While it’s mildly enjoyable as a manly-man action movie, Steel is actually more amusing when viewed for its unintentional subtext—endeavoring for macho swagger led the filmmakers weirdly close to the realm of gay erotica. The story begins when contractor “Big” Lew Cassidy (George Kennedy) heads to work on a new high-rise he’s building in Texas, explaining that the sight of a tall building “still gives me a hard-on.” When Lew dies in a workplace accident, his pretty daughter Cass (Jennifer O’Neill) pledges to finish the building, thus saving her family’s company from bankruptcy. To do so, she needs a “ramrod”—no, really, that’s the phallic job title of the movie’s real leading character, Mike Catton, played by the Six Million Dollar Man himself, Lee Majors.
Mike is a construction foreman who quit working at high altitudes after suddenly developing a fear of heights. Now working as a trucker (picture Majors behind the wheel of a big rig in a cowboy hat and a wife-beater), Mike accepts the job on the condition that he can supervise work from a completed floor instead of climbing onto beams. As Cass’ second-in-command, “Pignose” Morgan (Art Carney), says to Mike: “You’re here because this building will give you a chance to get it up again.” Scout’s honor, that’s the line!
The first half of the movie comprises Mike building his team of world-class steel workers, Dirty Dozen-style. These roughnecks include such walking clichés as a horny Italian named Valentino (Terry Kiser); a jive-talking African-American named Lionel (Roger E. Mosley); a stoic Indian named Cherokee (Robert Tessier); and a taunting bruiser named Dancer (Richard Lynch). Meanwhile, Lew’s estranged brother, Eddie (Harris Yulin), conspires to derail the project because he wants to seize control of Lew’s company. As the movie progresses, Mike tries to overcome his fear of heights while coaching his fellow dudes through long days of hard work and hard drinking.
Steel is such a he-man enterprise that even though Majors engages in close physical contact and soft talk with most of his male costars, he can barely muster furtive glances for his nominal love interest, O’Neill. All of this is pleasantly diverting, in a Saturday-matinee kind of way—director Steve Carver’s cartoony style didn’t peak until his 1983 Chuck Norris/David Carradine epic Lone Wolf McQuade, but he moves things along—so it doesn’t really matter that the script is ridiculous, or that Majors is ineffectual as a leading man. Plus, to Carver’s credit, the plentiful scenes taking place on girders high above city streets are enough to give any viewer vertigo. And as for those lingering shots of sweaty men working hard, their biceps glistening in the hot Texas sun . . .