“You ain’t with the Company, there ain’t no work!”
The West Virginia Mine Wars represent a long and generally unhappy saga of the fight to unionize coal mines in that state. The struggle began in the 1880s and continued for 50 years with numerous setbacks, particularly in the southern coalfields. It was not until the passing of the National Industrial Recovery Act, in 1933, that rapid organization of the southern coalfields occurred. The 50-year struggle was characterized by strikes, failed organizational efforts, and federal intervention that often favoured the mine owners. One particular organizational effort resulted in a confrontation in Matewan in 1920 that resulted in the deaths of 11 men (four townspeople and seven “detectives” hired by the mine owners). The events surrounding the “Matewan Massacre” as it came to be called were dramatized in John Sayles’s 1987 film Matewan. Artisan previously released the film on DVD, but the release was completely unacceptable due to the full frame format and the poor quality image transfer. Seville Pictures has now addressed these deficiencies with its new Canadian DVD release.
Labour leader Joe Kenehan comes to the town of Matewan to try to organize the local mine workers of the Stone Mountain Coal Company in order to better their and their families’ lives. He takes a room at a boarding house run by Elma Radnor and her young son Danny. The talk of unionizing has prompted the mine owners to bring in black (led by “Few Clothes” Johnson) and Italian workers as scabs while at the same time, they are employing “muscle” in the form of detectives (Hickey and Griggs) from a private agency to try to break up any unionizing activities. The internal process of unionization is a difficult one as the workers deal with racism and betrayal in trying to develop a common front. At the same time, the strong-arm tactics of Hickey and Griggs find opposition in the town’s sheriff, Sid Hatfield, with the result that more detectives are brought in to help the pair. This all leads to a violent confrontation on the main street of the town.
Writer-director (and occasional actor) John Sayles has an enviable track record as an independent filmmaker. His filmography dates from 1978, but his first film of consequence was 1980’s Return of the Secaucus Seven, a low budget precursor to The Big Chill. During the two decades since, he has given us a memorable series of distinctive films — efforts that always offer insight into the human condition whether they deal with baseball (Eight Men Out), Central America (Men with Guns), the deep south (Passion Fish), the modern west (Lone Star), Ireland (The Secret Of Roan Inish), or the inner city (City of Hope). One of Sayles’s finest achievements is Matewan.
The film brings together many of Sayles’s strengths (incisive and believable dialogue, eye to period detail, apt casting) without falling prey to one of his few weaknesses (films that go on longer than the material warrants). Of course, Sayles has the benefit of an absorbing story that he uses as the basis for his film, but he makes the most of it. The focus and Sayles’s sympathies are on the union side of the conflict and as a consequence, most of the characters on that side are well drawn and ring true, from Mary McDonell as Elma Radnor to James Earl Jones as “Few Clothes” Johnson to David Strathairn as Sid Hatfield. Good but slightly less persuasive are Chris Cooper as Joe Kenehan (somewhat lacking in fire which causes the film to lose its focus briefly in the middle) and Will Oldham as Danny Radnor (a fresh, well-scrubbed look that made me think more of Donny Osmond than a young West Virginian). On the mine owners’ side, we never really see much of the face of the establishment, only their hired help — principally in the form of Kevin Tighe as Hickey and Gordon Clapp as Griggs. The two of them really seize the screen when they’re on, although one could argue that there’s a fair smack of cliché to their roles as the mine owners’ “muscle.”
One of the biggest hurdles for films that are set in the early part of the past century is to get the look and feel of the times right. Part of the difficulty is presenting in colour what many people are used to having seen only in black and white. Another is a failure to give an authentically aged look to sets, props and clothes. Sayles, in collaboration with his production designer Nora Chavoosian and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, manages to address all these concerns very successfully. We never feel we’re anywhere else than in the oppressive company towns of 1920s West Virginia. Daytime colours are often muted and night-time shots are frequently dimly lit. Many shots seem tightly framed, contributing to the development of a feeling of oppression in the audience that parallels the oppression suffered by the mine workers.
Seville Pictures DVD release of Matewan shines where it counts. It sports a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that does full justice to the film’s careful attention to photographic detail. The muted colours come through clearly and crisply and the occasional uses of bright colours are faithfully rendered. Nighttime scenes are virtually grain-free and provide good shadow detail in accord with the filmmakers’ original intentions. Edge enhancement is almost non-existent.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track is provided. This is a good workmanlike effort. It conveys the film quite satisfactorily; dialogue is clear and the film’s music background is nicely rendered although there’s no particularly rich feeling of fidelity to it. Gunshots sound a little hollow. Directional effects are minimal. No subtitling is offered.
The supplementary content is minimal. We get very brief, incomplete bios for John Sayles, Mary McDonnell, and James Earl Jones (but nothing for first-billed Chris Cooper) and the original theatrical trailer. There are also trailers for three other Seville DVDs.
Matewan is perhaps writer-director John Sayles’s finest effort amongst a lengthy list of successful films. It is a beautifully crafted film, rich in period detail, which sheds light on one of many incidents during the long saga of unionizing the West Virginia mines during the early 1900s. A fine cast including many Sayles “regulars” helps bring the story compellingly to life. Seville Pictures’ DVD release does the film full justice in terms of image transfer although the supplementary content is less than I would have hoped for in the case of such a film. In comparison with the previously available DVD from Artisan, the Seville release is clearly the one to have and is therefore recommended. Although a Canada-only release, it is available outside Canada through Canadian on-line retailers. Those with interest in Matewan should be aware, however, that it along with such early Sayles films as Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna, and Brother from Another Planet are expected to be released on DVD by MGM in 2003 with audio commentaries by Sayles himself included on each.