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PIE IN THE SKY WHEN YOU DIE--John Sayles' film about the West Virginia coalfield wars

  • Feb 1, 2009

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.
PIE IN THE SKY WHEN YOU DIE--John Sayles' film about the West Virginia coalfield wars PIE IN THE SKY WHEN YOU DIE--John Sayles' film about the West Virginia coalfield wars PIE IN THE SKY WHEN YOU DIE--John Sayles' film about the West Virginia coalfield wars PIE IN THE SKY WHEN YOU DIE--John Sayles' film about the West Virginia coalfield wars

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February 26, 2010
I like good characters and story-telling but not so much the "left-wing moralizing." Your high marks for this film has my interest...maybe this one will fit at the back of my crammed queue.
February 26, 2010
Sayles is a remarkeable independant film maker and nothing he says in this film is untrue. At one time it was completelu legal for companies to hire killers to come in and eradicate union organizers who were simply trying to help the workers gain a better way of life. If this is evil or communist or anti-American then so am I. But beond that, Sayles imp;ly knows how to make am entertaining film. Perhaps it might be better for the novice to start with something like LONE STAR however.
October 08, 2009
Nice review, Queenie. I missed this one when you first posted it, so the new "feature review" thing is already working in your favor. : ) There are quite a few films (both fictional and documentary) about mining. Have you seen any of them?
October 08, 2009
A couple, but I'm more interested in the union organizing aspect. I wish I could get a copy of a film I saw back in the 70s about Joe Hill. The scene where Hill was executed by firing squad for his union work was really strong.
February 03, 2009
Sure, Woop. My email is on my profile page on ammie. As for the ammie question you saw the new reviews so I guess that answers that question. I've been watching a lot of new stuff lately and that combined with my naturaly inertia means low output. There's a slight problem with my email which means I might not be anle to answer for a couple of days--it doesn't recognize me! I'll have to get my son in law to figure that one out. I just have this weird effect on anything computerized or electronic.
February 03, 2009
Amazing review, Karen. This is my type of flick! Are you still going to pull double duty or is that it for amazon? Can I e-mail you? I have a few questions...
February 02, 2009
It was one of Sayles' earlier films and I think it was the first one I saw too. Oh, wait, I saw BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET first. Like a lot of other directors (Coppola etc) Sayles worked with Roger Corman first and has a background in horror and science fiction. He did the screenplay for THE HOWLING which fixed all the silly elements of the book.
February 02, 2009
I had never even heard of this film but this is one I will definitely be on the lookout for. Thanks for the tip.
More Matewan reviews
review by . January 02, 2001
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 …
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karen ()
Ranked #7
I am the poster child for inertia. Where ever I am is where I plan to stay FOREVER.   So much so in fact that it took me decades to understand the punchline about why   the chicken … more
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