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Film / Matewan

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Joe Kenehan: Shooting is what they want now.
Sephus Purcell: And maybe it's what we want, too.

Matewan is a 1987 historical drama film written and directed by John Sayles. It stars Chris Cooper with a supporting cast including James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Bob Gunton, and Will Oldham, among others.

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 (Cooper), 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.

The film notably and accurately covers the struggles of the United Mine Workers of America in West Virginia in the early 1920s, where tensions were at their highest. With use of some real-life figures, its the only modern cinematic depiction of the historic Battle of Matewan.

This film contains:

  • Actual Pacifist: Kenehan and the Hutterite prisoners which he knew in prison. They were in there for refusing conscription.
  • 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 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".
  • And Starring: "And James Earl Jones as Few Clothes".
  • Artistic License History:
    • Hatfield and the mayor confront the Baldwin thugs, who serve them a warrant, and the mayor refutes it as a forgery. In the film, this happens on the day before the final shootout. In reality, it immediately preceded the shootout.
    • C.E. Lively didn't arrive in town until after the shootout, so his role in the film's events are all fictional. However, his work convincing Bridey to make a false rape accusation against Joe is apparently based on the real Lively spreading a rumor that Hatfield had murdered the mayor during the shootout to steal his wife.
  • 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 I, after he sees Few Clothes carrying a gun. They were Hutterite (similar to the Amish—Kenehan calls them Mennonites here 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 then 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. Truth in Television—two Hutterite brothers died there from mistreatment, while many more (from the Hutterites and other groups) suffered as a result of their imprisonment.
  • Bait-and-Switch: Following the scene where Sid Hatfield meets Joe and threatens him, we get a shot of someone writing a letter to the mining company reporting on Joe's arrival and suspicion of being a "Red." It turns out that the author is Lively, not Hatfield.
  • Berserk Button: After being peppered with insults, including the N-word, Few Clothes becomes furious when someone calls him a scab. "You watch your mouth, peckerwood... 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! And I ain't fixing to start up now!"
  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Mr. Hickey and C.E. Lively are the Stone Mountain company's primary agents in the town and the most active antagonists in the story.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Baldwin-Felts agents are defeated in the end confrontation, but with many townspeople, including the mayor, and Kenehan also killed. On the other hand, no miners were convicted despite being charged with murder in the events. Sid marries the mayor's widow and tries to carry on, but he gets murdered in broad daylight on the steps of a courthouse, with his attackers and Lively (who delivered the coup de grace) facing little to no legal repercussions over it.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Mentioned and joked about.
"We carry little round bombs. Don't you read the papers?"
  • Boom, Headshot!: Sheriff Hatfielf kicks off the final battle by delivering two of these at point blank range to two of the Baldwin-Felts goons.
  • The Chew Toy: A dramatic example. Whenever one of the unionists gets brutalized, it's usually Hillard Elkins, which is taken to its logical conclusion.
  • Chummy Commies:
    • Although labor unions are traditionally associated with left-wing politics, the only character who is explicitly stated to be really a "Red" 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 all march off singing "The Red Flag," an Italian socialist/communist anthem which includes the line "Long live socialism and liberty!"
    • Danny in the narration at the end says he advocated "One Big Union" as his new "religion" for the rest of his life after the events at Matewan.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Corporate Warfare: The company-hired Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency wages war on striking miners, who fight back in kind.
  • Creator Cameo: John Sayles, as he is wont to do in his early career, plays a small role. He's the anti-communist preacher.
    • Maggie Renzi, one of the producers (as well as Sayles' life partner), plays the wife of one of the Italian immigrant scabs brought in.
  • 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 is that without complete unity the workers don't stand a chance against the company, the government, and all the other forces arrayed against them.
  • 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.
  • The Easy Way or the Hard Way: Hickey says this word-for-word to Elma when Danny tries to challenge him.
    • Also, when Hickey offers the mayor and Sid Hatfield to make it worth their while to side with them, and Sid and the mayor both tell Hickey where he can put his offer, Griggs says as he leaves, "Damn hillbillies always got to do it the hard way."
  • Establishing Character Moment: We learn everything we need to know about Griggs and Hickey the second they get off the train. Hickey sidles up to Bridey Mae and puts on his Faux Affably Evil shtick while getting increasingly touchy and intimidating with her, while Griggs stands off to the side chuckling at everything he says. They're both crude thugs who will use any means to get what they want, and Griggs is a sycophant who follows Hickey's lead on everything.
  • 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, 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' face, and proudly replies, "Nawp. War Between the States."
  • Karma Houdini: C.E. Lively is The Mole and an unrepentant killer even before the ending. The closing narration reveals that he and a group of Baldwin-Felts men later gunned down an unarmed Sid Hatfield outside of a courthouse, and escaped prosecution for the murder. Truth in Television.
  • Karmic Death: On the other hand, Griggs and Hickey both die during the final shootout, which was kicked off primarily by their stupid, cruel, and pointless murder of a young boy. Hickey in particular has a chance to get away from the fight, but stops to try and shoot Danny. This gets him perforated with a shotgun by the mother of the boy whom he's been abusing and threatening to kill for the entire film.
  • Man of the City: The mayor and sheriff are portrayed as people who want to limit the influence of the coal company because it's in the interests of the townspeople (who are treated as de-facto slaves by the company), refuse to be bribed, and put themselves in physical danger to confront the strikebreakers even when they have an opportunity to sit things out.
  • Men of Sherwood: In the climax, the miners, including lots of extras, nearly wipe out the (mostly) experienced Baldwin-Felts strikebreaker, mainly due to having better cover and being ready for a potential fight. They win very decisively, but, as a Curb Stomp Cushion, four miners are killed or wounded, three due to shooting without taking proper cover, and union organizer Joe and the mayor are also fatally shot in the crossfire.
  • 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 between the states". The movie is set in 1920.
  • Multi Tasked Conversation: Danny (a teenager active in union organizing) is doing some lay preaching at the local church. He knows that the coal company has framed Joe, the main activist, for being a company agent, 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.
  • Pinkerton Detective: Baldwin-Felts was a "detective agency" similar to the Pinkertons, hired by companies to violently suppress union organizing and strikes.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Most of the miners are very racist to the black and Italian workers brought in to replace them, which is a big stumbling block for union solidarity that Joe spends much of the film trying to overcome.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Griggs and Hickey both have all the worst prejudices of the time, being racist, sexist, classist, and disgusted with the "mountain trash" they've been assigned to deal with. Hickey in particular acts very rapey around Bridey Mae the first time he meets her, all while belittling her as a stupid hick.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Griggs, Hickey, The Mole, and their Glory Hound boss are all loathsome schemers or brutes who think nothing of killing for money, but not every Baldwin-Felts employee is like them. One of the lower-ranking men who shows up in the climax with the Felts brothers is a new hire who expresses confusion about what's going on to a colleague who shows some cynicism about their employers. The newer employee runs without trying to hurt the miners when the shooting starts.
    New Baldwin-Felts man: You fellas have any idea what's waiting for us?
    Other Baldwin-Felts man: You mean they didn't tell you?
    New Baldwin-Felts man: I just seen a line in the papers...
    Experienced Baldwin-Felts man: "Opportunity for red-blooded American men. Immediate openings, high pay, travel, chance for advancement. Apply Baldwin-Felts and write your own ticket." When the natives get restless someplace, they put that out. Hook some more Cannon Fodder.
  • Red Scare: The film is set during the First Red Scare in the US from 1919-1920, so 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 badass 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.
  • This Is Gonna Suck: After Sid and the Mayor have unceremoniously turn down Hickey and Griggs when they try to bribe them over to their side, and Hickey, as he leaves, warns them not to do anything stupid because things are going to get ugly, the mayor and Sid have the following conversation:
    Mayor: You think he's bluffin'?
    Sid: Nope.
  • Torture Always Works: The company detectives catch young Hillard Elkins who they know is part of the workers' strike, and try to squeeze the names of the strike leaders so they can "arrest" the leaders and break the union. They torture the poor kid until he starts giving up names. The detectives kill him anyway, only to find out that the names Hillard gave up are all on tombstones in the miners' graveyard that the workers had memorized in case they were forced to talk.
  • 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.