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, who survived this fight only to gunned down on the steps on the county courthouse some time later. These men and what happened to them were real. To this mix writer and director John Sayles has added a composite creation to represent the union organizers who were also present that day. His union organizer is Joe Kenehan (played by one of his stable of regulars, Chris Cooper), a man of principal and compassion dedicated to easing the life of the working man. Kenehan is a combination of all the organizers who would have flourished under the abysmal conditions of the mines and factories of this period; Wobblies, socialists, communists, and "non-affiliated guys who just got involved." People who never would have given unionizing a second thought if it hadn't been for the overwhelming greed and callousness of the mine owners and giants of industry at that time.
We are given a glimpse of how profound their greed really is when a new group of scabs is brought in to work the mines. One of the ways that organizing was kept to a minimum was by insuring that miners wouldn't speak to each other. This was accomplished by bringing in foreigners who simply didn't speak any English at all (in this instance some Italians) or by playing on people's innate racial hatreds, the remainder of the group was composed of blacks. Once new miners were hired on they were forced to rent their work clothes and equipment from the company store as well as pay for their housing and food all at exorbitant fees. In fact everything they needed could only be purchased through the company and prices were so high that it was guaranteed that they would never be able to pay back the initial outlay of monies they were fronted so that they could START to work! It was the original vicious circle.
MATEWAN is one of Sayles earliest films and it is also one of his best. It's full of powerful imagery and quiet truths that will stay with you long after it has told you its story, a story you have never heard before. Sayles is a true auteur; he produced, wrote, directed, and edited this film. He even has a bit part in the film as a fire and brimstone preacher who is in reality just another tool of the company. But Sayles' real gift is that of the storyteller. From this review you might perceive this film to be a bunch of boring left-wing moralizing, but Sayles will entertain you and keep you interested in these people and their lives. As I said, that is his greatest gift.
For those of you who are interest in such things, Will Oldham (who plays a young man who also does some preaching) has some musical fame: Palace, Palace Brothers, Bonnie Prince Billie, etc.
HYPE FACTOR: Most of Sayles' work travels under the radar and this film is no exception. But if you've heard good things about this flick somewhere, believe me they're definitely true.
Pros: A wonderful production Cons: none....well, the singing is a little tough 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 … more