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4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars

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on 25 August 2017
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on 1 February 2005
Many of John Sayles' films are about the oppression of the American working man by the man (Brother from Another Planet, Eight Men Out) and his broadly left-wing sensibilities suffuse all his work. It is funny that his best film (well in my opinion anyway) is literally about the oppression of the working class.
This is a fantastic movie - a terribly sad tale of a group of minors in Matewan, West Virginia in the 1920s as the struggle to unionise, fight for better pay and conditions. In fact the company is even more sinister: it owns their homes, it runs the only shop (they are not even paid in US dollars, they are paid in company scrip), effectively it owns them.
The main protagonist is the union representative sent into the town to help organise a strike. The film centres on him as it follows the story of strike through to the inevitable conclusion in violence and tragedy.
Almost every aspect of the film is close to perfection: the cinematography (presumably on a tiny budget) is beautiful and haunting, the story is well paced with a tangible feeling of authenticity and the cast is excellent. There is a real "sense of place" - I felt transported to West Virginia and into the lives of the strikers. This is not a simplistic film - it tackles complex subjects like justifiable violence and racism (when black workers are imported to break the strike) in an intelligent and thoughtful way.
Simply wonderful
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on 21 December 2006
It is a rarity these days to see a film that has a social conscience, what with Hollywood more preoccupied with more action and better special effects, so watching this movie feels a little like wallowing in nostalgia. It is a slice of movie as history lesson, written and directed by one of the last humanitarian directors still working today, John Sayles.

Taking as its starting point the labour wars that went on in America during the 1920's, the film deals with the fictional account of a group of West Virginia miners in the town of Matewan. After the Stone Mine Coal Company reduces rates of pay yet again, the miners go on strike, with the result that the company bring in hired guns both to remove the miners from company owned houses, and protect the mine from sabotage attempts. Gradually things escalate, and violence breeds violence as the genuine grievances of the miners are met head on with the intransigence of the company.

Working with a trio of his favourite actors, Sayles has crafted a film that whilst it deals with a fictionalised event, has such a compelling ring of truth to it that you may find it hard to believe that you are not watching historical fact (as indeed I did). Chris Cooper is superb as Joe Kenehan, the man brought in by the fledgling United Mine Workers union to try to help the miners organize, who must fight against the miners natural inclination to fight fire with fire whilst trying to convince them that solidarity is the only way, and Mary McDonnall gives a quiet, dignified performance as Elma Radnor, a widow who's husband has already met his death down the mine due to the company's appalling safety record, and now sees her son risking the same as he becomes a miner himself. But the two standout performances are David Strathairn as the towns sheriff, a slight figure of a man who refuses to be bullied by the companies thugs and is prepared to do whatever he must in order to protect the people under his jurisdiction, and James Earl Jones as the aptly named Few Clothes, one of a number of workers brought in by the company to work the mine who finds his true sympathies lie with the striking miners.

The film deals with Sayles preoccupation of the little man being given a rough ride by those in power, and whilst his other films have only handled this subject in a metaphorical manner (such as Eight Men Out), this deals with it in a head on, literal sense. Whilst the film literally screams worthiness from the very opening shot, it avoids sermonising on the whole (apart from a few scenes when characters do, literally deliver sermons), and manages to salute both a pacifist ideal and at the same time admit that some ideals must occasionally be defended with violence. It is also something of a slow burn, with several scenes managing to avoid the expected violence altogether, but when the violence does come it is both quick and brutal, tragic and life changing.
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Matewan is a pleasant surprise. The subject matter cries out `dull but worthy' and John Sayles is distinctly hit-and-miss when dealing with historical subjects, as the problematic Eight Men Out underlines, but this is quite a superb movie with a scope well beyond its budget. Almost a slow burn western as a miner's strike leads slowly but inevitably to a violent shootout between the railroad detectives and the local lawman and strikers, it's an involving and intelligent piece of work. That's not to say it's without problems: it perhaps overstates Kevin Tighe's villainous stupidity (could he really have laughed his way through a sermon without seeing the relevance?), a scene where the white, black and Italian miners set aside their differences through music feels too Hollywood, and Haskell Wexler over diffuses the light a couple of times in that irritating late-70s-early-80s way in his otherwise exemplary cinematography.

Sayles briefly offers another one of his stomach-turning cameos as a preacher, but at least he's only in it for a minute or two (unlike his genuinely irritating Ring Lardner impersonation in Eight Men Out) and he's on much more solid grounds with his impressive ensemble cast - a young Chris Cooper on excellent form, Mary McDonnell before she got irritating, James Earl Jones before he stopped acting, David Strathairn, Bob Gunton and Will Oldham among them. You get the sense that Sayles likes his characters and cares for them. It's that which prevents the film from slipping into easy dogma and posturing and which makes it still seem surprising and shocking when the inevitable violence breaks out. And it's that that helps you overlook the flaws and embrace its many strengths.

No extras, but at least Second Sight's DVD is widescreen.
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on 10 September 2016
I joined a union for the first time in the spring of this year. My employer, a national university in Japan where I teach English literature, among other subjects, decided out of the blue to lay off 16 foreign teachers in the English Department without compensation starting in the 2017 academic year. The university said it had no choice because of budget constraints, shrinking enrolments, mounting costs, etc. Our replacements would be young recruits from local English language schools who may or may not be university educated and who would work at pay rates half of what ours are. Downsizing indeed.

The union stepped in. We had two tense meetings with the administration: raised voices, fists banged on tables, sparks metaphorically flying. Flyers around campus were distributed to notify teachers in other departments. The local media were contacted. Classroom sit-ins and shutdowns were threatened.

We won. The university caved in, backed down, chickened out. I write of this now in support of unions and to defend them against those who criticise or condemn them, feeling they’re useless, unproductive and pointless. They are not and there’s a long, bitter and bloody history behind their existence in the world. The rights of workers were only ever recognised and dealt with when the workers themselves organised and formed unions to fight for better working conditions and wages, and to have their rights written into law and thereby protected. Bosses were never going to give an inch unless made to do so. Unions are what forced their hand. But of course the war between workers and bosses goes on, as my case illustrates. We’ve won a battle, but I suspect the struggle is not over. I don’t trust the ethics of the administration and there will be no moral epiphany with them. Actually, they wouldn’t know what a moral epiphany is even if they looked it up.

But our plight was child’s play compared to what early union organisers went through in the 1920s in the U.S. No blood was spilled on our campus in Japan. Not so in America where workers came together to defend themselves against exploitive, ruthless and sometimes violent employers. The violent dirty work was done by hired goons and thugs. They were brought in to physically intimidate and assault workers. This important film by John Sayles starkly illustrates what some workers went through, in this case miners in West Virginia who basically worked as indentured coolies, risking their health and lives in dangerous working conditions in the shafts and tunnels of coal mines. At low pay, of course. The film, made in 1987, has since become an American classic and deserves to be treasured.

Matewan is a small town in Mingo County in the southwestern hill country of West Virginia. It became a flashpoint of labour unrest in 1920 when miners and union organisers were assaulted by enforcers hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, the employer of the miners. The film presents the background to this unrest: the unhealthy working and living conditions of the miners, their poverty, their struggling families, the greed and callousness of the company, and the divide between rich and poor in a country whose Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” America prides itself on being an idealistic country. But it’s also a hypocritical one.

Word about the poor working conditions and unrest in Matewan has spread. A union man from Ohio named Joe Kenehan is sent by the United Mine Workers Union to intercede and organise the workers, few of whom have been in a union before. The initial unrest had been caused by wage cuts made by the coal company. Any worker refusing the cut was to be fired and replaced. But more strife is now ensuing as the company has called in temporary ‘scab’ workers to replace those who would not accept the wage cuts. So, pressure now mounts on the workers from two sides (from the company and replacement workers) and soon there will be a third source of pressure (outside enforcers brought in by the mining company). Two agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency duly arrive in Matewan. Their names are Hickey and Griggs. Both are arrogant, belligerent and carry guns. Their job is to intimidate and evict people — whole families, not just workers — from their homes. It’s nasty work like fumigating houses for roaches, but they don’t mind, as all these backward hillbillies they toss out, along with all their possessions, aren’t much better than roaches anyway.

Hickey and Griggs have been told there’s a red in town, a communist agitator stirring up trouble. That would be Joe Kenehan, Enemy No. 1. Silencing and eliminating him would fulfil part of their work order.

Joe’s own work, meanwhile, is not easy. He’s got to deal with fear, suspicion, ignorance. Some workers don’t even know what a union is or does.

An important scene occurs early on in the film. One of the replacement workers brought in by the mining company has been a union man, though the company does not know this. He’s a black man named Few Clothes Johnson. We can imagine how a poor man like him got his nickname. Johnson has heard there’s to be a clandestine union meeting in the town tonight. He tries to find it. A miner with a shotgun finds him and brings him to the meeting at gunpoint, as Johnson has explained to him why he wants to attend.

There are some Italian miners at the meeting too. They were brought in by the Stone Mountain Coal Company because as unskilled immigrant workers they could be hired to work for even lower pay than the native miners. No one is happy, all feel exploited, including Few Clothes Johnson.

The door swings open and all eyes focus on Johnson. Some in the room are disgusted to see a black man in their presence. Not only black, also a scab. Johnson feels the hatred directed at him. But he’s an old hand by now, maybe past 50, and he’s had a lifetime full of being hated. He can handle it. He hasn’t any respect for the opinions of most white folk anyway, as he has seen more than enough of them and what they’re made of. But he will not abide being called a scab and now challenges anyone in the room to try to shift more coal than he can. Johnson is a big man — tall, broad-shouldered, burly. He also has a fierce temper, now duly noted by all. No challengers in the room stand up.

But Joe Kenehan does, though not to challenge Johnson — to challenge everyone else in the room. He does this with a forceful speech that resonates round the room:

“You want to be treated like men? You want to be treated fair? Well, you aren’t men to that coal company. You’re equipment like a shovel, a pick axe, a hunk of wood brace. They’ll use you till you wear out or break down or you’re buried under a slate fall, then they’ll get a new one. And they don’t care what colour it is or where it comes from. It don’t matter how long your family has lived on this land. You’re just so much garbage to these people. 

You think this man [pointing at Johnson] is your enemy? This is a worker. Any man that keeps this man out ain’t in a union. Now they [the company] got you fighting white against coloured, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides to this world — them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t. That’s all you got to know about the enemy.” 

Hickey and Griggs go to work the day after they arrive. They drive out to a spot on the edge of town where some company shacks are built. They stop outside one house. Swing on the front wooden porch, wash hung out to dry on the line, baby crying. This ain’t gonna be pretty, dragging a family from its home. Neighbours collect round the car, staring with contempt at Hickey and Griggs. Police Chief Sid Hatfield arrives, deputises all the men round him, informs Hickey and Griggs that if they don’t clear off right now they’ll be under arrest and taken down to the town jail. They look at each other, chuckle a bit, then Hickey says to Sid:

“O.K., have it your way for now, but you’re gonna lose. This is company property and these people gotta go. Nobody here works for the company now.”

So now Police Chief Sid Hatfield is involved, some men have been deputised, and Mayor Cabell Testerman will soon get involved as well. Gradually, the battle lines are being drawn.

Hickey was right about the evictions, though. They were carried out eventually and hundreds of families were tossed from their homes. They lived in tents for weeks during the spring of 1920, their living conditions even poorer than they had been in the company shacks.

An agent provocateur, a traitor, is in the midst of the new union. He’s bought and paid for by the Stone Mountain Coal Company but to the other miners he’s one of them, temporarily unemployed while on strike. His name is C.E. Lively, and he went down in infamy in this piece of labour history in America.

Lively works to spread dissension and suspicion among the strikers by playing on their fears. He fabricates lies and spreads rumours, one of which is so serious it almost gets Joe Kenehan killed. Luckily, he is not. Lively’s cover is eventually blown and his house burned down by the angry miners, incensed by his betrayal of them and their cause. A hunted man, he swims for his life across the Tug Fork River and runs to safety in the woods. People talk of karma all the time but it’s an illusion. There is no karma. Lively will live on, as his name suggests. In 1921, a year after the Matewan Massacre, he’ll be part of a conspiracy to murder Sid Hatfield, the chief of police in Matewan. Violence, as ever, begets violence, the insidious circle endless.

The strike lasts weeks, the company calls in more Baldwin-Felts men, things come to a head. Like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, blood is demanded. On one clear bright morning a dozen men, including Hickey and Griggs, walk slowly along the railroad tracks that lead to the Matewan train station. With them they carry rifles, shotguns and hand guns. Inside the buildings that line one side of the tracks the deputised miners wait. Others are on the roofs of the buildings or in the woods across from the tracks. All the miners are armed, their rifles and shotguns cocked.

Sid Hatfield and Mayor Testerman walk toward the Baldwin-Felts men. Police chief Hatfield is armed, the mayor is not. Both sides stop a few feet from one another. Mayor Testerman speaks and says the town wants no violence. Sid Hatfield says nothing. The Baldwin-Felts men are silent too. It seems the mayor is the only one left who wants to talk. But, as it happens, a different form of wordless exchange shall shortly ensue.

These things are never pretty and the so-called Matewan Massacre wasn’t. But it became a turning point and rallying cry for unions and miners organising elsewhere in the States.

The history of unionising is largely a fight for fairness. Also, a fight for human decency: decent wages, working conditions, housing and living conditions for workers and their families. The fight is noble and remains so.

The film feels authentic throughout. The accents are local, a mountain dialect delivered in cadences that are slow and lazy, long vowels and long pauses. The drawl feels weary, put upon, reflecting the hard times of people who are poor, remote, neglected. The music is real too: bluegrass and white gospel. The songs are laments meant for heaven, rising from great hardship and need. Relief and redemption are sought, as earthly conditions have let them down. But if the people can’t count on heaven to deliver, they must organise.

Unions therefore are a force for good. They make up for the heartlessness of some men. By fighting for their human rights the miners of Matewan advanced the cause of civilisation by a few inches. Those who dispute this are as bad as the bosses of the Stone Mountain Coal Company or the thugs they hired to prevent justice from being done. They side with brutality and barbarity. I ought to tell this to the president of the university where I work but I won’t because he’s clueless.
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on 27 March 2009
Matewan is a small mining town in West Virginia and the film is staged during the early 1920's. The Stone Mountain Coal Company bosses announce a wage cut and the immediate response from the workers is an all out strike. A train arrives containing Italian and Black workers to fill the striking workforce. Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) is also on the train and is a Union organiser whose task is to re-unite all the disillusioned factions of the dispute. Kenehan's task is to win the self-belief of the people and to educate them in the ways of controlled labour.

In the early years of the twentieth century, mine workers in West Virginia lived in dismal poverty. Forced into the 'truck' system, they were paid, not in cash, but in company credits. They had no choice but to spend their earnings at the company store, where the mine owners dictated and controlled prices. This included items such as food, clothes and other necessities. On top of this, each worker was obliged to buy his own tools and to pay for washhouse facilities.

'Few Clothes' Johnson (James Earl Jones) a mild and temperate man understands mining more than most and is appreciated by his fellow workers because of his approach to troubled times currently at the mine. He abhors violence of any kind and tries to find solutions to the local problems without resorting to aggression and violent behaviour, but he will fight to protect his people against their natural enemies - the agents of the mine owners.

At first the newly arrived Italians do not integrate well due to language barriers and again with the emerging Union agitation, they are seen as outsiders. The mine owners exploit the Italians as strike-breakers and for a time hostilities ferment on these Italian, Blacks and American fronts. Strangely, It is through the womenfolk that the antipathy between Americans and Italians is overcome. At first, the women are every bit as hostile towards one another as the men, as shown in the individual clashes throughout the film. Slowly, the never ending struggle to feed their families, co-existing together and sharing the same harrowing experiences of surviving such hard times draw the Italians and American families together in the fact that they appear more united than divided, culminating in the Italians joining the strike in support of unfair administration from the mine owners and their agents.

The Company now seeing their efforts of breaking the strike slowly deteriorating, bring in hired strong armed vigilantes to town - company men with the ultimate intention of finally suppressing the strike. Their unwanted presence ignites more trouble, and tensions escalate promoting increased scenes of aggressive violence in this volatile community.

The soundtrack, which accompanies the action and the genuine backdrops are in perfect keeping with what is in essence a true story. John Sayles, the Director consistently makes intelligent and meaningful films and with Matewan he has clearly reached his pinnacle.

David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, and Mary McDonnell - everyone on the cast delivers a truly convincing performance. One cannot help feeling that you were really present and illustrates this often overlooked event in American history with a stark realism that will leave you pondering about it over and over, way after the final credits roll.
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on 27 April 2001
I saw this film first as a teen on late-night TV years ago, and it has been nestling in my head like a memory of an old friend. Sayles is a master of telling powerful stories without resorting to worn-out Hollywood cliches, and this is no different. Characters talk, act...LIVE within this tale of Union men trying to get what they deserve,and there is no sentimental pay-off or cop-out. This is a richly rewarding piece of art that deserves several viewings...and if you are a fan of the Palace Brothers/Bonnie Prince Billy, there is an extra treat in Will Oldhams performance that seems to foreshadow his later musical personae.
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on 2 June 2015
Matewan is a town in West Virginia in the 1920's. The great majority of workers are employed by the Stone Mountain Coal Company where conditions of labour are hard and dangerous, the Company seeing no reason to bring in expensive safety measures. The miners have to hire the tools from the Company and live in houses owned by the Company. Wages are low and to make matters worse the miners are not paid in US dollars but in 'script', money which can only be used at the company store which is owned by the Company who thus control quality of goods and prices. Slavery may well have been abolished but this is slavery by another name.
When the Company cut their wages, the miners strike but their local union has been infiltrated by a company man who acts as an agent provocateur encouraging the striking miners to resort to violence, giving the Company justification to meet like with like.
The Company respond by hiring non union workers - Italians and African Americans from Alabama - who travel to Matewan by train. The train is stopped by the striking miners who attack the non union workers. However on the train is Joe Kenehan an organiser for the United Mine Workers Union. His job is to unite all the workers and persuade the non union workers to join the union.
The Company respond by bring in the thugs from the Baldwin-Felts agency who attempt to evict the miners from their homes. However, help is coming from an unlikely source...
The film should be compulsory viewing for all those who rejoice at more laws to curb the unions and repeal of labour laws, euphemistically termed 'less government'. This is particularly so as this story is true: Matewan exists and the battle between the Company and the Union actually happened. Many - but not all - of the characters in the film existed.
Remember, Matewan is only a short walk away.
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on 29 February 2004
Matewan is a superb film, good acting, excellently shot, and a rivetting story.
The ending is violent, but that too is well done.
The film is about a coal miners strike in 1920's USA. As a union man, I was swinging between pride and anger throughout the film. It's a brilliant portrayal of what our forefathers went through to get where we are now.
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on 17 August 2003
This film is about the absolute power Capitalists want. Not the namby pamby power of the "right to manage" which Thatcher droned on about but real gun toting, red in tooth and claw absolute control.
Set in pre WW1 West Virginia, the workers have the audacity to want a better life - horror of horrors the United Minewokers of America turn up and all hell breaks loose!
After trying (and failing) to turn the various nationalities against each other, the tactic of starving the workers back and the murder of several strikers, the Capitalists hire a private army (backed up by the US Army) which brings about an enormous wild west style shoot out in the small mining town.
If you are a left leaning type it should make you fear the future; your employer really would like the return of "the good old days"; if you are right leaning then the film shows that you cant crush the workers forever.
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