Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Molly Maguires

Paramount Pictures
Director: Martin Ritt
Length: 124 min.
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 24 January

The Molly Maguires was a major flop when it was released, and led to Sean Connery being labeled "box office poison." It further killed any chance of making Richard Harris into a star. The film was a flop because it's not very good, but it's a shame that two leads took the hit, because they are two of the few shining lights of the film.

Connery gives one of his best performances as Jack Kehoe, a man of few words but plenty of intensity. Harris plays James McKenna the same way he played Captain Tyreen in Major Dundee, but he's damn good at playing it. Their last scene together is quite powerful, fully revealing their high level of talent.

The film's other strength comes in the irreplaceable James Wong Howe's cinematography. Howe is perhaps the greatest American cinematographer of all time. He doesn't disappoint here, with his fantastic scope compositions - the 2.35:1 frame perfectly matching the mines lack of height and excess of length.

As stated, though, the film is just not good enough to make up for its rather impressive strengths. The main problem lies, strangely enough, in its desire to remain totally objective. Walter Bernstein's script tries to remain too objective and not to show anyone in a truly bad light, and as a result it doesn't even tell us exactly what everyone is fighting for. A throwaway line, so quiet it's hard to hear, says the men are angry because of cut wages, but in the end, Kehoe claims he fights the police and mine owners to show that he "is alive" and won't roll over to the powers that be.

I'm lucky that I've been reading about the battles of the late ninteenth centure, and of the Molly Maguires themselves who fought against the injustices of inhuman mine owners and their vicious police officers. Anyone who has not read up on the period and the fights between labor and capital are sure to be lost, and not understand the significance of anybody's actions or motives in situations like the burning of the company store, for instance.

Ritt and Bernstein's quest for objectivity and their attempts at show us the motivations through background detail is admirable and preferable to being hit over the head with speeches and heavy-handed symbolism, but they have unfortunately gone to the opposite extreme. Ritt and Bernstein's refusal to explain the stakes for members on either side of this particular fight is baffling, and weakens the film immensely. Nine years later, Ritt would correct this mistake and tell us what the battle between capital and labor is about in his film Norma Rae.


Post a Comment

<< Home