Ever since the dawn of the industrial revolution and the stratification of socioeconomic status into a class hierarchy never before seen, conflict theorists have appeared to define the unjust. From William Blake’s poetry to Karl Marx’ manifestoes, from Bethlehem Steel strikes to the current Labor Party, from Castro to the Zapatistas, from Lenin to Mao Tse Tung, from the Molly Maguires to Jimmy Hoffa, the desire to upgrade the conditions of the working man have had a continual role in justifying violence, providing an equilibrium to keep capital owning interests in check, and offering some form of purpose, identity, and release to the tribal nature of humans in a world of disintegrating, or disintegrated, tribes.
The Molly Maguires were one such voice in the 1870s. The 1970 film is based on this time and this group. The reviews were mixed, as reviews always are. A sentence of background here: the Mollies were Irishmen working in the anthracite coal mines of Pennsylvania who used violence and terrorism to combat the conditions and owners of the mines. The movie had some historical accuracy as far as the character of James McParlan (McKenna), a Pinkerton detective who infiltrated the secret organization, attained evidence, and later testified against the Mollies in court; and also John "Black Jack" Kehoe, the head organizer of the Mollies. Where the movie split from history was especially noted by Richard Schickel and Stanley Kauffman.
Andrews, Nigel. “The Molly Maguires.” Sight and Sound Summer 1970, 163.
Andrews liked the photography. He compared Kehoe and McParlan’s portrayal to Conrad’s novella, “The Secret Sharer,” analyzing the psychology of the characters: the fiery rage of Kehoe versus the fiery reason of McParlan. He also enjoyed the film's simplicity and the authenticity of the region’s people. The story of the film is told in the review.
Kael, Pauline. “What’s Going On in Cinema.” The New Yorker 7 February 1970, 91.
An intelligent critique without notable reference to the history of the Mollies. Kael feels that “The Molly Maguires is a failure, nailed on its own aspirations to the tragic and the epic, yet it’s an impressive failure.” Kael finds the film to have visual and “elegiac” qualities. Her kindest words about content are that the film’s good and bad elements as “paradoxical.” It is not a movie one can build “enthusiasm for” but “is not a negligible movie” either. The cinematic work imposes solidity while the story line falls short. Kael feels that there is an immense “intellectual short circuit” in the presentation of violence without any plan of action as to how the violence will help the condition of the miners. She does not, in any way, reflect on the historical accuracy of the film, instead focusing on an analogy with contemporary (1970) American black violence. Kael feels the story is “dubious, a dirge trumped up for current relevance.” She disliked the romanticism lingering over scenes and would have preferred more dramatic action.
Kauffman, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffman on films; The Molly Maguires.” The New Republic 21 February 1970, 20; 31.
Kauffman begins with a strong historical paragraph, telling us the origin of the Molly Maguires as cut-throat cross dressers in Ireland who had been fighting absentee English landlords before the Pennsylvania sect was founded thirty years later. A splinter group of the more moderate Ancient Order of Hibernians both in Ireland and Pennsylvania, the two groups “were different in policy, not in conviction” (20).
The review tells the history of McParlan (a.k.a. McKenna) “worming his way into the Mollies.” Kaufmann's research is extraordinary for a reviewer. For example, he writes that “In Toil and Trouble, his history of the U.S. labor movement, Thomas R. Brooks says: ‘McParlan, possibly the first labor spy in American history [ingratiated himself with the Mollies] in the manner of terror and intimidation.’ On the testimony that McParlan gave after he fingered men for arrest, fourteen Mollies were imprisoned ‘and ten -- the guilty along with the innocent -- were hanged.’ The Mollies were crushed.”
Kauffman enjoys the history and the subject but dislikes the concept. He believes that the love story between McParlan and his lovely young landlady is menace turned melodrama. Even the choice of Technicolor over black and white film “tends to prettify instead of heighten.” He feels that the film never fully adds closure to its own theme. He sees McParlan as a sketch of a character who goes through the act of expressing his mixed-up allegiances skimpily, almost “unswervingly and unaffected throughout.” To Kauffman, McParlan has nothing on the insides. McParlan's experiences do not reaffirm old convictions or affect him in any way.
Kauffman does find the last scene interesting, when McParlan visits Black Jack in his cell, but he feels that director and screenwriter kick it to cliché by having Black Jack lose his temper. The violence of the pub brawl, the murder of a supervisor, the beating of a policeman, and the burning of the country store are expressed as “set pieces in a picture that circumnavigates its issues.” “The American mines still wait to be mined in American films.”
Mifflin, Wilfred. “The Molly Maguires." Films in Review March 1970, 182.
Mifflin feels “the film fails to recreate the bitter drama -- here turned melodrama -- of that industrial conflict of a century ago.” Richard Harris, feels Mifflin, was unlike McParlan 100%. Finlay as Captain Davies was synthetic, and Sean Connery as Black Jack Kehoe seemed to be proving he was no longer James Bond.
Schickel, Richard. “Revolution in America, 1876; The Molly Maguires.” Life 13 February 1970, 12.
This review goes into particular specifics on where the movie stems from history. In portraying the two main characters, John “Black Jack” Kehoe and James McParlan (a.k.a. McKenna), Schickel says the film “shows them to be psychological twins : they are both hard and passionate Irishmen, driven by the same desire, which is to make the United States fulfill the promise it held out to immigrants -- not necessarily success, but certainly a decent life. Each, in his own way, must preserve his goal: the one as an informer, the other as a murderer.” A large grievance of this review is that the film is not historically accurate enough, that in focusing on the McParlan / Black Jack relationship the audience was not shown “the size, the scope, and the length” of the struggle. Schickel thought the acting made up for the historical blundering and called it, half-heartedly, a good film.
The script is praised as being “careful, built solidly"; the direction as “thoughtful, balanced.” That the miners showed “no sign of redress through gentler methods” creates a strong film for this reviewer, an emotionally accurate view of history. The photography he calls deliberate, shot “by one of the best and last of the studio formalists,” but it might have made the movie lose some numbers at the box office because it lacks the quick-cuts of modern cinema. The visuals are “perhaps too poetic, softening up a landscape that ought to remain as harsh as its history.”
"A Tale of Moral Complexity." Time 23 February 1970, 76
The notation of the actual history of the Mollies leads immediately into a retardation of that history by the review’s synopsis-like critique. This mystery reviewer gives a thumbs down to Matthew Ritt for directing without much dramatic emphasis but commends him for his work with the actors. The screenplay has the reviewer ecstatic. “Walter Bernstein’s screenplay is a perfect model of the craft, some of the best movie writing in recent years.”
Walsh, Moira. “The Molly Maguires.” America 21 February 1970, 200.
History meets reviewer in Walsh, who was biased to advocate this film, as she admits. Her personal lineage is in favor of the film for she is a descendant of coal miners from the region. She does write that the film “admittedly has an oddly incomplete narrative structure,” although a necessary historical perspective on two “entirely different accounts.” These two accounts are left unmentioned. In conjecture, perhaps she meant labor and race issues? She says the film has “a chilling contemporary relevance.”
Copyright (c) 1999 by Peter A. Weisman, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.
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