written and directed by John Sayles
Cinecom Entertainment Group
In 1920 Matewan was a little town on the western edge of Mingo County, West Virginia, right on the Kentucky border. It was a town owned and run by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, and when the miners tried to bring in the union, the county in general and Matewan in particular exploded. On May 19, Albert and Lee Felts (of the notorious strong-arm “detective” agency Baldwin- Felts) and 11 other detectives arrived in town to oust the striking miners from the company-owned houses they were occupying. The town’s lone policeman, Sid Hatfield, and the mayor, C.C. Testerman, objected, and two days later there was a shoot-out in the streets that left four wounded and 10 dead—including the mayor and seven Baldwin-Felts men. It was by far the bloodiest union skirmish the area had seen up till then.
After the shoot-out, the Baldwin-Felts Agency sent in a man named C.E. Lively. He was to work undercover and open a restaurant in the United Mine Workers’ building, to pick up what he could by way of damning evidence against the miners. Lively had no luck, and Hatfield and those miners who had been put on trial for the murder of the Felts brothers were all judged to have acted in self-defense. Lively later killed Hatfield in broad daylight on the McDowell County Courthouse steps—and was himself acquitted, even though Hatfield was said to have been without a gun.
Those seem to be the basic facts of what happened at Matewan. John Sayles, who both wrote and directed the movie Matewan, had what seems a very interesting record to start with—clear-cut bad guys (the Baldwin-Felts), internecine quarrels between the striking miners and the imported scabs who needed the work just as badly, all in the middle of Hatfield-McCoy country (Sid Hatfield’s name is not a coincidence). The unionization versus vested interests story is not so old that it isn’t worth retelling, and these days it’s a bit of a relief to see a movie based on some bit of history. It is simply too bad that John Sayles’s Matewan has so little to do with the real one.
It was, apparently, not enough for Sayles that the detectives actually harassed people, threatened them, and threw them out of their homes into the muddy streets, at dawn and in the rain. Or provoked a shoot-out. In the movie the Baldwin-Felts men catch one of the miner boys stealing coal, and after torturing him, they murder him by slitting his throat. Surely, if such an atrocity had really happened, it would have been mentioned somewhere in the write-ups of the Matewan battle. Surely that would be a classic labor history horror story of capitalists gone crazy. But just as surely, Sayles made it up.
Sayles plays fast and loose with what really happened in other, less important ways. He delays the big shoot-out by several months and brings in the mole Lively right at the beginning, so that in the movie he is partly the architect of the shoot-out, rather than someone brought in as a response. Sayles also exaggerates the union’s weakness by having as his main character a lone, undercover union organizer, Joe Kenehan (played by Chris Cooper), as if the union did not have a large building in town (where Lively had his restaurant).
There’s nothing wrong with making up a mostly fictional, highly dramatic story around the coal wars. But to take real events and real men, and then twist them to have the nice bloody effect of a slashed boy and his frantic mother, seems somehow dishonest. Sayles stuck to the truth only as far as he deemed it convenient, which in the end just appears lazy. Aside from the (very cinematic) pre-shoot-out drama, the real significance of the Matewan shoot-out actually seems to have been the trial itself, which was covered nationally and gave the union some very good PR. But garroted children make better movies than a boring old courtroom.
If the docudramatization is Matewan s biggest problem, there are other, smaller problems with detail. A good dialect coach, able to train actors to speak with even only one of the many Southern accents, could go to Hollywood and make a mint just rendering people competent. Aside from Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn, I have yet to hear a believable (and consistent) Southern accent that’s anything more difficult than a Texas drawl. The voice of Matewan‘s other main character, 16-year-old Danny Radnor (Will Oldham), is done sloppily in an occasional, and stagy, accent, while the narration voice, which is supposed to be that of Danny as an old man, has what sounds like a genuine, and heavy, hills accent. The difference is vast and noticeable—Oldham’s voice doesn’t match “pappy’s” voice at all, and who ever heard of a man acquiring a backcountry accent as he got older?
Despite two good performances in supporting roles by James Earl Jones and Mary McDonnell, and despite all of Matewan‘s histrionic coal dust and bloodiness, the movie was insubstantial. There was no sense of place, no feeling of claustrophobia in the shaft scenes, no sense of dirt and ticks about the homeless miners in tents, no feeling of heavy air and hunger or anything that made up that part of West Virginia then, or now. Just more Hollywood pablum, tasteless and well-chewed in a middlebrow attempt at embellishing on a bit of history—history, which, as usual, proves to be a lot more interesting than any of the cliches dredged out of John Sayles’s head.
They don’t know it, and never bother to try to know it, but still there is some power to Appalachia that keeps drawing the moviemakers back. Perhaps it’s because Appalachia is another world nestled right here in the midst of our own, a whole other culture, in some ways as foreign and as far away as Tierra del Fuego. Also, mingled with the respect city people have for folks who live still so close to the land, goes a good bit of romanticizing about the glories of the so-called simple life. Not that there’s anything simple about scrambling for a living in those mountain areas of Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia that are still backward, without much industry, choked with kudzu and rusted-out cars, and scattered with hill farmers. If John Sayles’s Matewan falls short on other scores, it does manage to convey that, although little else.