Salt of the Earth is a 1954 independent film directed by Herbert J. Bieberman, written by Michael Wilson, and produced by Paul Jarrico.
It is a dramatization of a real miners' strike in New Mexico. Esperanza and Ramon Quintero are a married couple living in the company town of Zinc Mine; Ramon is a miner. All the miners are exploited by their callous employers at Delaware Zinc Inc., but the Hispanic miners have it even worse, living in sad company shacks that lack running water. When Delaware Zinc's cheapskate insistence on having the Hispanic miners work alone instead of in pairs leads to a man nearly getting killed, the miners go on strike.
The strike is a months-long ordeal. Delaware Zinc tries to get scab workers through the picket lines but the union holds fast. Ramon spends thirty days in jail on trumped-up charges of assaulting a scab. The strike seems to be doomed when Delaware Zinc obtains a Taft-Hartley injunction requiring the miners to give up picketing or face arrest. However, one of the miners' wives notes that while the miners can no longer picket, the injunction doesn't say anything about the wives doing the picketing.
The wives take their place on the picket line. While they are successful in keeping the mine closed and frustrating the will of Delaware Zinc, the role reversal does not go down well with many of the miners. Ramon in particular is not happy about being left with the housekeeping and domestic chores while Esperanza leads the wives on the picket line.
Salt of the Earth proved highly controversial in the era of the Red Scare and The Hollywood Blacklist. Bieberman, Wilson, and Jarrico had all been blacklisted for their left-wing sentiments; Bieberman in fact was one of the infamous "Hollywood Ten" who were held in contempt of Congress for their refusal to name Communists in the movie industry. Salt of the Earth was Bieberman's first job after spending six months in prison. Additionally, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, which was behind the Real Life strike and which financed the film, had been booted out of the CIO in 1950 for having Communists in its leadership. As a result, the film was almost completely suppressed in the United States in 1954, appearing in only 12 theaters.
The movie featured only five professional actors: the three evil white company men, the evil white sheriff (Will Geer, who later played Grandpa on The Waltons), and Rosaura Revueltas, who starred as Esperanza. The other actors were local people and members of the real International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, Local 890.
Compare Letters From Marusia, a Mexican film with a similar story about heroic strikers.
- Amateur Cast/Autobiographical Role: In general the union members, but in particular Juan Chacon (Ramon), Clinton Jencks (Frank) and Henrietta Williams (Teresa, the leader of the women's auxiliary) play fictionalized versions of themselves and their roles in the actual strike.
- Bad to the Last Drop: How Esperanza gets involved with the strike. Ramon hates the coffee made by the other women.
- Based on a True Story: The Empire Zinc Strike of 1950-52, with events fictionalized and the name of the town and the company changed. Real Life union organizer Clinton Jencks plays Frank Barnes, an Expy of himself.
- Brick Joke: At a party, one of the wives tells the others that if anyone dances with her husband, they'll have to deal with his excessive butt-swiveling dancing. Later, at another party, as the husband is swiveling away, the wife points at his butt and nods to the other wives.
- Capitalism Is Bad: This film really never stood a chance of getting seen in the United States, seeing as how it's a portrait of brave, determined laborers joining together to fight against greedy capitalist bosses and their law enforcement lackeys. It did, however, get shown in Commnuist China, being the only American film shown there between 1950 and 1979.
- Company Town: Delaware Zinc owns everything, including the general store and the houses the miners live in.
- Corrupt Hick: The sheriff, though the focus is more on his being a pawn of the establishment than his being corrupt or a hick.
- A Day in Her Apron: Ramon has to spend quite a bit of time doing the domestic chores and looking after the kids while Esperanza is on the picket line. He does not like it at all.
- Exact Words: The miners are facing the bleak dilemma of either giving up their strike and getting nothing, or going to prison. Then one of the wives points out that while the injunction forbids the miners from picketing, it doesn't say anything about the wives.
- A Friend in Need: When word spreads that the Quinteros are getting evicted from their shack, everyone comes to their aid, and not just people in the town, but people who came over from the nearby open pit mine and the local mill.
- In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: The title card says "Salt of the Earth by Michael Wilson".
- Meaningful Name: Esperanza means "hope" in Spanish.
- Narrator: Esperanza's narration plays over the story.
- No Communities Were Harmed: Zinctown is the thinly fictionalized equivalent of Hanover and Silver City, where the actual strikes took place.
- Public Domain Feature Films: The film's copyright lapsed in 1982.
- The Quisling: Sebastian, a Mexican who first tries to sneak through the picket line to work as a scab, then identifies the female leaders of the strike so the sheriff can arrest them. Ramon holds him in particular contempt for betraying his own people.
- Spiteful Spit: A disgusted Ramon does this when he catches Sebastian, a fellow Mexican, trying to break through the picket line. This is all the sheriff needs to arrest Ramon on assault charges.
- The Stoic: Esperanza.
- Take a Third Option: Sending the wives out on the picket line, rather than giving up or remaining defiant and going to jail.
- Title Drop: The last lines of dialogue, as Esperanza reflects on what they've won."And then I knew we had won something they could never take away, and our children, the salt of the earth, they would inherit it."
- Translation Convention: Inconsistently applied. For most of the film the actors speak in English rather than the Spanish that the real Mexican mine workers surely would have used. In a couple of scenes where the actors veer into Spanish, Esperanza's narration explains what they're saying.
- Video Credits: Divided into the professional cast and the non-professional cast.
- Wrong Side of the Tracks: Literally, as Esperanza notes that the white miners living on the other side of the railroad tracks have better homes, that have running water.