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In an economically devastated Alaskan town, a fisherman with a troublesome past dates a woman whose young daughter does not approve of him. When he witnesses the murder of his shady brother, he, the woman and the kid run to the wilderness.
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Mingo County, West Virginia, 1920. Coal miners, struggling to form a union, are up against company operators and the gun thugs of the notorious Baldwin-Felts detective agency. Black and Italian miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. UMWA organizer and dual-card Wobbly Joe Kenehan determines to bring the local, Black, and Italian groups together. While Kenehan and his story are fictional, the setting and the dramatic climax are historical; Sid Hatfield, Cabell C. Testerman, C. E. Lively and the Felts brothers were real-life participants, and 'Few Clothes' is based on a character active several years previously. Written by
Susan C. Mitchell <firstname.lastname@example.org>, expanded by Silverwhistle
John Sayles performed a number of roles on this film. Sayles was sole writer, an actor playing the character of Hardshell Preacher, and the film's director. See more »
The steam locomotive used in "Matewan" was ex-New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railway ("Nickel Plate Road") #765. It was a modern steam locomotive built in the 1940's and thus would not have existed at the time of the events depicted in "Matewan." See more »
[about the owner of the Baldwin-Felts agency:]
I've met Mr. Felts. I wouldn't pee on him if his heart was on fire.
See more »
In the West Virginian coalfields in the 1920's, a group of miners is determined to organise itself into a labour union. The mine owners are equally determined to prevent this from happening.
John Sayles is a truly admirable film-maker. For three decades now he has been making intelligent and eminently watchable movies, turning down Hollywood's money in order to preserve his artistic independence. He often takes a small acting role in his films - and acquits himself more than competently. In "Leanna" he played the predatory college lecturer, and here he is the 'hardshell' baptist preacher. He gives quite a performance.
West Virginia's misty greenness and steep, wooded slopes are evoked beautifully. The shabby rail depot where the shoot-out takes place is a genuine West Virginian location. The feel for both period and place is created with loving sensitivity. Director of Photography Haskell Wexler has done a great job (look out for the terrific train shot). There is a persuasive grittiness and realism about all of the images, and especially the climactic gun battle, that is utterly absorbing. The music which accompanies the action contains authentic vernacular songs, in perfect keeping with what is in essence a true story.
In the first years of the twentieth century, mine workers in West Virginia lived in abject poverty. Subjected to the 'truck' system, they were paid, not in cash, but in company credits. They had no choice but to spend their wages at the company store, where the mine owners dictated the prices. On top of this, each worker was obliged to buy his own tools and to pay for wash-house facilities.
Into the community of Matewan comes a saintly stranger, Joe Kenehan (played by Chris Cooper). Kenehan is a deserter from Levenworth, a conscientious objector who has taken to the creed of socialism with almost religious fervour. Sent by the union as an emissary, Kenehan's task is to win the confidence of the people and to educate them in the ways of organised labour.
If Kenehan is a symbol of enlightened socialism, 'Few Clothes' Johnson (James Earl Jones) represents the true working-class hero. Few Clothes understands mining more deeply than his bosses ever will. Though he is now in his 50's, his fine body remains immensely strong. This good and gentle man does not like violence, but he will fight to protect his people against their natural enemies - the agents of the mine owners.
Sayles' first-class screenplay cleverly exploits the religious imagery which suffuses the language of these simple, God-fearing folk. The film makes the point that the 'getting' of socialism is a form of religious conversion. Kenehan is a wandering missionary, rather like a biblical prophet, preaching the salvation of collective bargaining. He is an alternative to the preachers, bringing Revelation to the miners, "puttin' the spirit into 'em". Little wonder that Bridey Mae Tolliver (Nancy Mette), the would-be seductress, is seen by the locals in terms of the Old Testament story of Joseph and Potiphar.
The tale is narrated by Davey, the boy preacher whose sheer humanity draws him into the workers' fold. In this wilderness west of the Shenandoah Valley, two broad movements have developed within the baptist faith - hardshell and softshell. The hardshell preachers dispense a strict, unyielding brand of christianity which is unsympathetic to the miners' cause
after all, there is the parable of the toilers in the vineyard. Davey is
a softshell preacher, a believer in the brotherhood of man who interprets Christ's message as an exhortation to kindness.
And then there are the Italians. The immigrants speak little English, do not integrate and are (initially, at least) indifferent to the nascent union agitation. They are exploited by the mine owners as unwitting strike breakers. It is through the womenfolk that the antipathy between Americans and Italians is overcome. At first, the women are every bit as hostile towards one another as the men, as shown in the clashes between Rosaria and Mrs. Elkins (Maggie Renzi and Jo Henderson, long-time collaborators with Sayles). However, the great dramas of human life - birth, mourning, and the never-ending struggle to feed their families - draw the women together. The workers realise that far more united them than divides them. "I figure we're all in this together." The Italian miners join the strike.
Hired vigilantes have arrived in town, company men with the express intention of breaking the strike. Their ugly presence sparks trouble, and the escalation of tensions begins, leading to gut-wrenching violence. This tension is superbly conveyed in the scene where the night shift of strike-breakers enters the mine.
At one point, semi-wild hillfolk intervene to drive off Hickey and Griggs, company vigilantes who are terrorising defenceless miners. Sayles' point is that the true Americans know instinctively where right and wrong lie in this conflict. They are the natural allies of the miners.
Sid Hatfield, the law officer of Matewan (played by David Strathairn), is a good man in the great tradition of lawmen. He sees his vocation in simple, powerful terms - to protect his people. When the final confrontation comes, the choice that he makes is one of the most stirring events in a film charged with emotion.
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