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Matewan
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Reviews & Ratings for
Matewan More at IMDbPro »

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Index 52 reviews in total 

53 out of 55 people found the following review useful:

As important move about the American spirit as there is

10/10
Author: TheBlueWolf from California, USA
14 April 2002

This movie was obviously made as a labor of love, by someone whose ideals are deeply American. Director Sayles masterfully documents the nuances of the ageless conflict between those that would control others for profit and those that would not let themselves be controlled and thereby captures the essence of a battle that still rages between the American ideals of freedom and free enterprise.

Historically, the film documents a victory (some say massacre) by the miners over the power brokers and thugs of the early 20th century coal mining industry. Taken in the overall context of the history of Appalachian coal mining, however, what it truly documents is one battle in a war that was eventually lost when the government once again came down on the side of commerce as opposed to human dignity at the battle of Blair Mountain.

Fortunately for us, Mr. Sayles seems all too keenly aware of the tremendously important under-currents of this historical event. Rather than merely documenting the conflict and violence of this historic event, he artfully imbues the story with human elements of betrayal, regret, loss, resolve, and ultimately, sacrifice in the name of what is right and just. He reminds us that righteousness often comes with a price and that the real war is never won or lost but rages on forever, claiming the salvation and damnation of souls in it's wake.

This film is a masterpiece and deserves its due. It represents everything good about film-making and should hold a special place in the hearts of all free Americans aspiring to the ideals expressed in our constitution.

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39 out of 41 people found the following review useful:

An American Masterpiece

10/10
Author: rrenon from Montclair, NJ
24 June 2002

John Sayles is a national treasure! Ferociously independent --most of his films are made with privately organized funds-- and working with what has become a repertory company --most of his actors return to work with him for less than they would get elsewhere-- he has never made an uninteresting film. Even when his films may vary in overall quality, from merely good to great, they are each interesting and arresting.

My mother was an organizer in the southwest coal counties of West Virginia, arriving there in 1926 (having left college), near the end of the coal wars. Her only comment on the film, when I screened it for her before she died in 1988,was that the working conditions and the living conditions of the miners and their families were far worse than depicted in the film. She always spoke at union meetings surrounded by a body guard of 10-20 armed miners. A number of her young colleagues were assassinated (there's no other appropriate word for how they died).

The murder of Sid Hatfield, the town sheriff of Matewan, in the year following the year portrayed in the film, in broad daylight on the McDowell County courthouse steps precipitated the largest insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War. More than 10,000 armed miners from the six coal counties, descended on the court house looking for the private detectives and law "enforcement" officers who were the assassins. They took over the court house and the town, and threatened open insurrection. Thew film is a great film. Unfortunately, like most of John Sayles's films, it did not play to a large audience.

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39 out of 43 people found the following review useful:

An overlooked masterpiece

10/10
Author: Victor Nunnally (vknsplif@aol.com) from Berkeley, California
4 March 1999

Looking back to 1987 I have to wonder why this masterpiece was not nominated for Best Picture. But then again, this is the same institution that voted for films such as Braveheart and Forrest Gump. Is the Academy afraid of John Sayles?

See Matewan for its wonderful portrayal of the events that occurred in West Virginia in the 1920's. See this film for its phenomenal cast. See it for its beautiful cinematography. There is an ethereal glow that envelopes the characters and buildings of Matewan.

There is also an underlying allegorical depiction of Christ and his followers. Chris Cooper is a saint. He reminds me of Gary Cooper a little bit. He has such an unusual handsome face. He is the protagonist joined by James Earl Jones, Mary Mcdonnell, and Will Oldman. Perhaps the most fascinating character is that of the Sheriff portrayed by Strathairn. He is the angel on the black horse who carries with him the wrath of God. Just watch him stand up against the bad guys.

The main antagonistic characters are pure evil. They terrorize the inhabitants of Matewan with juvenile antics.

Please see this film and be prepared to have it imbedded in your mind for the rest of your life. This is what great film making is about

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29 out of 33 people found the following review useful:

Awesome!

10/10
Author: (victor7754@hotmail.com)
19 August 2004



Matewan ranks in the best of the 80's. John Sayles much overlooked tale based on the true events that occurred in the title town. Sayles recreates the past with pastoral images and glowing light. Chris Cooper's Luddite persona and Christlike attitude captures the heart and is evenly balanced by the antagonist's in the film.

The cast is phenomenal. David Straitharn is the dark rider sheriff with a good heart. The final showdown is powerful and sad.

West Virginia is beautifully captured. Cinematography was the only category the Academy of Arts and Sciences recognized as nominating.

The film captures the desperation and determination of people who had very little and were treated like slaves. The Coal Company tried to break the formation of a Union by infecting it with racism and violence. That was the mindset.

The film is spiritual and lyrical showcasing the beauty and creativity of a much overlooked director.

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21 out of 22 people found the following review useful:

"We're Gonna Have The Union!"

Author: Michael Coy (michael.coy@virgin.net) from London, England
24 May 2000

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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26 out of 34 people found the following review useful:

Great movie about my hometown!

9/10
Author: bek-12 from Kentucky, USA
26 February 1999

If you are from Matewan, you know the shock of having this movie be about your hometown. I can't help but wonder if James Earl Jones was thinking "Why the hell are we making a movie about this place??" I think the population when I lived there (most of my life) was somewhere around 1200. Probably hasn't grown much. I still keep in contact with a few people from there. My dad owned a bar there called the Silver Dollar, and he worked in the mines at one time, as did my mother and grandfather. I've heard stories of how the real Matewan Massacre went, along with Bloody Mingo and all the rest, and from what I've heard from my family, this movie is pretty close to the truth. Matewan has always been a rough town, and even today fights are commonplace in this little one street town. It's pretty desolate, with no real business, no industry, and the coal mines are almost mined out. The nearest decent place is Williamson (WV) or Pikeville, Kentucky, a small college town. I miss home sometimes, but at least I can watch the movie and be reminded of home. One thing about it... it's an entertaining movie. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did, but then again, I'm biased.

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18 out of 20 people found the following review useful:

Powerful presentation of the struggle for human dignity and equity.

10/10
Author: sunsetcliff from San Diego, California, USA
3 March 2005

This is a powerful film depicting both the conditions under which most mineworkers labored and the social conditions existing in the 1920-1930 era of our American history. It accurately portrays the manner in which powerful industrial interests manipulated the worker's economic dependency using 'script' issued in lieu of lawful and legal tender and controlled the acquisition of basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing. By "owning" the stores, controlling employment, threatening the physical well-being of its employees, and hiring of thugs to intimidate individuals and their ability to implement any organized mutual assistance, these wealthy and powerful companies sought to (and succeeded in ) maximizing their profits by using the labor of the poor and impotent at almost no cost to the company.

One needs to search intensely to finally reveal the true history of our period of industrialization. It is of great credit to the producer's and director's of such films as "Matewan" that we can see clearly the history and ongoing great struggle between the working class and the wealthy elite to obtain their proper share of "profits."

This is a film where one enters a theater to be "entertained", but leaves having the stirrings of compassion and outrage raised in their hearts. It reminds us that there is a human price paid for economic gain.

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17 out of 20 people found the following review useful:

If All History Lessons Were This Good

10/10
Author: the_mad_mckenna from Chicago, IL
18 August 2002

With the Corporate greed scandals going on today, it's still a shock to see what went down in the Coal Mines in the 1920's and the battles for worker's rights vs. Greed. This movie plays out like a Woody Guthrie song, a Steinbeck novel; we have the Vigilante Men and the strings being pulled against the common man, whether he/she is local, an immigrant or a minority. Period details are all taken care of, and there's plenty of great suspense and wonderful performances. It gets a 10 from me - how could you not be moved by this film?

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14 out of 17 people found the following review useful:

A greatly under-appreciated classic

9/10
Author: babygeniusesvseightcrazynights from United States
28 December 2004

This 1987 film aims to document real events that concerned a small coal mining community (called Matewan) in West Virginia in 1920. The miners are trying to organize a union, much to the dismay of the company that employs them. All of the acting is great, including, in the starring role, Chris Cooper, (the Kansas City native who was the abusive father from American Beauty and who starred in another fantastic Sayles film from 1996, Lonestar), David Strathairn as the good-natured but stern police chief, and, in his only theatrical movie role ever (here at 14 years old), indie-folk legend Will Oldham, of Palace Music and Bonnie Prince Billie fame. He plays a preacher-in-training in the film, and does such a great job that it seems damn unfortunate for all of us that he didn't continue his acting career--though he would go on to make some great music, and continues to currently. It also features James Earl Jones, aka Darth Vader.

Anyway, the film is very honest, subtle and exquisite. You don't feel, as you do with many films churned out by Hollywood, that things have been altered and embellished for the sake of making it interesting--it's very natural, and it seems very real. You're confidant that Sayles is giving you the truth here, as best he can, through his visual style, restrained, natural dialogue and engaging historic atmosphere.

It's movies like this that renew my faith in period pieces. Important historical films at their best are able to capture a period and bring the audience as close as possible to experiencing the 'feel' of that time--I guess that kinda goes without saying though.

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10 out of 13 people found the following review useful:

Starts out slow, but builds up into something great

8/10
Author: Idocamstuf from Greenville, NY
14 October 2003

When this film started out, I honestly thought it would end up boring me to death. But after about 20 minutes, I began to start really enjoying it. The whole idea of a town comming together to battle evil is certainly something special. Great performances from a great a cast, especially Chris Cooper, and James Earl Jones. This is an intense and gripping drama that will remind you of "The Grapes Of Wrath". A truly great surprise. 8.5/10.

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