Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"I suppose it's my weakness as a Christian. I never could stand a man carrying a cross."
That's what Sean Connery says just before a critical fight in The Molly Maguires, a fairly
uncompromising story of violence in the 1876 coal mines. It came in a movie year that
saw a lot of social criticism and historical revisionism (Midnight Cowboy,
Little Big Man) considered refreshingly
frank or distressingly liberal, depending on one's point of view. Miner Sean Connery's secret
organization turns to criminal sabotage and murder out of sheer frustration, and Walter Bernstein's
thoughtful script examines the differences between
having a sense of social justice (fighting back) and taking care of one's personal priorities
(informing). It's a good movie to counter the "black-or-white, nothing in between" sensibility of
contemporary politics. Today's world would label the Molly Maguires as terrorists and be done
Looking for work, James McKenna (Richard Harris) arrives in a Pennsylvania mining town
and is eyed suspiciously by the other workers. Their strikes broken, watched over by armed Pinkerton
guards and barely subsisting on the pay rates of the all-powerful owners, a splinter group of the
pro-Irish Hibernian secret society has vowed vengeance and retribution to their oppressors. "The Molly
Maguires" blow up mines and mine property, and maim and murder guards and personnel. Their leader Jack
Kehoe (Sean Connery) is wise enough to know that his efforts won't improve conditions, but the
gesture of fighting back is a necessity of living. McKenna is accepted by the
group and his landlady Miss Mary Raines (Samantha Eggar) slowly warms up to him. Even though
he clearly takes an enthusiastic hand in the violent anarchy, McKenna is actually a Pinkerton agent
placed to hurry the Maguires to the hangman's scaffold as soon as possible.
Martin Ritt produced a thought-provoking piece of obscure Americana with this authentic look at
the violent end of labor relations in American industry, right after the civil war when the nation
was swollen with immigrant workers. The Pennsylvania mines are a brutal and pitiless place where
strong men are beaten down by terrible working conditions and unfair compensation. It's the basic
root of the song Sixteen Tons, where small wages are further shrunken by crooked company
stores that overcharge for necessities.
Blacklisted television talent Martin Ritt tackled many liberal-issue pictures with class and
mass appeal. His most successful
is surely Norma Rae with Sally Field, but this period picture painted in coal-dust grays
exactly what conditions as a coal miner might have been.
How Green Was My Valley is idealized
compared to this; Roddy McDowall and co. didn't have armed guards threatening them at every turn.
Of course, the Welshmen hadn't become radicalized like these immigrant Irishmen. The only labor
relations in sight is martial law with an army of police to keep order - the owner's order.
Writer Walter Bernstein shows the radicals for what they are, bitter men who have lost hope but
not their pride, and who only want to strike back. If they have illusions, it's that their efforts
will bring about change. In the end, Connery's committed tough guy only knows that he had to make
his mark and make some noise.
Richard Harris' McKenna character has arrived at an alternate, entirely selfish plan to escape the
hopeless poverty. If the only way to get a leg up is to betray his fellow men, that will have to
do. He leads the Maguires on but also tries to talk them out of their crimes (blowing up trains,
murdering the worst of the company men) in honest sympathy. He may benefit from the system, but
we don't know if he'll really have to live in shame and regret as the Connery character predicts.
The Molly Maguires doesn't bring down a moral verdict on this coal-field Judas, even if
his sweetheart does.
Unlike John Sayles' later (very good) labor vs. managment epic Matewan, the right and wrong
of The Molly Maguires is a gray area. The company stands aloof, with a Darwinian attitude
toward industry - workers are owed nothing except the least money they'll take to work, and with the
ready influx of cheap labor, it's a buyer's market. The most rebellious of the workers are too poor
to leave and instead channel their energy into resistance. The private detectives guarding the company assets
use whatever means are most expeditious to root out the troublemakers and make an end to them.
Frank Finlay's supervising Pinkerton man knows that his operative Harris will be breaking the law and
even killing people, but that's what it will take to get the evidence to convict the Mollys.
The Molly Maguires was immediately admired from a production standpoint. James Wong Howe's
Panavision cinematography gives life to the grim coal town and its joyless bars and unhappy wives.
The mine itself is a convincing construction with operating ore cars and a fully-functioning colliery.
Everything is black with soot and dust. When Harris takes Samantha Eggar for a picnic, the only place
to go is a slag heap. The impression is that the entire district is a defoliated wasteland.
Henry Mancini's repetitious flute piece used to bother me but this time it didn't seem so
monotonous. There are actually a variety of themes in addition to the Irish standards
heard in the bars.
Our heroes are a rough, physical bunch and almost the only relief in the picture comes in a rugby
game so brutal, it's funny. The rage all comes out on the playing field. After a pause just long
enough for a trophy ceremony, the action re-commences as an out-and-out fight.
Sean Connery and Richard Harris play well off one another, especially when they break loose by
looting and then burning the company store. Anthony Zerbe is a standout among their cohorts, in an
atypical sympathetic role. Samantha Eggar is appealing as the lass of Harris' dreams, and her
reaction to the revelation of his identity more realistic than emotional. Nary a tear is shed by
the wives of the convicted - things are just too tough all over. The Molly Maguires is a fine
uncompromising movie that's was probably too much of a downer to find widespread popularity.
Paramount brings another good picture to DVD with its plain-wrap edition of The Molly Maguires.
There are some dirt and blemishes, especially up front, but overall the picture has been beautifully
encoded. The difference between this proper 2:35 transfer and the pan-scanned television prints of
the past is like night and day.
The box text (and this review) spill the beans about Richard Harris' identity as an undercover police
agent. But that fact is revealed very near the beginning of the story and isn't used as a surprise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Molly Maguires rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 21, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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