Sunday, November 15, 2009

Radical Film Forum - 'Matewan'


Sunday 15th November at 6pm 52 Clapham High Street, London SW4 (nearest tube: Clapham North)

John Sayles's 1987 classic drama ". . . illustrating the events of a coal mine-workers' strike and attempt to unionize in 1920 in Matewan, a small town in the hills of West Virginia."

From John Sayles's book, 'Thinking in Pictures: the making of the movie Matewan (1987)

Why Matewan?

There's no place in America like the hills of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. There'll be a river, usually fast running and not too wide, and on the flatland along its banks a railroad track and maybe a little town, only two or three streets deep before the land starts rising up steep all around you. You've got to look straight up to see the sky and often there's a soft mist shrouding the holler. The hills hug around you - stay inside of them for a while and a flat horizon seems cold and unwelcoming. It's always been a hard life there, with not enough bottomland to farm and no easy way to get manufactured goods in or out of the area. The cash crops had to be torn out from the ground, first timber and then coal. It's a land that doesn't yield anything easily.

In the late sixties I hitchhiked through the area several times and most of the people who gave me rides were coal miners or people with mining in their families. They spoke with a mixture of pride and resignation about the mining - resignation about how dark and dirty and cold and wet and dangerous it was and pride that they were the people to do it, to do it well. The United Mine Workers were going through heavy times then. Their president, Tony Boyle, was accused of having his election opponent, Jock Yablonski, murdered. The coal companies and most of the political machinery that fed on them and even the UAW hierarchy denied even the existence of black lung disease and refused any compensation for it. All this was added to the usual mine accidents and disasters and wild fluctuations in coal prices. But every miner I talked to would shake his head and say, "Buddy, this ain't nothin compared to what used to go on. I could tell you some stories." The stories would be about their grandfathers and uncles and fathers and mothers, and the older men would tell their own stories from when they were young. The stories had a lot of Old West to them, only set in those embracing hills and coffinlike seams of three-foot coal. It was a whole hunk of our history I'd never heard of, that a lot of people had never heard of.

In 1977 I wrote a novel called Union Dues that begins in West Virginia coal country and moves to Boston. Before I wrote it I did a lot of reading in labor history, especially about the coal fields, and that was when I came across the story of the Matewan Massacre. In a book about the Hatfield and McCoy feud in Mingo County, there was a mention of a distant cousin of the Hatfields named Sid, chief of police of the town of Matewan, who was involved in a bloody shoot-out in 1920, during the mine wars of the era. It got me interested, but accounts of the incident were few and highly prejudiced. The rhetoric of both the company-controlled newspapers of the day and their counterparts on the political left was rich in lurid metaphor but short on eyewitness testimony. But a few characters stuck in my head - Sid Hatfield; the mayor, Cabell Testerman, who wouldn't be bought at a time when the coal companies routinely paid the salaries of public officials and expected their strike breakers to be deputized and aided in busting the union; a man known only as Few Clothes, a giant black miner who joined the strikers and was rumored to have fought in the Spanish-American War; and C.E. Lively, a company spy so skilled he was once elected president of a UMW local. Aspects and details of other union showdowns in the area also began to accumulate - and transportations of blacks from Alabama and European immigrants just off the boat to scab against the strikers; the life of the coal camp and company store; the feudal system of mine guards and "Baldwin thugs" that enforced the near slavery the miners and their families lived in. All the elements and principles involved seemed basic to the idea of what America has become and what it should be. Individualism versus collectivism, the personal and political legacy of racism, the immigrant dream and the reality that greeted it, monopoly capitalism, at its most extreme versus American populism at its most violent, plus a lawman with two guns strapped on walking to the centre of town to face a bunch of armed enforcers - what more could you ask for in a story? And yet it was a story unknown to most Americans, untold on film but for a silent short financed by the UMW in the aftermath of the massacre. The movie was called Smilin' Sid and the only known print was stolen by coal company agents and never seen again.

Though there were familiar Western elements to the story, it had a unique character because of its setting. The hills of West Virginia, the people and the music have a mood and rhythm to them that need to be seen and heard to be felt completely. There is a cyclical sense of time there, a feeling of inescapable fate that in the story resists the optimism and progressive collectivism of the 1920s workers' movement. Politics are always at the mercy of human nature and custom, and the coal wars of the twenties were so personal that they make ideology accessible in a story, make it immediate and emotional. It was this emotional immediacy that made me think of making a movie about the events in Matewan.

If storytelling has a positive function it's to put us in touch with other people's lives, to help us connect and draw strength or knowledge from people we'll never meet, to help us see beyond our own experience. The people I read about in the history books and people I met in the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia had important stories to tell and I wanted to find a way to pass them on.


robert said...

Superb film! I love the crazy preacher scene, railing against Beelzebub in 'his' modern guise as Bolshevik, communist, union-man. And a good starring role for a young Bonny Prince Billy.

Darren said...

You know the crazy preacher was played by John Sayles?

Cracking film, but not one I can watch again and again.

robert said...

Oh, no, I didn't realise.

'bandera rosa', etc.