Be sure to catch the comments on this review, as there is an update on some information I was given incorrectly about this town. My thanks to bkiser for bringing this to my attention. As this is a true story, I would like as much as possible to be factual.
This story of the mining town of Matewan, West Virginia, in the 1920's was presented to me in quite unique way. A gentleman that I work with is related to the Police Chief Sid Hatfield that is portrayed in this movie, his family originally came from Matewan, and he is a descendant of the well-known Hatfield/McCoy feuding families. As he is aware of my interest in offbeat and bizarre movies, he brought me this to view and I must admit I am pleased with this introduction.
The story of the Matewan Massacre is not a pretty story. Not meant to uplift your spirits, and in fact the viewing gives you little more than a feeling of overwhelming despair and poverty. In the 1920's the largest employer in this backwoods town was the coal mines and the most under paid and overworked persons would be the coal miners. Every penny, and I mean pennies, they made was put back into the company store in exchange for their lodging - for the most part tents and tar houses - clothing - mostly one good dress and one work dress - and food - mostly grown on their own pitiful parcel of land, owned of course by the company store.
When faced with the fact that the price of coal was going to be lowered once again, the miners attempt to obtain the support of the United Mine Workers Union to help them in their battle for fair pay, justice and decent working conditions. The Union sends their representative, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), to try to get the workers to vote the union in. Kenehan, a city boy and an outsider, is at first rebuked and then accepted as he strives to join the warring miners together in a united front against the Stone Mountain Coal Company.
Opposing forces under the guise of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, Griggs & Hickey (Gordon Clapp and Kevin Tighe), come to town to dispel the strike, evict workers from company owned homes, and strip them of what little dignity they possess. They are thwarted by the local police chief Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn) and the mayor Cabell Testerman (Josh Mostel), which in the end turns out to be a bad thing since it leads to a standoff between Good (the townspeople and union supporters) and Bad (the detectives and their fellow supporters that are called in).
The detectives (Clapp & Tighe) approach the local .... ummm .... town lady Bridey Mae (Nancy Mette), who has gone soft on Kenehan, and tell her that he is spreading lies about her all over town and in the end she turns against him saying that he raped her. Their goal, of course, is to discredit Kenehan in the eyes of the locals - a ploy that falls flat on its face after Danny Radnor preaches a sermon and extolls the glory of Kenehan in a twist of the gospel.
Throughout the entire production there are other stories weaving into the picture - Danny Radnor (Will Oldham), a young boy that yearns to be a preacher but in the end turns against his beliefs and supports the union and all it portrays; Elma Radnor (Mary McDonnell) the boarding house owner that is raising Danny alone since her husband was killed in the mines, she falls in love with Kenehan, knowing he will eventually leave the hills and return to the city and she is forced by the company store to take in the detectives or be shut down; the opposing forces in the mining community - the miners from Matewan, those dago-wops that the company brings in, and the damnable n***gers (sorry, quoting here, no offense please) that the company hires for cheap labor.
Eventually, Kenehan is successful in bringing these three factors together against the Stone Mountain Coal Company, but not without a bloody battle and a good deal of lost lives. Since this is a true story, and documented information, I don't feel I have given anything away, however I will not tell you any more about the movie itself.
Instead I would like to give you some background on this wonderful story. While based on true events, the story was embellished for production. The history remains the same - the Stone Mountain Coal Company and the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency began a war in Matewan, West Virginia, that ended in a bloody battle with many lives lost. In addition, they stole the pride and possessions of these hard working people, forcing them to live in poverty and depression. The fact that the workers, after joining forces, strove to gain their freedom changed the course of history in this miserable town.
In fact, the story, filmed entirely in West Virginia, had to be done in the coal mines of Beckley as the town of Matewan appears too prosperous now. A relatively successful museum has been erected depicting the trials of the miners through this era and that is where this tape was obtained from. You can also purchase this movie through the normal sites (Amazon, Media Play, etc). The movie was given a budget of $4 million dollars with a miserable $90 thousand applied to production and remarkably $25 thousand to costume designs.
With wonderful aplomb, John Sayles (who plays the preacher in this release and does a damn good job of it, breathing fire and brimstone), the writer and director, takes a diverse group of individuals and brings them together to finish the production. In one scene in particular, as they sit around the fire discussing their strategy, the Italian begins a mournful song on his mandolin and is joined by a black man playing his harmonica and the Appalachian backwoodsman with his fiddle and his guitar. Suddenly realizing that it is a possibility to join forces, the three warring groups unite as one. It is quite a telling scene and should be given due credit.
The cinematography by Haskell Wexler is breathtakingly beautiful. The scenery is wonderful in itself but the lighting that Wexler uses for the scenes in the mines and inside the tents and hovels of these people makes the production seem worth much more than was invested. Actually, I cannot say enough about this movie to let you know just how good it is and how worthy it is of a viewing. There are few movies that I would truly recommend to someone as a decent movie, and even fewer that are made by independents. However, I am proud to say that this movie is well worth watching.
Some of the fine actors in this movie: Chris Cooper, Will Oldham, Jace Alexander, Kevin Tighe, Gordon Clapp (man, these two guys are evil), Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, Nancy Mette, David Strathairn, Maggie Renzi, Josh Mostel, and John Sayles as the preacher - also all the men and women of Matewan, West Virginia, that gave their lives in the struggle to better themselves, thank you..
MATEWAN is set in a small West Virginia coal mining town of the same name where in May of 1920 an armed conflict between striking miners and thugs sent in by the Baldwin-Felts organization to break the union resulted in what known as the Coalfield Wars, the biggest insurrection in America outside the Civil War. On the union's side were both the town's mayor, Cabal Testerman (who was shot and killed in the battle even though he was unarmed) and the sheriff, Sid Hatfield, … more