Maybe somebody on the Netflix website has film-curatorial ambitions and is pushing for people to see and reassess Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires, a largely forgotten film that is, rather surprisingly, available on the Netflix on demand service. If so, good for him or her. The Molly Maguires definitely deserves another look. (if you don’t know who the Molly Maguires were, get thee to a Wikipedia entry. OK, if you’re too lazy to click on the link, the Molly Maguires were militant Irish mineworkers who used violence and sabotage to struggle against the brutal union-busting tactics of the mineowners in Pennsylvania coal country in the 1870s, as well as sticking it to scabs, Germans, and Welshmen. Today we’d call them terrorists.)
The movie was an expensive flop when it came out in 1970. It was derided as the last gasp of old-fashioned Hollywood studio filmmakers desperately trying to come to terms with the revolutionary transformation of audience, artistry, and attitude that brought us Bonnie & Clyde, Easy Rider, etc. etc. etc. Four decades later, stripped of the expectations and prejudices of its time, The Molly Maguires is a powerful peace of work. Consider it the anti-Doctor Zhivago, a thinking-person’s epic, set in the turmoil of America in the midst of the industrial revolution instead of Russia during the Soviet revolution. But there are problems that contributed to its negative critical reception and dismal box office.
Instead of lots of pretty white snow, you’ve got tons of dirty black coal. Instead of a love affair involving the luminous Julie Christie, you’ve got a fraught and unfulfilled bromance between Richard Harris (a detective infiltrating the Mollies) and Sean Connery (the leader of the local Molly cell), their charisma smothered under lumpy clothes, soup-strainer moustaches, and Amos-and-Andy levels of facial coal dust. And instead of a gauzy depiction of bourgeois romance with its hopes and dreams and fears, you get an unblinking look at the ruthless, iron-hard determination of the most gifted and ambitious members of the working class to escape the miseries of their birth and circumstances.
The film was produced and directed by Martin Ritt. Presumably Ritt was able to get The Molly Maguires green-lit because he was riding a string of winners featuring Paul Newman, including Hud, the film that defined Newman’s career, and Hombre, another hard edged depiction of American history leavened with plenty of action, gunplay, and dramatic catharsis.
Anyway, Ritt was given $11 million—a gigantic budget for the time-and he put all the money on screen. A replica of a Pennsylvania coal mine, reputed the largest indoor set ever built, was constructed on a Hollywood soundstage. On location in Eckley, Pennsylvania, Ritt recreated an 1870s mining town accurately enough that it still serves as the heart of a Pennsylvania state historical museum. Ritt and his cinematographer, James Wong Howe, also shot around the existing coal operations in the area (one of the more affecting scenes shows two proletarian lovers trekking to their picnic spot through a blasted moonscape of tailings ponds and dead trees), and in the 19th century prison and courthouse in Pennsylvania in which the Mollies had been held and tried.
True to his epic/art-house ambitions, Ritt tried to get the picture shot in black and white but was understandably turned down by the suits at Paramount. Instead, Ritt managed to express his artistic side with the understated ochres of Howe’s photography, a wordless 15 minute prologue, and the remarkable decision to not let Sean Connery speak until 45 minutes into the movie.
The Molly Maguires was a labor of love for Ritt and his screenwriter, Walter Bernstein. Ritt has described it as his favorite of his own films. Ritt and Bernstein had been blacklisted as a result of the Hollywood red scare in the 1950s and at the heart of the movie they placed the conundrum of Richard Harris, the tough immigrant striver infiltrating the Molly Maguires, as he is torn between his desire to nail the Mollies and climb the company ladder into the middle class and his class-based sympathy for the conspirators and their desperate recourse to violence.
Ritt, known as an actor’s director, makes all the right choices in eliciting credible and moving performances from his cast despite the difficult material.
There is a wonderful moment when Harris secretly reports to the company police about Molly-related mischief. The captain peremptorily orders Harris to give up the names, and one can imagine Ritt, carrying in his heart his memory of the HUAC experience, instructing Harris to hold his reply for an extra beat and…
…well, no spoilers here. But just to warn you, there’s no uplift and you won’t come out of the theater (or, rather, your Netflix-watching den) humming the theme song.
No wonder the movie didn’t do great. Ritt claims he couldn’t get work for years as a result of The Molly Maguires (he made his comeback with the equally labor-themed but considerably sunnier Norma Rae, starring Sally Field). The powers that be supposedly decided that Sean Connery was box-office poison if he wasn’t playing James Bond, and Richard Harris, instead of catapulting to stardom, became a perennial supporting player (low point: exhorting Bo Derek to endure as her naked torso is slathered for sacrifice by the native folk in Tarzan; high point: going out as Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies).
The Molly Maguires is without compromise, a remorseless, two-hour look at what people have to do when they’re at the bottom of the ladder and the only choices they are offered are bad ones. The sacrifices that the Mollies and the miners make are absolute, without the feel good “triumph of the spirit” sentiments of Hollywood’s usual depictions of labor struggles that threaten but don’t quite upset the existing order. Joe Hill, in other words, isn’t alive as you or me. He’s just fucking dead.