Like many good westerns, John Sayles’ semi-fictional account of the Battle of Matewan ends with a gun fight. It’s hard not to cheer when Sid Hatfield, the Wyatt Earp of Mingo County, faces down the Stone Mountain Coal Company’s Baldwin-Felts detectives in the center of the small town of Matewan, West Virginia. It’s two men, Hatfield and Matewan mayor Mayor Cabell Testerman, against a dozen. The real Sid Hatfield was short and blond. David Straithairn, the actor who plays Hatfield, is tall, dark, laconic, the prototypical Hollywood lawman. As the Stone Mountain Company goons, who have just murdered an innocent young miner in cold blood, swagger down Main Street, Straithairn unhooks the straps on the holsters of both his pistols. We think of Alan Ladd in Shane. Hickey, the lead Baldwin Felts man, a sneering, misogynistic bully who looks as if he just walked out of the cast of Boardwalk Empire, serves a writ to evict striking coal miners from their homes on company property. Mayor Testerman, a chunky nerd with a whiny high-pitched voice, informs him that the writ is fraudulent. Just then, Joe Kenehan, a union organizer, socialist and pacifist, runs around the corner yelling “no.” Sid Hatfield draws both his guns and shoots two of the detectives dead. Gunfire erupts from the surrounding buildings. Whether or not Hatfield helped set up the ambush will remain a mystery, but the Baldwin Felts detectives are outflanked, out-gunned, and completely routed, workers 1, corporate enforcers 0. Joe Kenehan, however, dies in the crossfire.
According to the voiceover that ends the film, the fictional Joe Kenehan, who had been opposed to armed resistance from the very beginning, was probably right. The very next year, Sid Hatfield would die in a hail of bullets on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse. Charles Everett Lively, the spy and agent provocateur played by Bob Gunton in the film, and like Hatfield a historical figure, put the final bullet in Hatfield’s skull. Once the conflict turns violent, the workers might win an occasional battle, but capitalists will win the war. In 1921, at the Battle of Blair Mountain, Logan County Sheriff Don Chaffin, who was on the payroll of the mine owners, crushed the United Mine Workers Union with the help of the West Virginia state government, and federal troops. All of the efforts of Mother Jones, Joe Kenehan’s real-life counterpart, were set back by over a decade. It was only when Franklin Roosevelt became President in the 1930s that the mine workers under John L. Lewis began to win important victories against the mine owners. On the other hand, if history proves Joe Kenehan right, it also proves him wrong. President Roosevelt did not grant concessions to organized labor out of the goodness of his heart, or because he genuinely agreed with their demands. On the contrary, the ruling-class Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted the New Deal not to protect workers, but to save capitalism. It was the specter of working-class violence, not the fear of passive resistance that led to the Bituminous Coal Conservation Act and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.
John Sayles, who might be the closest thing the United States has to a genuine socialist realist, poses a question. Has anything really changed? Does anybody still talk about it? Should we burn down the banks, and put the bankers up against the wall after the revolution? Or should we vote for a nice, moderate social democrat like Bernie Sanders? Is there any other question that really matters? When the black miner “Few Clothes” Johnson, played by an imposing James Earl Jones, tries to join the union, and is rebuffed with threats of murder, Joe Kenehan comes to his defense. That’s a worker, he argues. If you don’t admit blacks, it’s not a union. It’s a social club. There are only two categories of people in the world, those who work, and those who don’t. Sayles makes it clear that unless Anglo miners join forces black, and immigrant Italian miners, the mine owners will simply play one group off against another until they’re all reduced to the status of slaves. In one quietly effective scene, “Few Clothes” Johnson and his fellow black “scabs” are told they’ll be paid, not in United States legal tender, but in company script, redeemable only at the company store. They’re given a long list of essential tools, picks, shovels, masks, medical care, that will come out of their wages. When they realize that they are, in effect, already slaves, they decide to join with the Anglo and the Italian workers, both of whom Kenehan manages to convince that without the union, they aren’t too far removed from slavery themselves. All three groups, the Anglos, the blacks, and the Italians, leave Stone Mountain property and set up camp in the woods outside of town, where they learn to bond, to appreciate one another’s music, food, and tradition of resistance to capitalism. “Few Clothes,” like Kenehan, is smart enough to realize that armed resistance is futile. When black people start shooting at white people, he maintains, all that talk about class and racial solidarity goes out the window. Armed resistance will bring out the latent reactionary tendencies in even the most progressive of the Anglo miners. To resort to an armed struggle is to play a rigged game on the enemy’s home field by the enemy’s rules.
I don’t think Matewan would play well today among the “Social Justice Warriors” of today’s social media, or even among more serious “intersectional” Marxists. Made in 1987, when the prototypical blue-collar worker was Bruce Springsteen, a “cisgendered” white male, Matewan’s sexual politics are what you might call “problematic.” Compared to Barbara Kopple’s classic “Harlan County USA,” which puts women at the center of the working-class struggle, they’re downright reactionary. I can understand why Sayles would use the fictional Joe Kenehan instead of the real life Mother Jones. The use of a fictional instead of a historical character gives a writer more freedom to express his message. It’s what Sayles did with that freedom that might raise some eyebrows. At the center of Matewan is a false rape charge. Bridey Mae, played by Nancy Mettes, a young widow who waits at the train station to great newcomers to the town of Matewan, falls in love with Joe Kenehan. Her attraction to the charismatic union organizer goes unrequited. Kenehan has too many important things on his mind to worry about a silly woman. While the Baldwin-Felts detectives are all played as misogynistic thugs, who bully boarding house owner Elma Radnor, Mary McDonnell, an important character in her own right, Sayles shows himself to be a bit of a puritan scold. Bridey Mae is “shamed” for a very human impulse, being attracted to a “new face” in a small town in an isolated corner of West Virginia coal county, a place where “new faces” are probably quite rare. What’s more, she’s not only dumb. She’s willing to frame an innocent man for rape, and set him up to be murdered, simply because she thinks he’s spurned her advances. Most women are smarter than this. It’s too bad that an attractive, charismatic actress has to play a caricature invented by a “brocialist.” Maybe the idea that “hell hath no fury like a woman scored” has a kernel of truth, but it has no place in a revolutionary film like Matewan. To judge by his other films, John Sayles is no sexist. Sadly, he made a poor creative decision with Bridey Mae’s character.
Matewan’s shitty sexual politics might also have something to do with some of the confusion that we feel about the climatic gun fight. Did Sid Hatfield help set up the ambush? We don’t know. We don’t care. John Sayles can be a dull, pedestrian filmmaker. I didn’t enjoy Eight Men Out or Return of the Seacaucus Seven. I enjoyed Matewan immensely, but because of, not in spite of the climatic gunfight that Joe Kenehan warns us about. Take out that final gunfight, where a violent act of masculine fury rips through the fabric of a meticulously crafted history lesson, and had me pumping my fist in “brocialist” satisfaction — I badly wanted to be David Straithairn shooting it out with the corporate fascist thugs —and Matewan loses most of its appeal. If, as William Blake once remarked, “the true poet is of the devil’s party without knowing it,” and the devil is Dirty Harry or John Wayne, then maybe John Sayles is a bit closer to John Milius, and films like “Red Dawn,” then we usually think he is. In Matewan, he’s created a historical epic that only a “true poet”could make.