The year is 1921, and trouble is brewing in the town of Matewan, West Virginia: the workers have organized a labor union and walked out of the mine. Enter Joe Kenehan, a former Wobbly (member of the Industrial Workers of the World
) and current union organizer for the United Mine Workers of West Virginia is riding a train when a group of miners attacks the black scabs on board. Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency men are called in to battle the union workers, and the stage is set for a bloodbath.
This film contains:
- Against My Religion: The Hutterite conscientious objectors Kenehan met in Fort Leavenworth military prison were imprisoned there because they were religious pacifists who refused to fight, and then tore the buttons off the prison uniforms they were made to wear, since these were also forbidden to them, causing brutal punishment from the guards.
- Agent Provocateur: The Mole (see below) for the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency attempted this a couple times. C.E. Lively, union leader and company spy, attempted to steer the membership in a more violent direction (and at one point had a young miner plant a bomb to shut down one of the mines), but his leadership was thwarted by the more pragmatic (and charismatic) Joe Kenehan, who Lively immediately reports to Baldwin-Felts as a "Red".
- As the Good Book Says: There are lots of Biblical allusions in this movie. Most notable is the boy preacher and miner Danny Radnor giving the tale of Joseph and the king's wife in a sermon, as a coded warning for how Lively had deceived the workers by framing Kenehan, delivered right under the (laughing) noses of Hickey and Griggs themselves.
- Badass Boast: When the Baldwin-Felts agents have removed some furniture from striking workers' homes in a questionable eviction action, Sheriff Hatfield challenges their authority and orders them to put the residents' belongings back:
Sid: I'm giving you ten minutes to get these peoples' belongings back in that house.
Hickey: If the rest of the boys was here, you wouldn't be so cocky!
Sid: If the rest of the boys was here, I'd give you FIVE minutes.
- Also said by Sid during that confrontation: "I've met Mr. Felts. I wouldn't pee on him if his heart was on fire."
- Also when Hickey, one of the Baldwin-Felts agents, describes how coldly and methodically he killed Germans in World War I in order to scare the young Danny Radnor. Although this killing wasn't done in a particularly "badass" (brave) fashion, it was done in a rather scary, psychopathic manner.
- Badass Pacifist: Kenehan mentions encountering these while he was in Fort Leavenworth military prison during World War One, after he sees Few Clothes carrying a gun. They were Hutterite (similar to the Amish-Kenehan calls them Mennonites mistakenly) conscientious objectors and refused to cut their beards or wear clothes with buttons when they got into prison, as this was, along with bearing arms, against their religion. The guards punished them by handcuffing them to the cell bars for eight hours a day, but even though it made the cuffs cut into their wrists, causing wounds, then eventually gangrene, they never broke, and kept tearing off the buttons with their teeth. He says he's never seen any braver men, and they were there because they refused to use violence.
- Berserk Button:
Few Clothes: "I've been called nigger, and I can't help that's the way white folks is, but I ain't never been called no scab!"
- Bittersweet Ending / Earn Your Happy Ending: The Baldwin-Felts agents were defeated in the end confrontation, but with many townspeople (and Kenehan) also killed. But there would be a lot more violence, as the narrator said in the end, before unions finally took hold. This movie showed one chapter of the grim struggle workers faced in winning their rights.
- Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Mentioned and joked about. "No, don't you read the papers? We carry little round bombs!"
- Cold-Blooded Torture: What Kenehan describes the Hutterite conscientious objectors suffering while in Fort Leavenworth, and later a company man does to a 14-year old boy caught stealing coal.
- Corporate Warfare: The company-hired Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency wages war on striking miners, who fight back in kind.
- Chummy Commies: Although labor unions are traditionally associated with left-wing politics, the only character who is explicitly stated to be an actual Communist is Joe Kenehan, a kind, friendly, charismatic Actual Pacifist.
- Although it's not explicitly stated, at least some of the Italian miners are definitely at least socialists; after they all declare themselves for the union, they march off singing 'The Red Flag', an Italian socialist/communist anthem which includes the line "Long live socialism and liberty!"
- Company Town: The town of Matewan, as were many towns in the region at that time. The coal mine employed most working people, who lived in company-owned houses, the miners were paid in company scrip instead of dollars, and the scrip could only be used in stores owned by the company. For added fun, the company store prices were set by the company, and the cost of the workers' tools and clothing was deducted from their pay, and if anyone quit or was fired, every last thing purchased at the company store was legally forfeit and could be confiscated by the company. It was effectively slavery.
- Corrupt Hick: Subverted. A band of hill folk appear out of nowhere, with strange accents, thick beards, and huge guns...and then save the strike camp from a company massacre, drive off the Baldwin-Felts agents, politely inform the strikers that they're welcome to stay on their land and hunt their game as long as they keep the noise level down, and vanish into the forest.
- Disproportionate Retribution: "Boy, I sentence you to death for the crime of stealing company property and being a dirty Bolshevik." Said by a company man to a fourteen-year-old boy caught stealing three lumps of coal, who he then proceeds to torture to death.
- Divided We Fall: Kenehan's appeal to the union to accept the blacks and Italian immigrants as members.
- Dual Wielding: Sid Hatfield does this during the climactic battle. According to real-life accounts of the battle, this is Truth in Television.
- Duet Bonding: Or quartet bonding, rather-there's a rather heartwarming scene where the local, Italian, and black strikers at camp spontaneously play music together. An Italian begins strumming his lute, and gradually three other strikers around the camp pick up the tune with violin, guitar, and harmonica.
- Faux Affably Evil: Hickey, one of the Baldwin-Felts agents who arrives to suppress the union. He's very polite and friendly and quick to smile...up to the point that it no longer serves his purposes, at which point he gets downright vicious, sadistic, and very creepy.
- Feuding Families: Although not mentioned in the movie itself, Sid Hatfield was from the Hatfield family of the notorious Hatfield-McCoy feud.
- Glory Hound: They aren't explicitly named in the film, but the two Baldwin-Felts big shots who arrive near the end of the movie to take command of the operation just happen to be two of the founding members of the company, the men it was named after in the first place. In Real Life, they came to Matewan hoping to take credit for the biggest and most successful union-busting operation in American history. Both of them were shot dead in the ensuing battle.
- Handshake Refusal: After Hatfield stood up for the evictees as described above (see Badass Boast), Kenehan was obviously pleased at this rare instance of law enforcement not siding with company interests (they usually did in other locales), and extended his hand to Hatfield. Hatfield refused the gesture, probably still being skeptical of this outsider who he'd warned earlier not to bring trouble to his town.
- Insult Backfire: Griggs, one of the Baldwin-Felts agents, at one point derisively asks a hillbilly if his musket is a relic from the Spanish-American War. The hillbilly smiles, points the gun at Griggs's face, and proudly replies, "Nawp. War Between the States."
- Messianic Archetype: Joe Kenehan. He's a charismatic organizer who's also an Actual Pacifist, his first action when coming into town is to heal someone and he dies at the end.
- The Mole: C.E. Lively.
- Mood Whiplash: A heartwarming scene showing the growing feelings of friendship and solidarity between the striker groups is suddenly interrupted by a hail of gunfire from outside the camp.
- Mountain Man: The bearded, burly Hill Folk who only once come off of the high mountains to chase the Company men away because their cars "make too much noise". When asked how old their rifles are, they say "War war between the states". The movie is set in 1920.
- Multi Tasked Conversation: Danny (a teenager active in union organizing) is doing some lay preaching in the local church. He knows that the coal company has framed Joe, the main activist, for being a company plant, playing on a woman's jealous desire for him as part of the framing. The company-enforcer thugs have told Danny not to say anything about the plot, or political at all, while he's preaching. So he tells the congregation the story of how Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph and failed, and she tried to frame him out of jealousy, to get his point across.
- Narrator All Along: Danny Radnor, just coming of age in the movie but narrating as an adult miner years later.
- Papa Wolf: Sid Hatfield is this when it comes to his townspeople.
- Pinkerton Detective: Baldwin-Felts was a "detective agency" similar to the Pinkertons, hired by companies to violently suppress union organizing and strikes.
- Red Scare: In-universe. The company is terrified of 'Reds' agitating the workers, and are willing to kill to protect their interests against them.
- Scenery Porn: Lots of beautiful scenery shots of the wooded Appalachians.
- Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The town mayor is offered a bribe to side with the company. His answer? "This town ain't for sale, mister." Truth in Television.
- The Sheriff: Sid Hatfield was one Bad Ass sheriff who stood up for his townspeople, even against "some big people" with a lot of money and power—and guns. This made him the exception, since most law enforcement went along with the companies, even deputizing people like the Pinkertons or Baldwin-Felts.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film is generally accurate to history, and several characters and their deeds were historical (Hatfield, Lively, the mayor, and a few minor characters; Few Clothes is also mentioned in oral histories from the region). The union did organize the mines in the area with support from former Wobblies, Italian and black miners did choose to join in, the company did try to violently suppress it, and there was a period of armed conflict between the miners and the company culminating in a big confrontation between Baldwin-Felts agents and the townspeople of Matewan, referred to as the "Battle of Matewan". The 'Coal War' mentioned by the narrator at the end of the film also happened, and was one of the largest armed domestic conflicts in American history outside of the Civil War. Joe Kenehan, however, is fictional, as are many of the specifics of the film.
- Would Hurt a Child: The torture and murder of Hillard Elkins, a young (teenaged) union member and friend of Danny Radnor's, at the hands of Baldwin-Felts agents is the event that stiffens the resolve of the townspeople for the big fight that comes in the end.
- You and What Army?: Done by the Baldwin-Felts agents to Sid Hatfield; it backfires hilariously.
Sid Hatfield: *turns to large assembled crowd* All of you men got guns? *everyone nods* Good. Go home and get 'em. You're all deputized as of now.