This month marks the 30th anniversary of John Sayles’s Matewan, an American classic that fell through the cracks upon release and remains criminally under-seen to this day. The film details the events leading up to 1920 Battle of Matewan (alternatively known as the Matewan Massacre) in West Virginia, which pitted striking coal miners against invading gun-thugs hired by the Stone Mountain Cole Company.
When Sayles, one of the leading voices in the American independent cinema movement, came onto the scene with The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), he did so with a fully developed vision, one that relied on large ensemble casts (manned by a repertory company of regular players) and centered on stories with a socio-political bent. Sayles has stayed true to that vision for the majority of his 18 films so far — with a few interesting exceptions, including the children’s fable The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) and the tense existential thriller/survivalist tale Limbo (1999) — and Matewan is arguably the most perfect expression of that vision to date.
The story focuses on the efforts of Joe Kenehan (a remarkably assured Chris Cooper, making his film debut), a pacifist and communist organizer sent by the United Mine Workers of America to help the residents of the mining town of Matewan to unionize. In order to do so, he must not only convince them not to resort to violence, even as the Company targets them with ratcheting economic and physical harassment, but also to team up with black and Italian miners who have been brought in as scabs. Through his upstanding moral example, Kenehan is almost able to achieve his goals; but in the end, the clarion call of retribution proves too strong, and the long struggle for justice culminates in bloodshed and tragedy.
While Sayles takes a clear-eyed position on the futility of violence, he does not try to draw any moral equivalence between the striking miners and those that do the bidding of the Coal Company. The lines here are clear: The miners, despite their initial racial and ethnic prejudices (which they do eventually overcome in the name of worker solidarity), are fighting for what is right, while the Coal Company and its muscle are fighting for bottomless greed.
In making such a clear delineation without spilling into agitprop, Sayles is helped by his cast. This includes the aforementioned Cooper, as well as Will Oldham (also his debut), whose teenage miner/Methodist preacher Danny Radner survives the Battle of Matewan and its violent fallout in order to tell the tale years later. Oldham would go on to find greater success as a folk singer (under the stage name Bonnie Prince Billy), though he still sporadically does good work in small, quiet movies (including this year’s A Ghost Story). Mary McDonnell, who would go on to become a Sayles regular before eventually landing her most iconic role as the leader of Earth in the remake of Battlestar Galactica, also makes one of her earliest appearances as the widowed, hardscrabble mother of Danny and nascent love interest for Kenehan.
The cast is rounded out by great supporting players including Bob Gunton as a weaselly Company spy and saboteur, Ken Jenkins as the de-facto leader of the white strikers, Josh Mostel as a deceptively brave town Mayor, and James Earl Jones as Few Clothes, the leader of the black miners. Jones, by far the biggest star in the cast, brings the full gravitas of his presence to the role, even if, by the end, he does get somewhat lost in the shuffle (though not before getting to play a little baseball, because unless he’s voicing/playing a villain in a high-fantasy epic, you can’t have James Earl Jones without baseball).
As good as everyone is under the tight direction of Sayles (and the ashen, period-evocative cinematography of the legendary Haskell Wexler), there are three cast members who stand out and, in so doing, help to give the film a sense of epic scale: Kevin Tigh and Gordon Clapp as the Hickey and Briggs, the Company’s main gun thugs; and David Strathairn as Matewan’s Chief of Police Sid Hatfield (part of the extended family that made up one half of the legendary Hatfield-McCoy blood feud).
In Hickey and Briggs, Matewan distinguishes itself from other historical dramas by introducing two of the slimiest, most intensely hateful villains imaginable. Tigh as Hickey is especially captivating, his satanic bearing making every scene he appears in electric with the sense of danger.
As compelling as Matewan’s villains and heroes are, it is the anti-hero Sid Hatfield who leaves the biggest impression. When we first meet him (paying an ominous midnight visit to the newly arrived Kenehan), we quickly peg him as a threat, before he surprises us by revealing himself to be fully committed to the cause of his fellow townsfolk, even in the face of great personal peril. Yet, for as unassailable as Hatfield’s loyalty to both his fellow man and his professional duty are, Strathairn imbues the character with something undeniably dangerous; we get the sense that he is seduced by the idea of his own doom, and does everything he can to help hasten it. We are equally seduced by the dark figure he cuts, so that by the time he fires the first shots in the climatic gun-battle we can’t help but want to stand up and cheer, even as we know that any sense of retribution — righteous and long-awaited though it may be — will be short-lived, and will have come at too great a cost.
In this regard, Sayles reveals his greatest strength as a storyteller. Matewan is, on paper, an “eat-your-vegetables” movie: a pristinely made, historically accurate period piece that centers on struggles of class, race, and justice. In the wrong hands (like, say, those of Paul Haggis or Ed Zwick), this movie becomes unbearable, something we force down our gullets while telling ourselves it’s good for us. But in the masterful hands of John Sayles, no such effort or excuse is required; his movies — Matewan foremost among them — may be “vegetables,” but damned if they aren’t the tastiest, most filling thing on the menu.
This alone would make Matewan worthy of proper rediscovery (I can think of few modern films as deserving of the Criterion Collection treatment), but it is not the sole reason. Thirty years removed from its release date (and almost 100 from the events it depicts), Matewan plays as an elegy not only for the people and place that it portrays, but the very notion of their struggle on behalf of a collective good.
As the modern descendants of the people in Matewan refuse to accept the truth of their current predicament, and find themselves siding with the modern equivalents of the Company bosses, it’s impossible not to think of the scene that plays out right before the bloody climax of the film, where young Danny Radner, loading up his father’s rifle, rebuffs Joe Kenehan’s final attempt at dissuading him from violence. Kenehan, crestfallen, says that he only came to Matewan to help. Danny responds:
“Sure you did. First people come here to help us with some money. Next we know, we got no land. Then they say they’re going to help us with a job and a place to live, and they stick us in some damn coal camp and let us dig out their mines. Now you come here to help us bring in the new day…. We had about as much help as we can stand.”
Zach Vasquez lives in Los Angeles, birthplace of clean coal.