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Cannes 2009: Mining for Morals ("The Molly Maguires," Ritt)


Moustaches, miners, and anti-industry terrorism: we have our first masterpiece from Cannes.  Martin Ritt’s 1970 The Molly Maguires, a breath of There Will Be Blood but focusing not on an individual character but individual ethics, shows the American of 1876 (or ’70?) as a police state of industrial oppression.  The atmosphere—palpable and literal, political—is so simply a fact of the film’s world that we barely ever see the terrible conditions of the coal mine setting, nor the cruelty of its owners.  Ritt treats the mine, its dismal town and their grave interiors—all coated physically and emotionally by the crepuscular pallor of coal dust—as a simple, wretched material inevitability of a capitalist country.  This saves time: we understand with minimal exposition the state of labor, of living, of human beings in this world.  This state becomes the stage for a drama of morality, with a magnetic, intelligently insular Richard Harris as a man looking for success in America by spying on the mine’s violently rebellious secret society for the police.   The catch, so beautiful, is that the world is so naturally resigned to its repression by a police-industrial system that empowers those-on-top and marginalizes those-on-bottom that the actions of the terrorist miner gang—led by Sean Connery—and the decision for Harris to stay with the police or side with the locals, clearly has no real impact or importance except to the spirit of the individuals involved.  So: we are left with the moral beauty of the miners, the swinging ambivalence of Harris—transforming Bogart’s middle-route persona for the Method acting of the ‘60s—and the force of the production design and James Wong Howe’s color photography, creating a world faded and deadened by dirt, labor, cyclical struggles, bloodshed, and a moral wilderness.

And just the soot-ed yellow faces and candlelights out of every tone and texture of coal blue. Again: double feature with Vidor’s An American Romance.
A classic piece of Americana about a time and society most us don’t know about. Ritt and company took great pains to render the truth of their story (even with fictionalizations within the narrative). A neglected masterpiece.
As to historical accuracy, great pains were taken with sets and costumes to give an accurate visual portrayal of Pennsylvania’s coal fields in the 1870s. The screenplay, however, completely ignored the Molly Maguires’ many cold-blooded murders, focusing instead on a few acts of strike-related sabotage — thus enhancing what the reviewer calls the Mollies’ “moral beauty.” Unfortunately, the screenwriter and director consciously falsified history to better convey their well-known political sympathies.
Interesting DJ, thanks for letting us know that! Still, I would never hold the filmmakers to making an entirely historically accurate film—this is a movie, not history.

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