Looking for a movie about a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil? Better experiences than Marvel superheroes and Star Wars fantasies can be found, if you know where to look. John Sayles' riveting true story of a violent labor confrontation in the 1920s has the outline and the action of a classic western. Matewan is no simplistic law 'n' order fantasy, no 'Shane in the Coal Country.' We instead witness a core drama of the real American experience, and a lesson that needs to be re-learned.
The rise of the middle class after WW2 made too many people forget what labor struggles had achieved, back in a time when powerful business interests had even more freedom than they do now. As the old movie studios were mostly anti-Union as well, odes to The Labor Movement on movie screens were few and far between. Liberal-minded independent movies trying to change public opinion were branded as radical-irrelevant (Native Land, 1942) or subversive-Communist (Salt of the Earth, 1954).
Maverick independent filmmaker John Sayles built one reputation writing hit exploitation thrillers like Joe Dante's Piranha. But he also began directing almost immediately, and attracted plenty of attention as a serious new talent. Just the next year he made big news with Return of the Secaucus Seven, a movie about campus progressives ten years later in their lives.
Made before his breakout film Eight Men Out, Sayles' fifth feature Matewan earned him the respect and admiration of the industry, despite not being a big commercial success. The thoroughly well-researched show recreates an historic incident on location on a relatively tiny budget. Most of the actors were professionals, but they blend perfectly with the local talent.
The story grips from the beginning. In a coal-rich corner of West Virginia, a mining company holds its workers in a state of economic slavery. The working conditions are criminally unsafe. By paying them in company scrip that is worthless anywhere else, the system guarantees that they never get out of debt. When the local white workers go on strike, the company brings in scab labor: out-of-state blacks, and Italian-American immigrants that can barely speak English. Hired thug 'regulators' add a note of terror, keeping the scabs in line.
Labor organizer-agitator Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) arrives to take matters in hand, convincing the white strikers to accept the black and Italians as working equals. Joe befriends the rooming-house proprietress Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) and her son Danny (Will Oldham, before his music career) and hides out when the gun goons Hickey and Tom (Kevin Tighe & Gordon Clapp) arrive to terrorize the striking workforce. The blacks are led by 'Few Clothes' (James Earl Jones) and the Italians are represented by Fausto and Rosaria (Joe Grifasi & Maggie Renzi). Gun violence is threatened at every turn, but Joe advises that anything violent plays into the hands of the company.
The wild card in the deck is the local Sheriff Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn). A descendant of the original Hatfield feuders, Sid is a loner who stays completely neutral, befriending none of the strikers, but also preventing Hickey & Griggs from using illegal means to terrorize 'his people.' The company's lackeys respond with underhanded tricks to get the strikers to turn against Joe, combined with outright murder.
Matewan is never condescending to the hill people or the quiet, dangerous backwoods types. At one point some authentic hillbillies defuse a tense situation -- even the city thugs realize they mean business. Will Oldham's curious kid shows character and maturity when faced with the rampant injustice, and Mary McDonnell adds the right note of weary pessimism -- having already lost a husband to the mines, her Elma Radnor resists becoming attracted to Chris Cooper's handsome idealist. The thugs played by Tighe and Clapp are villains are as kill-worthy as villains can be, which makes for plenty of suspense at the inevitable Matewan showdown.
John Sayles himself has a small part as a preacher, a 'hardshell Baptist.' Josh Mostel is good as the sincere but ineffective mayor. Producer Maggie Renzi takes a role as an Italian immigrant. Nancy Mette is pitch perfect as Bridey Mae, a naive local manipulated by a local turncoat (Bob Gunton) into making rape accusation against Joe Kenehan. James Earl Jones' presence gives the drama added weight and importance. This is a perfectly cast film.
The rising wave of suspense pays off with David Strathairn's humorless, mean-eyed sheriff, who we soon realize is not an enemy, but the striking miners' best hope. Forget phony westerns -- Sheriff Hatfield is just one not-very-big man in stiff wool suit stuck in the middle of a 'range war' for coal. Down on the railroad tracks, Hatfield must face down a small army of gunmen. He dares them to make their play, his hands ready to draw a pair of holstered six-guns. The ensuing battle compares favorably with the work of Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill: it's unfussy, violent and fast.
This is great filmmaking with an added benefit for film fans: actors David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Mary McDonnell look so incredibly young, that we feel rejuvenated as well.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Matewan revives a picture we have never seen in a good home video presentation; I've never caught a DVD release. Haskell Wexler's beautiful cinematography goes in for some interesting color stylization -- the backwoods West Virginia country feels damp and clammy, to not make us feel comfortable with pretty scenery. The music score makes good use of local song and instrumentation. I daresay a rural West Virginian would not feel that Sayles' movie is condescending.
The filmmakers, actors and artisans behind Matewan seem eager to contribute to the new featurettes, that cover how it looks so authentic, yet was designed and filmed on a shoestring. The late Haskell Wexler is present in an older commentary with director Sayles.
This is really one of the better, more important American movies of the 1980s ... a time when America's union workforce was under renewed pressure.
Text (c) Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson