychological pressure - the only one it would really effect would be Steel himself. Facing the dead-eyed robot fighter, he's a ball of human emotions - fear of getting pummeled, anxiety over being caught in his scheme, anticipation of an unlikely victory - trapped behind the apathetic exterior he's forced to maintain. The ensuing, well-staged, inevitably brief fight is all the more intense for Steel's stubborn need to pit himself against the irrefutable laws of biology (that he is no longer a young athlete) and technology (that he has zero chance going head to head with a machine designed to annihilate him in the ring.) That he doesn't last a round isn't surprising, but it's kind of devastating.

Matheson has called it his favorite Twilight Zone episode, and I'm inclined to agree with him. Because it doesn't suffer the curse of the 'zone twist ending*** that makes so many of the other episodes tedious upon re-viewing (if not initial viewing when the twists are ultra-obvious, i.e. "To Serve Man," "Eye of the Beholder" etc.) I didn't realize until starting this article that a new film based on Matheson's story, Real Steel with Hugh Jackman, is being released later this year (it's the first film adaptation, unless I missed something and the Shaq superhero movie is from the same source.) From the preview, the robots are huge transformer-looking CG monstrosities so I'm not sure how Jackman is going to pass himself off as one of its number: seems like if he stepped on the ring he'd just be crushed like a bug automatically. Matheson has been revisited quite a bit by Hollywood of late, and if I Am Legend and The Box were any indication I'm sure Real Steel will suck (and that assumption doesn't even take into account that it was directed by the guy who made the Pink Panther remake, Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum and Date Night.) I can't help but think this new movie continues the episode/short story's theme: why have amazingly good looking make-up work on convincing actors when a computer can generate terrible looking giant robots? You couldn't convince a Hollywood exec that the former is a better option any more than Steel's partner believes he ever had a chance against Maynard Flash.

Marvin is so good as Steel that I can't imagine him ever giving a better performance for television. His forte was tough crooks or tough cops/soldiers so the role of a loser trying to stay afloat in a world that could give a shit about him seems a rarity. The only time he really gets tough is when he's fed up with his partner's incessant negativity, but then he just sort of pathetically knocks the much shorter man up against some lockers. When he disguises himself as Maxo, his hair is dyed to look younger and he's pretending to be a robot, conforming to what society demands. The amount of vulnerability on display is staggering: Steel is never in charge of his fate and can only flail impotently against a machine that is always strong and never tires, that doesn't age or lose its abilities (until, of course, the B-8 comes along.) Although the final image is of Steel beaten on the ground with his own battle droid standing over him in a pose of indifferent triumph and Rod Serling's closing narration emphasizes the John Henry aspect of the story ("You can't outpunch machinery"), it's no cautionary tale about AI eventually overwhelming humanity to be the perpetual, unvanquishable Goliath. It's best summed up in the final lines about man's "potential for tenacity and optimism...to outfight, outpoint and outlive any and all changes made by his society." Twilight Zone never really used machines and robots as a plot devise to expose the pitfalls of man's hubris in developing technology that will ultimately act against him (that was more of an Outer Limits theme), but rather what they tell us about being human. Who knows if this really has anything to do with things that are happening in the here and now...guess we'll have to wait for a future in which Jeopardy! has been outlawed and nobody wants to hear how much money Ken Jennings walked away with once his winning streak was over (and while we're creating fantasies, how about one where Lee Marvin beats the snot out of that little Mormon dweeb?).

~ 2011 ~
* His Dirty Dozen co-star Charles Bronson would also follow this unique career path.
** The day after Marvin's birthday is Richard Matheson's birthday, so there you go - double anniversary article.
*** To be fair, several of the "twist" episodes are well-acted and directed enough to warrant another watch: "Time Enough at Last," "The Midnight Sun," Marvin's first episode "The Grave" (which I'll get to later in the series) and Matheson's own "The Invaders." (One of the rare Matheson-penned episodes that never worked for me was "Third From the Sun" - its twist, a less successful variation of the same one he used in "The Invaders," seemed completely random, inconsequential to the plot and instantly obvious from the title alone.