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MATEWAN

USA, 1987 (MIFF 1988)

Director: John Sayles

With this, his fifth feature film, director-screenwriter John Sayles has fashioned something special, a modern American epic which lies somewhere between The Grapes of Wrath and High Noon (or as one critic has noted, "High Noon and Shane as written by John Dos Passes") It's also US history on celluloid minus die pomposity and self-indulgence evident in movies like Heaven's Gate.

Set in 1920, Matewan, is based on the true story of the eponymous Virginian village which was virtually owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company When miners strike for better pay and conditions, the corporation responds by bringing in immigrant Italian miners and, later, black workers to replace the local men A stranger arrives in town claiming he represents the miner's union, and the stage is set for a classic confrontation between labour and management, between the potentially factionalized have-nots and the powerfully furnished haves, between right and might, between morals and money.

Sayles first came across the story of the Matewan Massacre in a book about the notorious feud between the McCoys and the Hatfields (The sheriff of Matewan, Sid Hatfield was a distant cousin of the "real Hatfields' and had become a footnote in the history of West Virginia when he sided with the miners once die shooting started) The Matewan story actually appears in Sayles' second novel Union Dues' (1977) which depicts a West Virginia mining community during, not the 1920s, but, instead, the 1960s.

About the film's genesis, Sayles says, “I wrote the script eight years ago when the country was beginning to shift to the Right...Historically, it touches upon what America should be and what it could be 1920 was a watershed year. It was the Big Red Scare. The immigrants were pouring in. The blacks were coming up north to find work Unions were just starting to solidify and entrepreneurial capitalism was making its last stand. Jay Gould, a robber baron, at the time, made a famous quote- ‘Any company who pays a worker a penny more than he has to is robbing his stockholders' That (statement) was the bible as far as workers were concerned So the film is both historical and a drama about real people.

This beautifully judged balance between individuals and the ‘greater' historical moment which affects them {and which, in turn, they affect,) provides the film with much of its resonance and force. The major significance of the values at stake is never lost, nor the empathetic impact of the human costs involved. We're constantly aware of the all too real tensions that arise when self interest is measured up against larger issues and ideals

The role of religion in the lives of these working folk is pivotal in this interaction ("One main's Bible is another man's Manifesto") Through the character of 15 year old Danny (Will Oldham) a boy priest, the film brilliantly demonstrates how the right kind of preacher can make the Good Book speak loud and clear on certain social evils and particular political issues.

The core of the film's principal political theme is voiced by John Kenehan (Chris Cooper), the trouble-causing newcomer to town, who early in the narrative, tells the other miners "You ain't men to the coal company, you're equipment They'll use you till you wear out or break down or you're buried under a slate fall, and then they'll get a new one."

In many important respects, Matewan makes for a timely parable about a timeless conflict. However, apart from its message, this is a rattling good Old Western yarn, spun in a masterful manner, with uniformly superb performances (veteran performer James Earl Jones is an especially mighty presence), adrenalin pumping suspense, evocative period runes and Haskell Wexler's magnificent Oscar nominated cinematography A definite Festival highlight -TB/PK.

See also...

MATEWAN (M)

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An official selection at Cannes 1999, John Sayles' Limbo is another exceptional installment in an exemplary career. Sayles takes us to a glorious corner of Alaska where, unfortunately, the morale of ... More »

CITY OF HOPE

The camera rarely stops moving in City Of Hope, an unflinching study of the urban dynamics of a contemporary American work­ing class community on the verge of economic breakdown. Drawing from his ... More »

THE RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN

The generation which lived through the protest movements of the sixties has been served up cinematically in a variety of films which rarely strike an authentic note Whether it was the heavy ... More »

EIGHT MEN OUT

... ... Last years festival guest John Sayles continues his exploration of classic American social myths, with his long-cherished project on how the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball team threw the ... More »

HONEYDRIPPER

“Honeydripper is set at the intersection of two movements that would change American life forever: civil rights, and rhythm & blues.” - Chicago Sun-Times ... Former boogie-woogie jazz muso Pine ... More »

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