John Sayles and Matewan

John SaylesThe great film writer and director John Sayles is 64 today. I did him last year, but I can’t think of anyone I feel more interested in doing. As it is, I’m in a bit of a creative lull. Or rather, I’ve been doing a lot of computer programming today. It’s interesting. It is also very creative, but in a different way. It seems that the more I do of either, the more I want to do. I am a man of habits.

The great thing about Sayles is that everything he does is worth doing. That doesn’t mean everything is great or even good. And he is the kind of guy who whenever I talk about him, people say, “But what about…” And sure: feel free to talk about that film, whatever it is. I’ve seen almost all of his films and I like them all to one extent or another. But I want to talk about one film today: Matewan.

It tells the mostly true story of Matewan, West Virginia coal miners in 1920 and their attempt to join the United Mine Workers. The coal company hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to handle the situation. They were basically just armed thugs. I always get angry when people talk about the violent history of unions. Yeah, funny that. The companies were just gentle as lambs and it was all the fault of those greedy and mean workers. I’ll tell you, I don’t know what is wrong with Americans. As it looks ever more certain that the Republicans will take over the Senate next year, it seems the American worker acts like an abused spouse.

The attempt to unionize ultimately led to the Battle of Matewan where three townspeople (including the mayor) and seven “detectives” were killed. The film is an epic of the working man. And Sayles does a brilliant job of rendering it. It also has a large and outstanding cast. Of particular note: it is the first film that Chris Cooper starred in. It is well worth checking out.

Of course, being that it was about an attempt by the American worker to get some small part of the American dream, it lost money. Part of that is just that it wasn’t made for 14 year olds. But I feel certain that if more adults went to the movies, it wouldn’t have done well. This is just about labor organizing and the evil corporate interests that try to stop it. It’s part of the history that created a strong middle class. It’s part of many things we now take for granted like the 40-hour work week and weekends. What American worker would be interested in that?

Happy birthday John Sayles!

5 thoughts on “John Sayles and Matewan

  1. Love Sayles but can’t watch this film, though I’ve tried several times (I have it on DVD). I just get so far and then I can’t bear the thought of watching the miners and their families get murdered and destroyed. Chris Cooper is indeed good, in the parts I’ve been able to watch. Just too heartbreaking.

    • On the plus side, a lot more of the hired guns get killed! But it is still bleak. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend the documentary Harlan County, USA.

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