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Make This Movie: A Proper War Epic About Our Country’s Largest Labor Uprising

Happy Labor Day, everyone! And what a time for labor, isn’t it? For the first time in decades, employees have leverage over their employers in a historically tight labor market. Unionization is making a comeback in a variety of industries. If you consider yourself part of the working class, or even just work in any wage-earning job, this is an exciting time for you.

But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows; shortly after a criminal former President’s Palm Beach mansion was searched by the F.B.I. because he (allegedly!) did a whoopsie-doodle Espionage Act violation with some classified documents containing possible nuclear secrets, a lot of his supporters have been calling for “civil war!” at an even louder pitch than they usually do. These angry reactionaries have been fantasizing about a New Civil War or a Civil War II for quite a while, and it sure seems like we’re approaching a “put up or shut up” inflection point with these Neo-Confederates. Now, when we hear the words “civil war,” we understandably think of the American Civil War between the North and the South and ending with the abolishment of slavery (unless you’re incarcerated, of course, but that’s another story…). In terms of total American military casualties, it still ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in our history, so to hear a not-insubstantial number of Americans are itching to start another one is… pretty scary. 

But what if I told you America already did experience a second civil war? And I don’t mean in some abstract sense; I’m talking about a full-on war with machine guns and trenches and fortified military bases and the first-ever aerial bombardment on U.S. soil. Yes, this is a real event that your history classes almost certainly avoided teaching you in high school, and it would make for a gut punch of a large-scale cinematic depiction honoring the nearly-forgotten men and women responsible for your weekends and paid time off and workman’s comp and (for at least some of you) collective bargaining rights.

Last year, I lamented the paucity of new movies being produced these days about labor movements in the United States and did my best to recommend some of my personal favorites on the subject, including Silkwood, which features my favorite Meryl Streep performance, and the Greatest Documentary Ever Made™ Harlan County U.S.A..

But I regrettably forgot to mention another very good film recounting an important chapter in the history of the American labor movement: Matewan. Directed by the perpetually underrated filmmaker John Sayles, it’s a modest-but-poignant historical drama about a series of escalating conflicts between a United Mine Workers representative (played by future Academy Award winner Chris Cooper) trying to organize the titular town’s coal miners against the abuses of the Stone Mountain Coal Company, which culminate in a shootout between them and the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency (who were just glorified thugs for the mine bosses), which the epilogue explains was the spark that lit the fuse exploding into the Battle of Blair Mountain, aka the largest and bloodiest insurrection this country experienced since the American Civil War. That skirmish only ended with the intervention of the Army National Guard, and a pyrrhic victory for the mine bosses in the short term… but in the long term, it inspired future union organizers to continue to stand firm against unacceptable working conditions and their efforts became a crucial part of nationwide successes of the New Deal Coalition.

Sadly, Matewan itself was not a success at the box office, making back less than half of its modest budget at the box office and was only nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards. The late 80’s were just about the worst time to release a pro-union, pro-worker rights film in the United States, as the nation had come to accept President Ronald Reagan’s union-busting policies as the new status quo (the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which replaced the then-recently decertified Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization and had far weaker bargaining power, was formed during the year of Matewan’s release, in fact) and began passively adopting the neoconservative views of organized labor as Lazy Freeloaders and company bosses as Job Creators and all those other stereotypes repeated by Awards Radar’s favorite special boy Ben Shapiro.

Also, even in 1980’s dollars, $4 million was just barely enough to adequately depict the armed confrontation in Mingo County which left two miners, seven Baldwin-Felts agents (including brothers Albert and Lee Felts), and the town’s mayor dead. There was no way Sayles was going to be able to stage the large-scale trench warfare engaged by thousands of miners and hundreds of armed mining company enforcers that came afterward. Matewan is a terrific little movie, but it’s a modestly-scaled origin story. It’s a small piece of a much grander, prolonged, bloody struggle in the mountains of West Virginia over a century ago. Depicting the rest of the story would require something at least on the order of 1917 money and resources.

While no filmmaker “needs to” adapt a specific book to make a historical epic based on a true, it’s usually a good idea to adapt one as a point of reference (think back to Lincoln being partially based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals for a good example), and I can think of no better one for this event than The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising by the late Robert Shogan. It manages to capture the scale and stakes of the conflict, as well as the political and economic conditions of the time setting the stage for it, with remarkable clarity and detail in only 228 pages (minus the reference notes and bibliography), and provides a good blueprint for any competent filmmaker to mount a large scale two-and-a-half-to-three-hour long epic to provide the second part of the story Matewan was unable to tell.

Sadly, unlike past installments of this series, I am not optimistic (not even on an ironic level the way I was with Ms. I Ruined My Life Because A Hot Dude Fed Me Pudding Once At A Party Now I’m A Life Coach Please Give Me Money’s book) that we will ever see an ambitiously helmed, large-scale war epic depicting this harrowing event in American history. Honestly, I’m not even sure if smaller independent Matewan-type films have much of a future in this current filmmaking landscape. 2022 has been brutal for original movies with mid-to-large-scale budgets: Moonfall, The Northman, and Three Thousand Years of Longing tanked at the box office, and pretty much any original movie with real money behind it not named Elvis or Nope is struggling just to break even.

So the odds of any war epic that can’t be readily sold to America’s dads these days are already slim, and the odds of a Hollywood studio forking over the cash needed to produce such an epic? One that might inspire some unwanted thoughts from the very workers they’re shamelessly exploiting right now? That drops the odds of a proper Battle of Blair Mountain movie being made a reality down to pretty much nil.

Still, a cinephile can dream, and if nothing else, I can at least remind our loyal readers in this small corner of the internet about a part of American history that should not be forgotten, by this generation or the next.

Happy Labor Day, everyone!

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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