John Sayles’ coal strike epic is grand American filmmaking bolstered by fine Haskell Wexler cinematography, great performances by dedicated actors, and a screenplay that avoids the common pitfalls of liberal filmmaking — by assuming the structure of an action Western. Filmed on a shoestring not far from the site of historical events, the pro- Union picture revs up viewer emotions, winding up as a moving, satisfying experience. Matewan’s been out of circulation far too long, but those that remember it will give it a high recommendation.
The Criterion Collection 999
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 133 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 29, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, David Strathairn, Ken Jenkins, Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp, Bob Gunton, Jace Alexander, Joe Grifasi, Nancy Mette, Jo Henderson, Josh Mostel, Gary McCleery, Maggie Renzi, Tom Wright.
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Film Editor: Sonya Polonsky
Original Music: Mason Daring
Produced by Peggy Rajski, Maggie Renzi
Written and Directed by John Sayles
There are a number of good movies about labor struggles, with documentaries like Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA leading the pack for virtuosity, and the honest Salt of the Earth highlighting the political divide in American politics. After all, when Ronald Reagan was asked about the breaking of the blacklist in the the late 1950s, he backpedaled and said he was just trying to protect the unions from undue influence. Unions have their own PR failures, what with the popular image that they’re run by Jimmy Hoffa-type gangsters. And when one is barred from their desired work field as I once was, one discovers that a Guild is really a club to restrict work opportunities to those already approved and connected. The Guilds are now open, and members are in good shape, provided they can find enough work to qualify for benefits, instead of simply paying into the system for others.
But it’s better than a free-for-all where employers treat their work force as a bottomless resource ripe for exploitation. How America’s workers ever side with management, I don’t know — in every strike confrontation, I’ve come up with accusations like that of the crabby old woman in Norma Rae by Martin Ritt: “You just don’t wanna work for a living.”
There’s also Leo Hurwitz and Paul Sand’s Native Land from 1942, a poetic protest against industries that terrorized workers with thug violence, often ‘with the law’s arms around them,’ as Sam Peckinpah might say. But a film narrated (and sung) by Paul Robeson isn’t likely to convince many right-ish leaning viewers.
Maybe nothing will heal the divide, but John Sayles’ incomparable Matewan has a good shot at changing hearts and minds. It’s a fair and honest appraisal of strike violence that hit West Virginia in the 1920s, that even then seemed yet another tragic chapter in an unending struggle. A federal crackdown on ‘malign foreign interests’ built up under cover of World War 1, putting in place setbacks that stood until the end of World War 2. In a coal-rich corner of hill country, a mining company holds its workers in a state of economic slavery. Working under dangerously unsafe conditions, and suffering from diseases directly related to digging coal, the miners are paid not in U.S. currency, but company scrip that is worthless anywhere else. Company outlets rent housing and run supply stores. They’re the only place workers can buy anything. They must borrow to afford the tools to work with, they can’t leave until the debts are paid off, and the system guarantees that they never get out of debt. It’s the source of the lyric “I owe my soul to the Company Store.”
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 and to terrorize the striking workforce.
Matewan begins with the arrival in Matewan of Joe Kenehan, played by an incredibly young-looking Chris Cooper in his first feature film. Joe is an ex- Wobbly who admits that he’s a Communist. He witnesses the arrival of the Italian and black scabs, confronts the gun goons Hickey and Tom (Kevin Tighe & Gordon Clapp) and befriends coal widow and rooming-house proprietress Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) and her son Danny (Will Oldham, before his music career). Danny has just gone into the mines but is also already preaching, and his sermons contradict the pro-company rhetoric commonly shouted from the pulpit. Joe succeeds in getting the white miners to accept the blacks, led by ‘Few Clothes’ (James Earl Jones) and the Italians (represented by Fausto and Rosaria (Joe Grifasi & Maggie Renzi). When even the scab labor walks out, the new union scores a victory. But the gun-toting Hickey and Griggs harass the workers, charging them with stealing company property and evicting those still in company lodgings. Gun violence is threatened at every turn, and many strikers insist that nothing can be won without fighting back, especially local merchant C.E. Lively (Bob Gunton). Joe tries to make everyone understand that anything violent plays into the hands of the company.
The wild card in the deck is the local Sheriff Sid Hatfield, played by David Strathairn, who was already part of John Sayles’ stock company. A descendant of the original Hatfield feuders, Sid is a loner who stays completely neutral. He befriends none of the strikers, and on more than one occasion he prevents Hickey & Griggs from using illegal means to terrorize ‘the people he was hired to protect.’ With outright thuggery kept in check, the company’s lackeys think of a way to turn the strikers against Joe: an informer manipulates another local coal widow, Bridey Mae (Nancy Mette) into falsely accusing the labor organizer of rape. A secret miner’s court sentences Joe Kenehan to die.
The labor activism theme of Matewan is strong, but the movie is a classic for its bold characters. Anybody who ever needed a job will see what motivates these people. Joe’s core message has nothing to do with political dogma: “There ain’t but two sides in this world – them that work and them that don’t.” Few Clothes will suffer being called a nigger, but he’s ready to fight when he’s accused of being a scab. Fausto barely understands English, but responds to Joe’s union entreaties with the complaint that no matter what side he chooses, someone will be trying to kill him and his family. The solemn, circumspect Sid Hatfield simply tells Kenehan, “I take care of my people. You bring ’em trouble, and you’re a dead man.”
Most movies about rural folks fall flat on their faces when trying to depict young people. Will Oldham’s Danny Radnor is incredibly believable — he may be slightly immature but his moral compass is fully formed, and when he preaches he dispenses honest reasoning, not self-serving evangelist BS. (note: Sayles himself plays the sold-out older preacher, who takes the side of the company.) The story is told through Danny’s memories as an old man; he distinguishes between two kind of preachers by comparing them to turtles, as either ‘hardshell Baptists’ or Free-will ‘softshell Baptists.’ He must watch as the killers Hickey and Griggs sit at Danny’s mother’s dinner table, insulting her with obscene remarks. Danny indeed becomes radicalized, not from the influence of Joe Kenehan but by witnessing the brutal murder of his best friend. When the time comes for violence, Danny is an old man at 16 years.
Every role is memorable. Chris Cooper is intensely likable, and we wonder if his Joe will gravitate to either Ma Radnor or the a-tad-too-available Bridey Mae. Whether you wish to call him an organizer or an agitator, he’s needed to keep the strike on course, something that’s almost impossible when informant/agents within the union are working against him. One of the best scenes sees James Earl Jones’ Few Clothes assigned the job of killing Joe, because he’s been denounced as a company spy and a rapist. Mary McDonnell’s Elma is for the strike but terrified that her son will be killed; it’s all she can do to not break down under the pressure from her thug roomers. She’s in the middle of a guerilla war, but must get the sheets hung and the meals cooked.
Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp’s private deputies are a study in utter despicable-ness (despicability?). They would continue in more roles for John Sayles. Among the interesting faces we see are Josh Mostel as the sincere but ineffectual mayor, and producer Maggie Renzi as the Milanesa who must comfort an Anglo mother when her son is brought back to camp with his throat cut.
Viewers are immediately drawn to David Strathairn’s Sheriff Hatfield, a hard-nosed & belligerent backwoods lawman who is our only hope for a hero. Hatfield is the closest an American film has come to a Samurai — he isn’t afraid to diss the bosses or the strikers because he operates under an older code and doesn’t give a spit who objects. His presence also lends Matewan a generic form that viewers can get behind, that of a Western. Hatfield’s situation is much tougher then that of Marshall Kane in High Noon; as this is 1987 there’s every likelihood that Sayles’ film will end in disaster for the quote-unquote ‘good guys.’ Sheriff Hatfield isn’t physically imposing, but none of the company thugs care to oppose him in a fair fight. After staying up all night prepping for action, he greets the morning waiting on the railroad tracks for a decisive showdown – brandishing his sixguns on his hips.
In other words, we wind ourselves in the familiar situation of an old-fashioned do or die showdown. The film builds terrific tension and then pays it off in an extremely satisfying finish.
John Sayles’ excellent screenplay is likely all that was required to attract a cast for a film more ambitious and bigger than anything he’d done so far. James Earl Jones has a major part but a low position on the cast list, and cameraman Haskell Wexler was surely intrigued by the script as well. Sayles was already a trend setter with a reputation nearing legend status; when Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill arrived, we knew it was a commercial retread of Sayles’ inspired first film The Return of the Secaucus 7.
For a show done on a shoestring, Matewan looks sensational. The biggest coup was securing the services of Haskell Wexler, who films in mine shafts lit only by oil lamps and in camps lit only by fires. Everything looks convincing. The producers and designers built false fronts and new interiors to serve as the hamlet of Matewan, and the excellent period costumes do the rest. Even the hired killers wear suits, ties, and starched collars.
Sayles pulls off one more directorial miracle. In my estimation his concluding gun battle on the railroad tracks is one of the best scenes of its kind: exciting, but not overstated. Action directors had been emulating Sam Peckinpah for a full decade, but neither John Milius nor Walter Hill put together an action scene as effective as this one. We care about EVERY CUT, as we know most of the participants — even Elma Radnor is involved. The shoot-em-up stuff is suitably violent but never spectacular, not like a Milius picture where we feel as if the rest of the movie is just an excuse to dwell on the gun action. It’s also not aestheticized-‘mythologized’ with slow-motion as with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Sheriff Hatfield isn’t out to prove anything beyond his own refusal to be pushed around. There’s only those that survive and those that don’t.
The end of Matewan doesn’t even make a pro-Union plea; Danny’s coal-mining preacher apparently didn’t grow up to be the Savior of the Coal Fields. John Sayles lets the characters be their own message, and simply hopes that we’ll be moved by his story. Because he pays off his tale of oppression and frustration with a tension-releasing action scene, Sayles connects with audiences that might reject a liberal tragedy with a downbeat ending. His most ambitious movie is also one of his most accessible.
The only other film I know that’s overtly about American coal mining disputes is Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires with Sean Connery and Richard Harris. It takes place decades before the events of this show, before wide-scale labor organizations.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Matewan is extremely welcome. I heard that Matewan received standing ovations in theaters, but I only saw fairly miserable cablecasts on the old ‘Z’ Channel. With this screening I realize that I never saw its first scenes at all. Criterion’s Sayles-approved 4K restoration, undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive, is in glowing widescreen. The look of the film does seem odd at times; Sayles and Wexler communicate a somewhat clammy ‘back holler’ woods environment by letting many shots drift toward a greenish look. It never comes off as bad processing, but it definitely goes against the norm of ‘warm & rich’ rural filmmaking. In those thick hills, there often aren’t even good sunsets to look at. Wexler’s interiors always look to be filmed with available light. Perhaps the new film stocks were making such filming practical.
The wealth of extras gives us a wide range of production participants eager to remember the accomplishment of Matewan. The list below is proof — most all the main actors contribute to the main making-of piece. Maggie Renzi and production designer Nora Chavooshian proudly display artifacts explaining how they created the township without constructing it from scratch. Michael Cimino’s Casper Wyoming in Heaven’s Gate is an incredible construction accomplishment — but it comes across mainly as a gratuitous embellishment, a grandiose background to impress the viewer. In Sayles’ film Chavooshian’s modest Matewan is a central character.
John Sayles’ impressive filmography is spread out among various rights holders, which may explain why Matewan, The Brother from Another Planet and City of Hope have been scarce since the days of VHS. We hope that there will be more John Sayles Blu-rays in its future — this weekend we will Party Like It’s Criterion 999.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary featuring Sayles and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; new documentary on the making of the film featuring Sayles, producer Maggie Renzi, production designer Nora Chavooshian, and actors Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, and David Strathairn; new interview with composer Mason Daring on the film’s soundtrack; new program on the film’s production design featuring Chavooshian; trailer. Folding insert with an essay by critic A. S. Hamrah.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 27, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson