Director: Claude Berri.
Starring: Miou-Miou (Maheude), Renaud (Étienne Lantier), Jean Carmet (Vincent Maheu dit Bonnemort), Judith Henry (Catherine Maheu), Jean-Roger Milo (Chaval), Gérard Depardieu (Toussaint Maheu), Laurent Terzieff (Souvarine), Bernard Fresson (Victor Deneulin), Jean-Pierre Bisson (Rasseneur), Jacques Dacqmine (Philippe Hennebeau), Anny Duperey (Madame Hennebeau), Gérard Croce (Maigrat), Frédéric van den Driessche (Paul Négrel), Annick Alane (Madame Grégoire), Pierre Lafont (Léon Grégoire).
French film about a perilous workers' strike in the French mines
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
A man comes to a mining facility. He calls up to a worker, who tells him that this isthe "Le Voreux" Mine. The newcomer says he's Etienne Lantier, a mechanic who wants to know if there is any work here? The worker says there's no work for a mechanic here. Etienne comes up on the scaffolding to warm his hands before a fire. He asks the worker what is his name? The other workers gave him a nicknam for fun: "Goner." That's because they had to save his life on three different occasions. Goner tells Etienne that most of the factories in the area are laying off people, not hiring them. The older man starts coughing up coal.
Goner returns home. He lives with his son,.Toussaint Maheu, and his daughter-in-law and their seven children. The family is very poor and short of food. Dad and the two older boys are going off to work. Down in the mines they go. Etienne is still hanging around the mine. He asks Toussaint Maheu if there's any work? Toussaint tells him to go ask Mr. Dansaert.
Toussaint is told that that Fleurance has died. It was her heart. Toussaint asks: "What'll we do? With only Catherine on haulage, we're sunk. We have to replace her." Then he thinks about the fellow looking for work. He goes to Mr. Dansaert and asks if he can try the new fellow out?Dansaert says he doesn't have the final say on who is hired, but he acquiesces to Toussaint trying the fellow out. So Toussaint tells his Catherine to find the man looking for work and tell him he's hired. Catherine finds him and tells him that he may have a job.
Toussaint tells Etienne that he will earn 30 sous per day. He also tells him it's hard work. Etienne, Toussaint and Catherine get into a mining car and away they go. An elevator takes them down into the mine. It's a long way down to the bottom. Etienne seems a bit scared.
Toussaint shows Etienne the way to the Guillaume vein.Toussaint's son Zacharie grabs Etienne to help him put up timbers to shore up the roof where there is a crack. Toussaint tells Zacharie to stop working on the timbers. They have to get their share of cars first. At lunch the men and women eat their food. Etienne has no food with him so Catherine shares half of her sandwich with him.
He says he was a railroad mechanic in Lille. He got fired for slapping his boss. Etienne says he was drunk. He says he doesn't get drunk very often, but when he does he gets a little crazy. Etienne tells Catherine that his mother works in Paris as a laundress. Earning 30 sous a day won't allow him to buy her any presents.
Etienne asks Catherine if she has a boyfriend? She says not yet.
Mrs. Maheu grabs two of her children and starts walking down the sidewalk with them.
A wealthy man visits another wealthy man at his huge mansion. The guest asks how are the man's daughters? The man says that Jeanne's still painting and Lucie's playing the piano. And his third daughter Cecile is still in bed.
The guests asks if Cecile and Negrel will get married? Cecile comes in and gives her cousin a kiss. The peace of the house is disturbed as three German shepherds run barking at Mrs. Maheu and her two children. The lady of the house comments: "It's that woman again, with her kids."
Mrs. Maheu comes into the house. She often comes to the house for charity. She tells the family that she worked in mines until she was 20 years of age, but she stopped when she gave birth the second time, when she got married.
The wealthy ones give Mrs. Maheu some of their old clothes. She also says that they are broke and 100 sous certainly would help them. The man of the house says they don't give money out like that. Cecile cuts off a big piece of cake and gives it to the little boy to share with his sister.
She asks for two loaves of bread from the grocer on credit, but he turns her down. He then whispers to her tosend him her daughter and they can work things out. Mrs. Maheu says nothing to him.
The big boss comes in with Dansaert and balls out Maheu for being so sloppy with his timbering work. Maheu says pay the workers more and they gladly will timber better.The big boss gets mad and fines Maheu three francs.
Maheu tells his father that the big boss is talking about bringing cart prices down and timbering separate. "Another way to pay us less. Christ!" The price for a cart will be 2 sous less.
Maheu tries to get Etienne a room in the tavern building, but the owner says both rooms are rented out already. Maheu tells the owner: "We can't go on like this. It's got to give -- too much poverty." And then the factories are laying off so many people. "They're thinking of closing the Jean-Bart mine." The tavern owner says that his friend Pluchart says that it's time to act. Etienne says Pluchart was his foreman at one time. The bar maid says about Pluchart: "He's made bosses tremble."
The owner checks with the bar maid and tells the two workers that one of the rooms became available this very morning.
While dad and the family eat their meal, Catherine takes a bath in the room. (brief nudity) After she finishes the two eldest boys rush for the tub. They both disrobe and jump in.
Zacharie gets dressed and rushes out to see his girlfriend as she comes off her shift. He asks her for two francs because that's what he owes Mouquette. The girlfriend gives him the money and then says: "Promise you'll get your mother to let us marry. I can't stand this!" He kisses her passionately on her lips.
Toussaint's wife tells him that she made a deal with the grocer and now they have enough food for awhile. And the man lent her 100 sous.
A none too handsome man asks Catherine to come have a drink with him. The man says he will buy her the ribbon she wants. Catherine says she will pay him back. He says if she doesn't sleep with him, then she can pay him back. Etienne hears all this because he is sitting and having a beer. Catherine sees Etienne looking at her. She and the man go into the grocer's shop and the man pays for a pretty red ribbon with which Catherine uses to tie her bonnet on. Etienne sees the man with his hand on Catherine's waist as they walk together.
In an isolated stretch of road the man starts trying to kiss Catherine. She resists, but now he pulls her into a section of the woods. He forces her onto the ground and kisses her. She stops struggling. Now he has sex with her.
Etienne is still mad about what he saw. He stays in the tavern until late at night and then he can't sleep when he lays in his bed.
Etienne asks the tavern owner if he has heard from Pluchart? Yes, the man wrote the tavern owner. It seems they have founded the International Workers' Association in London. "It's the first time the workers of the world are uniting to fight the bosses." A man sitting in the corner hears their conversation, shakes his head and says: "Nonsense!" He says to the two men: "We've got to burn it all down!" Etienne says that won't be necessary. The workers can be a real force for change if they unite. He also says they need a local union in Montsou. The tavern owner says the men won't pay the necessary union dues. The cynic in the corner says: "Capitalism functions on a balance of empty bellies forever condemned to live in hunger, misery." The fellow is an anarchist.
Catherine is walking through the fair with her boyfriend. The rest of the Maheu family, along with Etienne, also seem to be at the fair. Catherine dances with her boyfriend. Toussaint dances with one of the older ladies.
The parents of Zacharie's girlfriend tell her to go get Zacharie as they have something to tell them. The girl gets very excited and kisses her mother and father. She runs to Zacharie yelling: "We're getting married!" She jumps into his arms and they kiss.
Etienne talks with Catherine and her boyfriend about the union. The boyfriends shakes Etienne's hand and says count me in.
Toussaint tells Etienne that after the marriage of Zacharie, they want him to board in their home.
Etienne takes a bath in the Maheu house. He gets out and Toussaint gets in the tub.
Catherine and Etienne are living in the same room along with the kids.
Catherine's boyfriend tells the family that to create change, blood must flow. Etienne insists that they must prevent bloodshed. After awhile, Catherine boyfriend tells her that they are going. The two walk off.
The next morning Toussaint calls for Catherine. Etienne tells him that Catherine did not come home last night. While at the breakfast table, Catherine returns home. Her mother goes and asks her where was she all night? With Chaval. Mother says he only wants her wages.
The next day the roof starts collapsing and Toussaint yells: "A cave-in!" One of Toussaint's boys, Jeanlin, is covered by the rocks. Toussaint gets him out and carries him away from the mine. The doctor says the boy was hit in the leg. He has to go to the hospital. And now the family loses Jeanlin's wages. And mom is really mad at Catherine for leaving her with a family of nine living on only three wages. Dad says that Chaval is forcing her to stay to work at the Jean-Bart mine.
Dad also says that the men are asking for a strike. Etienne says: "It's about time." The men get together and talk about a possible strike. The tavern owner says that it's no time for a strike. They have to work to get more workers into the workers' association so that other workers can support those workers on strike. The anarchist says this is nonsense. The owners want the men to strike now because then they can use this as an excuse to get rid of many of the workers. The anarchist wants the men to strike but also to use violence and blow up some things.
The owners now make it even tougher for the mine workers. Toussaint gets his pay but it is much less than what he thought he would get. Now Toussaint is told to go see the Secretary General. The Secretary General tells him that his father's pension is under review. He will be retired and only get 150 francs as his pension. Toussaint is also warned to stay out of politics.
Toussaint tells Etienne that the bosses think Etienne is a bad influence and the company is out to get him. It's now that Etienne speaks to a large group of workers and asks them if they would like to strike? Almost every worker raises his or her hand.
The boss is awakened by a knock on the door. He is informed by Dansaert that the strike is on.
The boss's nephew Paul is having an affair with his wife, Paul's aunt. The boss sends Dansaert and Paul around to check all the other mines to see if they are on strike.
Paul returns saying that the mines he checked are all quiet.
The aunt now throws a big luncheon for the wealthy people she knows. Dansaert comes in to report that all the mines he checked are quite. Almost too quiet. One of the wives expresses sympathy got the worker "for those poor people will starve!" The aunt says those people have plenty. She now wants to talk about Paul and Cecile getting married.
The boss meets with the labor delegation. Toussaint is the spokesman. He tells the boss that they are tried of starving. They, at least, want to have bread everyday. The boss pleads that he has oh so many expenses coming from taking care of the housing and medicine for the workers. Etienne asks the boss: "Should the workers starve to protect stockholders' profits?" The boss won't relent. With righteous indignation he moans about all his expenses, etc. Frankly, the workers are letting the boss dominate the discussion. Entienne says: "You want to buckle out belts, while you eat brioche everyday." Now the boss expects pity from the workers, for he says he has no more power than a pit-boy! He's a salaried worker like them. The boss also warns the strikers that within a week they will all starve.
The mines stay shut down. Everyone now has plenty of leisure time.
Catherine comes to visit her mother with some coffee and sugar. Mom tells her that she is not wanted here and to get out! Catherine blames it all on Chaval: "It's not me. It's him. If he wants to, what can I do?" All of a sudden Chaval bursts in calling Catherine a bitch. He shouts: "You give them coffee bought with my money?!" He almost forces a confrontation with Etienne. Then he leaves, pushing Catherine out ahead of him. Etienne tells the mother: "What a beast!"
The women get together and ask the grocer for more credit. He tells them he will give them not a thing more on credit. The grocer has to physically push the women out of his shop.
Etienne speaks before a huge crowd of workers. He fires them up for continued resistance against the bosses. Toussaint gets up with Etienne and says tomorrow they are going to the pits and take those scabs out of there. Chaval and Christine are out in the crowd. Dad shouts to the crowd to watch out for spies, for people who work at Jean-Bart and people who are eating. He points out Chaval and calls him and others like him traitors!
Chaval gets up there and says the Jean-Bart miners are with their brothers. No one believes him and they say tomorrow they all will head over to Jean-Bart to check to see if Chaval is working there.
Now the strike spreads to Jean-Bart. Chaval calls for the Jean-Bart workers to strike. A lot of the workers want to go to work and a lot of pushing and shoving takes place. Now the owner Deneulin comes to speak to the workers. He says that he has not done the things the employer at Mountsou did. He did not lessen the car rate and has not complained about the timbering. He also says he is without stockholders. He's the boss and he knows he will go bankrupt if the workers go on strike, but he knows also that if he pays the raise they are asking for, then he will also go bankrupt. So the tide switches over to favor continuing to work. The boss tells the foremen to bring Chaval to his office.
Daneulin promises Chaval that he will make him a foreman. Chaval doesn't say anything, but we see him and Christine on the elevator headed to work. The striking workers scream at Chaval and call him a traitor and a bastard.
Catherine is having a terrible time pushing the heavy coal cars. Chaval tells her to take her shirt off like the men do and get back to work. So she does. (brief nudity) She pushes some more but then collapses. Chaval comes around and speaks in a kinder voice to Catherine. She tells him to kiss her, so Chaval does. She says: "I like it when you're nice to me. It gives me strength." He tells her a couple of times that he loves her.
Now the men and women from Mountsou arrive. They shout that they are on strike and they want the Jean-Bart workers to strike too. They chase workers away from their work and turn over the coal cars. Those who resist get beat up. The men go into the Lamp House and destroy all the lanterns. The room is set on fire. Toussaint chops the cables controlling the elevators.
Down below the miners start panicking. They shout: "To the ladders, everyone!" When the first miner comes up from below he is grabbed by Toussaint who shouts: "You work while we starve! Bastard!" When Chaval comes up he really gets picked on. The people urge on Toussaint, shouting: "Kill him!" Toussaint throws him into a mud puddle and then starts hitting Chaval again. Catherine comes up and is shoved around. Then her mother really starts hitting her. She shouts: "Back to your pimp, bitch!"
Etienne is about to hit Chaval with a pick axe, but Cahterines stops him telling him to leave Chaval alone. So Etienne calls off the hitting saying that's enough. Now he yells for the men to head for the next mine: Mirou! The Mountsou miners start heading for Mirou. After the others are gone Chaval cries a bit.
At Mirou Paul and his Aunt, along with Cecile, drink some milk fresh from the cow. They then hear a loud noise. The wealthy family runs into the barn and closes and bars the door.
Uncle too sees the large group of people shouting and yelling as they approach his mansion. He sees a red bottle in his bed that belongs to Paul. He sits down and calls himself an idiot. Toussaint heads to the grocer's shop and starts chopping into the door with his axe. Maigrat the owner rushes upstairs and starts walking along the roof. The people spot him and curse and shout at him. Maigrat slips and falls off the roof to his death. Catherine's mom grabs handfuls of dirt and grass and shoves it into the dead man's mouth, shouting at him to eat! They strip his clothes off. A woman cuts off his penis and his balls.
Catherine comes running up telling the people to run for the police are here! The people start running.
Etienne is hiding underneath a mining rig. Jeanlin has found some candles for Etienne. He also tells Etienne that the Voreaux mine mouth might crack. Furthermore, the police came out looking for Etienne.Etienne then goes with Jeanlin over to see Toussaint who is watching the workers try to fix the crack in the mouth of the Voreaux mine. Toussaint notes that the water is so high that the pump in Mirou is flooded. Two foremen were drowned.
Toussaint's young daughter is very sick. Mother looks out the window and wonders what is delaying that doctor? Etienne says that he has heard the the mine owners are hiring Belgians to work the local mines. He adds: "If it's true, we're sunk." Toussaint says then the workers will destroy the mines. Etienne says that the army will prevent them from doing that. Etienne says maybe it's time for them to quit. Catherine's mom says: "I'd rather burn it all. I'd rather kill than give up now!"
Etienne says she doesn't understand that the mine owners are hurting and now is the time to strike an accord with them. Mother says: "No, they won't. We'll all die!"
The doctor arrives. The child is already dead. Mother lets out a oud scream.
Etienne goes over to see the tavern owner. He tells the owner that the Belgians have arrived and they begin working tomorrow. Etienne also says: "I know the strike's done for. We did it despite ourselves . . ." The anarchist says the workers only think about themselves and he, for one, can't wait to see them all cut down.
Chaval comes into the tavern. Catherine doesn't want to come in. He yells at her and she comes inside. It seems he is looking for a fight because he says with 12 Belgians he is going to work over at the Voreaux mine. This starts a fight between Etienne and Chaval. Chaval is by far the bigger of the two men and he is about to throw Etienne out of the tavern when Etienne twists around and lands on Chaval after Chaval lands on the ground. Chaval and Etienne both stand up again, but Etienne pushes Chaval onto the ground again. Now Chaval brings out a knife to stab Etienne and Etienne tells Chaval to go ahead and stab him. Christine shouts out" "No!" She grabs Chaval to stop him, but he throws her down shouting at her: "Sleep with him, bitch!" He tells her he's leaving her behind and she better not come back to him or he will kill her.
She starts following him, but he chases her back and tells her to stay with Etienne. He's a nice guy. She tells Etienne to stay behind or it may get ugly. Etienne tries to kiss her, but she backs off.She goes inside the tavern.
Late at night Chaval returns home to find Christine in his bed. So he throws her out.
The army escorts Chaval and 12 Belgians to the Voreaux mine. Etienne and Toussaint and two other men watch the procession pass them as they hide behind some bushes. They decide to go tell the others. The soldiers line up in two rows.
The miners come near the soldiers and the officer tells them to stop. He says he has his orders and will fire on them. (Christine is with her family now.) The crowd gets louder and louder. Paul comes out telling the miners and their families to calm down! This just infuriates the miners and they start throwing chunks of coal at him and the soldiers. A chunk of coal hits the officer and he goes down. Now the first rank of soldiers fires into the crowd. Toussaint is shot in the chest. He falls dead. His baby and his wife start crying. Everyone seems stunned.
The wealthy coal owners sit down at the table for a sumptuous feast. A toast is given for the soon-to-be newlyweds. Paul and his aunt make eyes at each other, but this time her husband notices this.
Catherine tells her mother that the mines will open this coming Monday. At least some of the family have to work in the mines for the mine owners even own the mining houses.Mom is also mad at Etienne for supporting the idea of going back to work. When Etienne goes for a walk the people start cursing and threatening him. They say: "Back to work. Nothing changed."
At night Catherine sees Etienne writing a letter. He asks her what she is going to do? Go back to work in the pit. Etienne hugs her, but she tells him to leave her alone. Etienne then says that he also will be going into the pit. She says he can't do that, but he says yes he can.
The anarchist looks like he is going to blow something up. He goes down into the mine. He starts opening up the flood gates.
Above ground, the anarchist tries to stop Etienne from going down into the mine. But Etienne is going regardless of what the anarchist tells him.
Chaval sees Christine and Etienne together in a coal car.
Down in the mine pits, Christine comes running shouting: "I don't get it. Everybody's gone." She tells them to come quick. And now the dam bursts and the water comes rushing into the pits. More of the dam busts open.
The anarchist is walking to another mine.
Paul gets into a big bucket and starts being lowered down. He rings a bell to bring him back up because he can't see anyone alive down there. He tells his father it's a disaster! And it must have been sabotage! The men down below follow the horse to get to another exit.
Chaval breaks off to the left, but the others head to the right. He tells the men and women that the exit is to the left, but they don't listen to him. Etienne and Christine try to go to the right, but there is a cave-in that stops them. Etienne says they will have to climb up through the chimney.
The main body of workersreaches the right exit and are saved.
Etienne and Christine come to another cave-in.He now says they are trapped.
Paul and the miners now open up the abandoned mining rig. They start going down the ladder. They bang on the track. Etienne tries to answer the three rings with two blows to a post with a rock. (brief nudity as Catherine has her shirt off again) One of the miners, Zacharie, hears the beating and alerts the other miners. Paul comes over but he can't hear anything.
Chaval finds Etienne and Catherine laying on the ground. He says Catherine gets her wish of being with Etienne. In fact: "All three of us together! Our goose is cooked!" Etienne says the others will save them through the correct entrance, at Requillart.
Zacharie tells his mother that her heard Catherine's voice and they are going to save her.
The water is rising and is getting closer to the three survivors. Chaval tells Etienne to keep on tapping. Meanwhile, he goes over to have sex with Christine. Etienne tells him to leave her alone. Chaval tells him: "Enough! She's my woman. Mine! I love her."Etienne tells him again to stop or he will kill him. He picks up a big rock and smashes it down on the forehead of Chaval. He is dead. Etienne throws him into the water.
Zacharie goes back to the mine to dig for Catherine. He notices that his lantern isalmost going out. All of a sudden there is a huge explosion that blows right up through the exit and goes above the top end of the mine rigging.
Zacharie's body is brought up. His mother cries over his body.
The now twosurvivors lay against each other. Catherine says this makes her look even more ridiculous: "We were stupid to wait so long. I wanted you right away. You didn't realize it. " She adds: "I knew, one day, we'd be together. All we needed was a chance. . . . I'm happy." The two kiss each other on the lips.
Cecile and her family bring over some food for Toussaint's family. The neighbor lets them into the house. Grandpa is there and he coughs up coal. This upsets Cecile's mother and she and her husband go outside while Cecile remains behind. Grandpa slowly gets up from his chair and goes over to Cecile and starts to choke her to death.
The parents hear Cecile scream and they get out of their coach and rush back to Toussaint's house. They see their daughter laying on the floor, dead, while grandpa is leaning on her with his right hand near her throat. The mother gives out a scream.
Paul and the others make it through to Etienne and Christine, but Christine is already dead and Etienne is close to death. Christine's body is brought out first. Her mother cries over her body. Now Etienne comes up alive.
Etienne is ready to leave the mine. Mrs. Maheu is going into the mines and sees him. Etienne is shocked to see her. She says that they failed to convict grandpa of the murder. He is back home, but there in nothing left in his head. Jeanlin is also working in the mine. She makes 30 sous and Jeanlin makes 20 which combined means 50 sous. "If there weren't six of us, we'd eat. Maxime eats a lot now."She says her whole family will die down in the pits. Then she asks if Etienne is leaving? Yes. She thinks that's good and she wants him to know that she has nothing against him. Mother also tells him to come by the house and pick up his 2 shirts, 3 handkerchiefs and underwear. He tells her to keep them for her children who will grow into them. She says goodbye, gets in a coal car and disappears beneath the earth.
Like the anarchist before him, Etienne leave Mountsou.
Powerful drama. The mine workers in France are being royally screwed. Life was already hard, but now the owners start tightening the screws on the workers. Now the miners and their families are starting to worry if they will starve to death. Then a stranger gets a job at the Mountsou mine and he starts talking about the need for a union. As the situation gets more dire than ever, the workers start thinking they will have to strike. The mine owners do everything they can (except for the right and decent things) to squash the talk about a union and a strike. It seems inevitable that the two groups, owners and workers, will come to blows.
The terrible conditions at the mines and for the mining families are well portrayed. Also covered well are the poor conditions under which children are forced to work. There is a triangle love story and it looks like Christine had chosen the wrong man, Chaval. Chaval abuses Christine physically and mentally. Etienne wants to help her, but she keeps telling him to leave her and Chaval alone. Etienne gets pretty exasperated.
The ending for this film is not happy, but at least the workers tried to fight against the owners.
I thought the ensemble cast was pretty much all terrific.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
Return To Main Page
Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)