A little-known chapter of American labor history is brought vividly to life in this period drama from writer-director John Sayles. It's a fictional story about labor wars among West Virginia coal miners during the 1920's, ... more »but every detail is so right that the film has the unmistakable ring of truth. The tension begins when the Stone Mountain Coal Company of Matewan, West Virginia, announces a lower pay rate for miners, who respond by calling a strike under the leadership of a United Mine Workers representative (Chris Cooper). Proving strength in numbers, the miners are joined by black and Italian miners who initially resist the strike, and a fateful battle ensues when detectives hired by the coal company attempt to evict miners from company housing. Violence erupts in a sequence of astonishing, cathartic intensity, and Matewan achieves a rare degree of moral complexity combined with gut-wrenching tragedy. The film salutes a pacifist ideal while recognizing that personal and political convictions often must be defended with violence. To illustrate this point, Sayles enlisted master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who creates the film's authentic visual texture--a triumph of artistry over limited resources. The result is a milestone of independent filmmaking, and Matewan remains one of Sayles's finest achievements. --Jeff Shannon« less
tokyo111 | Los Angeles, CA United States | 11/07/2003
(1 out of 5 stars)
"John Sayles' best film merits a far better DVD treatment than this technical travesty.
Others here have mentioned the film's amazing cinematograhy, fine performances (indierockers note: a young Will Oldham -- aka singer/songwriter Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- has a featured role) and stirring story. But it bears repeating that this digital transfer is *atrocious*. The film is presented in "full-screen" format, lopping off the edges of Haskell Wexler's beautiful frames. Celluloid scratches and "reel change" hole-punches are visible throughout. And the sound, if you can believe it, is worse -- it's in hissy, almost inaudible MONO, for God's sake!
Zero commentaries. Almost no bonus extras, unless you count a few panels of "production notes."
Not worth a purchase. Wait for the morons at Artisan to get their collective act together and give this fine film the gold-star release it deserves."
Bleak mood sets the tone of this coal mine strike story
Linda Linguvic | New York City | 03/16/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"This 1987 film, written and directed by John Sayles, is based on a real incident from the 1920, when workers from a West Virginia coal mine went on strike. Chris Cooper stars as a labor union organizer who comes to the town which is run the Company that have just brought in a trainload of black men as well as a group of Italian families to do the work of the strikers. James Earl Jones is cast as the leader of the blacks who says out loud that he understands people can't help calling him the "N" word, but no man can ever call him a "scab". Will Oldham is cast as a 14-year old mine worker and sometimes preacher. There are heroes and villains in this film, and Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp are the kind of bad guys you love to hate. The pace is slow as the story unfolds, each actor giving depth to his or her role. The Union is represented as a good and unifying force for the diverse types of people caught up in the drama. The company is represented as bad. Really bad. Not only did they exploit their workers and push people out of their homes, they also did not stop at brutal murder. There were enough personal stories to keep the film interesting although I found some of the speeches a little long and talky. It was all about mood and bleakness and John Sayles sure is a master of setting the mood. Most of the extras in the film lived in the area of Appalachia where it was shot and the close-ups of their faces added to the film's authenticity.One of the problems was that the transfer of the film to DVD wasn't done well. The sound was muffled and some of the words were indistinct. And the shots set in the forest were so dark that it was hard to tell what was going on. I enjoyed the film although I thought it was too long. Followers of John Sayles work will enjoy it though, as well as those with an interest in union struggle."
Word to the wise: Canadian widescreen available
Linda Linguvic | 02/26/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Just an announcement for Sayles fans and fans of this film: a very good widescreen dvd of this film does exist, but it's only being produced in Canada. Its sound is infinitely better than anything else available (you can hear all the dialogue!), and the widescreen transfer is totally decent. You can read a review of this dvd at dvd verdict, but trust me--it's ten times better than the full-screen US transfer and very comparable in price. Just shop around Canadian dvd stores online and you'll find it.
Given what we learned about the peacefulness of our neighbor to the north in Bowling For Columbine, it's ironic that this most bloody-minded of Sayles films should be released there and not here. No other film I can think of more clearly explains the tragic connections between violence and class politics in American history. Lefty types such as myself have always loved this film, but I know a good many conservatives who do as well. The story of the little guy fighting for his very survival against the bully is always a compelling one, never more so than here. And for those who think the bad guys in this film are TOO evil--I have relatives from coal country and they assure me that if anything, the movie could have gone even further. More than in any of his other films of the 1980s, Sayles is just so brutally honest here about the necessities and the strange accidents that can lead us toward a better future, though with much to suffer in the meantime. A dead-solid American classic.
Supposedly Sayles has recorded commentary for an American release of a widescreen dvd, but I can find no evidence of its being produced any time soon."
"My mother grew up near the real-life town of Matewan. Her father and his brothers were instrumental in starting the union in that area. When the movie first came out, I spoke with an uncle who was actually a child when the battle took place and he related the stories to me even without seeing the movie. The only real character in the movie was the constable, Sid Hatfield. The others, according to an interview with Mr. Sayles, were composites of various characters. My uncle (once again without having seen the movie) told me of the incident in which my grandfather was beaten and left for dead on top of a coal car and was not found until he reached Portsmouth, Ohio. I was very much impressed by the location used. Until the recent flood prevention work in Matewan, you could hardly tell the difference between the movie town and the real one. I was also quite taken with the performance of James Earl Jones. Even a decade after seeing it, I can remember many of his lines and the striking way he portrayed Few Clothes. I don't think I could give this movie a higher rating."
An accurate depiction
J. E. Fitzgerald | Roanoke, VA | 02/18/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in the days before the unions. My mother was raised in a coal camp, where the men were paid in company scrip only good in the company store. So I have a deep connection with this film. Not only is it a brilliant and riveting movie, it depicts the truth of Appalachia in a way few films have even neared. And the Appalachian dialect, so often hacked to pieces by the ignorant, is done to perfection. It is rare for me to hear an Appalachian accent that doesn't outright offend me, but this film is flawless in that respect."