FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Molly Maguires
Reviewed by Leonard Quart


Produced by Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein; directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Walter Bernstein; cinematography by James Wong Howe; edited by Frank Bracht; music by Henry Mancini; set decoration by Darrell Silvera; art direction by Tambi Larsen; starring Richard Harris, Sean Connery, Samantha Eggar, and Frank Finlay. DVD, Color, 124 min., 1970. A Warner Archive release.

There have been few first-rate American fiction films made about labor conflict. One of the most memorable is John Sayles’s visually striking and politically compelling Matewan (1987), about a coal strike in rural West Virginia in the Twenties. There was also Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), a sentimental, politically liberal film about a successful textile strike in the Seventies. That film’s focus, however, was less on labor issues than on a character study of the politically unformed, half-literate, but spunky heroine (Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her portrayal) realizing her potential as an independent, strong woman and a courageous union organizer.

Ritt, who had been blacklisted in the Fifties, directed other social dramas (Sounder, The Great White Hope, Edge of the City) during his long career. He also directed one earlier film about labor conflict, the big-budget, box-office failure The Molly Maguires (1970), from a screenplay by Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, The Front), who also suffered during the blacklist era. Given who the director and screenwriter were, the film was, of course, deeply sympathetic to the plight of the miners. But its focus was more specifically, and in a more complex fashion, on the Molly Maguires, a violent nineteenth-century secret organization, comprised mainly of Irish-American miners working in the coalfields of Pennsylvania, that was a splinter group of the nonviolent Hibernian Society, originally founded to aid Irish immigrants.

The film is set in 1876, with the miners shown as doing dangerous and exhausting work for little money, with no redress for their exploited situation; their attempts at unionization have been continually put down by the owners and their brutal police force. The Mollies, led by strong, sullenly simmering Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery), engage in acts of sabotage, blowing up mines and trains, as a means of striking back at the owners who oppress them.

The center of the narrative is a tough, charming Pinkerton Agency detective, James McParlan (Richard Harris), who is hired to infiltrate the Mollies and provide the police with the evidence needed to hang them. The Mollies are wary of strangers, but they accept McParlan after he proves himself by joining in their violent actions with courage and even enthusiasm. At the same time, McParlan betrays all their plans to a dour, harsh Welshman, Davies (Frank Finlay), the captain of the mine’s police force, who feels nothing but contempt for the miners.

It’s McParlan’s goal to scramble up from the bottom, fleeing poverty to get his piece of the American Dream, and he is willing to do anything to achieve this. He believes in grabbing what you want and has little use for loyalty. Nevertheless, he develops some sympathy and understanding for the miners’ painful lives, and even for the actions of the Mollies. An uneasy friendship develops between McParlan and Kehoe, as well as a romantic relationship of sorts with his landlady, Mary Raines (Samantha Eggar), a long-suffering woman who feels utterly entrapped by the world of the coal town. While McParlan may wish, on some level, to save the lives of the Mollies, he has no compunction about continuing to betray them in order to send them to the gallows. Still, Ritt depicts the character in shades of gray rather than portraying him as an outright villain.

The film’s distinctiveness resides more in James Wong Howe’s cinematography than in any of the film’s relationships, none of which quite come alive emotionally. Although both Connery and Harris are powerful screen presences, their characters lack any interiority, and the sense of two of them being larger-than-life, angry alter egos (pursuing different ends) isn’t worked through. But the film’s images are memorable: coal dust- and soot-covered miners vigorously using their pickaxes on the coal faces to the point of exhaustion, while standing in pools of water and breathing the fetid air of the mines; ten-year-old children already at work sorting coal; and the world around them a wasteland almost free of vegetation, with bare trees, and a befouled gray landscape without a touch of green. The town is grim, with its bars filled at the end of the day with worn-out miners, while their unsmiling, overburdened wives are at home with the children. The mine itself is realistically re-created with operating ore cars and a fully functioning colliery aiding the effectiveness of those scenes. The film does provide one arresting set piece: a savage rugby match between two teams of miners—one Irish, the other Welsh—that conveys a moment of volatile pleasure in their joyless lives.

McParlan's (Harris) goal is to infiltrate the Mollies and collect the evidence the police need to destroy the group

McParlan's (Harris) goal is to infiltrate the Mollies and collect the evidence the police need to destroy the group

Ritt is sympathetic to the Molly Maguires, but avoids turning them into heroes. They commit their terrorist acts, without hope of winning or changing things, but merely to assert that they are alive and aren’t whipped, that “they can push the bastards a little.” Indeed, the film makes us aware of how limited the political consequences of their acts are and doesn’t glorify their violent methods. But it also makes clear that the miner’s job is a “rigged” and exploitative game in which the company store gouges the workers and the bosses arbitrarily take deductions from their wages. It’s an oppressive milieu where the only other voice speaking for the miners is the eloquent local priest, who condemns violence and the Mollies, but offers no realistic alternative. Consequently, the Mollies are the only political option extant, albeit an inadequate one, for the miners.

The Molly Maguires would have been a more politically penetrating film if we had learned something about the personalities, beliefs, and machinations of the mine owners, who barely make an appearance. It’s their hirelings—the police—who are there to embody their values. Although The Molly Maguires may not be not be on the level of Ritt’s arguably best films—Hud (1963) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), which demonstrate that he couldn’t be simply pigeonholed as a director of social dramas—it’s a solid reconstruction of a relatively obscure piece of labor history.

In 2013, the film also serves as a powerful reminder of how abject and abused American workers were before unionization and New Deal legislation. Given the antiunion and antiworker policies of today’s Republican Party, it’s not that difficult to imagine that American labor could return, in a gradual, more sinuous manner, to that level of hopelessness.

To purchase The Molly Maguires, click here.

Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the fourth edition of American Film and Society Since 1945 (Praeger).

Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine