"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 with it.
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: