Made in a period of deep uncertainty, Martin Ritt's 1969 action melodrama, 'The Molly Maguires', is one of those studio films that seemed to creep in under the radar just at a time when Hollywood was attempting to figure where exactly its audience had disappeared to. It was also released at at a time when youth oriented films like 'The Graduate' and 'Bonnie and Clyde' were cleaning up at the box office and intensifying many of the studio's decision to try and keep up with the changing attitudes within wider mainstream society. Martin Ritt was in no way hip or beatnik as either Arthur Penn and Mike Nichols, and though he was well respected as an actor's director, the inclusion of big name stars like Sean Connery and Richard Harris must have provided some kind of commercial reassurance of the film succeeding at the box office. Of course it didn't, it was a failure, like many of the films being put out by studios who were clearly out of touch with their audiences.
However, 'The Molly Maguires' makes for an intriguing and punchy piece of political mainstream cinema, and dare I say it, one of the few films in which the proletariat is represented as a sympathetic Marxist, resisting the oppressive exploitation of the mining company by viewing the struggle to gain some kind of acknowledgment for their unfair treatment as of a politically motivated one. Set in 1876, the backdrop are the coal mines of Pennsylvania in which we find a group of hardened Irish American miners, known as the 'Molly Maguires'. Affectionately known by many as 'The Mollies', the men are part of a secret organisation which has its origins in Irish folklore:
'The name is something of an enigma. Multiple sources say it stems from the isle of Eire. When absentee English landlords put an Irish Protestant, Scot, English, or Welshman in their place, cutthroats which rebelled against them took this name. Molly Maguire is said to have been an actual woman, a widow, who would not leave her cottage when Protestant Irish, English, Welsh, or Scottish attempted to remove her for her Catholicism. These were dark times of persecution for Irish Catholics and were not to get better by crossing the Atlantic.'
The collective resistance put up by the Molly Maguires in the film stems from a natural resistance implicit within the historical past of their Irish ancestors. The gang leader, Kehoe, played by a frighteningly impressive Sean Connery believes that the only way of resisting capitalism is by implementing a philosophy compromised of sabotage, subterfuge and violence. In today's context, such Marxist ideology would easily be mistaken for terrorism, and in the opening sequence Kehoe and his gang of hard line accomplices are shown dynamiting the coal mine so that their act of defiance will lead to a strike and remind the powers that be of their relative prominence within the community. The mining company or should we say hegemonic corporation respond to the political threat posed by the Molly Maguires by coercing an out of town police detective, Detective James McParlan (Richard Harris in superior form), to infiltrate the organisation with the aid of Davies (Frank Finlay).
It is interesting to note that though at the time Sean Connery was by far the biggest star internationally, it is Richard Harris who gets top billing and as the slimy, apolitical McParlan he delivers a performance that outshines many of the actors around him. In addition, Martin Ritt resists the temptation of simply exploiting Sean Connery's star status and staggeringly enough, Connery does not utter any dialogue until around the fortieth minute, something most stars today would simply gawp at in dismay. Yet it works brilliantly to conceal the engima of Kehoe's character. Ultimately, he is a man of few words and the low key profile he maintains succeeds in supporting his attempt to conceal the alternate identity that defines his political status as a worker.
It's worth mentioning that the John Sayles directed 'Matewan' seems to provide a worthy and if not superior companion piece to Martin Ritt's film, and also poses the pertinent ideological question concerning the worker's relationship with corporate power. Unlike 'The Molly Maguires' in which infiltration of the miners community leads to the destruction of a worthwhile political organisation (no matter how extreme it may be), 'Matewan' finds the stranger from outside helping to politicise and organise the will to resist. In one of the more brutal sequences, a group of local mining enforcers hired by the company to maintain some semblance of law and order massacre one of the Molly Maguires whilst asleep in his bed including his wife and child. Though it is a revenge killing, the pathological impulse of the mining company is clinically illustrated by its refusal to back down and negotitate with what in their eyes is an illegitimate terrorist organisation.
Similarly like 'Matewan', the community acts as a benign but cohesive force which is somewhat subordinate to the placating voice of religion, an institution that is not corrupt nor cruel yet unable to offer a viable solution to the wounding inequalities faced by the miners. If religion is shown to fail in its role to provide comfort and reassurance, then so is the political activism of the Molly Maguires; both are subsumed and neutralised by the absolutes dealt out by the mining company. At the funeral of Dan Raines, the old man of the town who symbolises what awaits men like Kehoe, we discover that it is the anonymity and relative silence of such a death that frightens him the most. Kehoe's anger soon turns to rage and he ransacks the mining company's general store, setting it alight with the help of an equally vehement McParlan.
The destruction of company property is an obvious Marxist sentiment, articulating the anxieties of the community through the symbolic leadership of Kehoe and underlining how corporate power not only robs the worker of his labour but more importantly, his humanity. At the end, once McParlan's true identity has been revealed to The Molly Maguires, he visits Kehoe in prison. It is a significant political moment between the two of them, severing a relationship based on trust and bringing to the fore, many of the ideological divisions. Kehoe warns McParlan that none of them can never be truly free as long as capitalism reigns supreme and class acts as a means of reinforcing the status quo. Alongside Pontecorvo's 'Queimada (1969)' and Sayles 'Matewan (1987)' stands Ritt's overlooked Marxist critique on early American capitalism. Aside from the obvious Irish score, this is a delight from start to finish and comes highly recommended for anyone interested in the on going love and hate relationship between politics and movies.