Matewan (1987)


Director:  independent film maker John Sayles.

Starring:  Chris Cooper (union organizer Joe Kenehan), Will Oldham (preacher boy Danny Radnor), Jace Alexander (Hillard), Ken Jenkins (Sephus Purcell), Bob Gunton (C.E. Lively), Gary McCleery (Ludie), Kevin Tighe (Hickey), Gordon Clapp (bad man Griggs), Mary McDonnell (boarding house operator Elma Radnor), James Earl Jones (black mine worker leader "Few Clothes" Johnson), James Kizer (Tolbert), Mike Preston (Ellix), Jo Henderson (Mrs. Elkins), Nancy Mette (Bridey Mae), Joe Grifasi (Italian mine worker leader Fausto), Ronnie Stapleton (Stennis), David Strathairn (Police Chief Sid Hatfield).

In the 1920s the Stone Mountain Coal Company of Matewan, Mingo County, West Virginia, lowers the tonnage rate paid the miners and a strike results.  The union sends their organizer and the company owners send in the goons.  Shows the difficulties of organizing against brutal conditions when the miners themselves are divided by factors of race (black miners) and ethnicity (Italian miners).  The movie itself is a good one because it uses the old Western device of the bad guys committing bad deeds, followed by vengeance from the good guys.




Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Men work in the mines.  An exhausted man places dynamite in holes in the coal wall in front of him.  The call goes out:  "Shooting coal!"  Bam!

Danny Radnor, the local preacher boy, comes to tell another miner that they brought the pay down to 90 cents for a ton of coal  -- take it or leave it. 

It's 1920 in Matewan, Mingo County, West Virginia.  The coal workers are trying to bring the union in to help them fight management.  The narrator says that in those times it was hard-loading days..  And management "didn't care no more for a man than they done for a draft mule."

Stone Mountain Company Store.  Men in the street are talking about a war starting in Mingo County.  Danny Radnor tells he's mother that they done it:  ". . . we're gonna have the union."

Joe Kenehan is on the train headed to Matewan.  He realizes that management is bringing in blacks in to work as scabs in the coal mines.  The train stops out of town and lets the blacks off.  A huge black man named "Few Clothes" asks:  "How come we ain't getting off in town?"   As he wonders a group of white miners attack the blacks.  There is a lot of fighting, but the blacks are able to get back on the train and head to the town of Matewan. 

Joe says to the conductor that he's going to Matewan.  The conductor tells him not to go there, because:  "There ain't nobody but crazy people there."  Joe goes on.  He gets off at the station and meets a young widow named Bridey Mae Toliver.  She tells Joe he can probably get a room in the Radnor's Boarding House, but Joe should watch out for Elma Radnor because she's a real sour-puss.

The blacks are told about all the equipment and supplies they will be getting, but all of which will be deducted from the miners' pay.    

Joe talks with the widow Radnor.  He tells her he is looking for work.  Elma tells him that if he ain't with the company, there ain't no work.  Her son Danny comes home with his good friend Hillard, who, according to Joe, has a broken nose.  The two young men were among the attackers of the black men.  Joe offers to fix the nose up for Hillard.  Elma tells Joe that his rent will be $5 dollars per week cash.  Danny tells Joe that it's going to be a long strike. 

The miners want to talk with this new man Kenehan.  They figure that he is the fellow the union sent them.  They ask him a lot of questions about labor unions and strikes to test him to make sure he isn't with the company.  Joe says he used to work with the Wobblies (short for International Workers of the World, the IWW).   Joe attends a meeting of the miners who are anxious to complain about the company.  One man says:  "They're pushing us further than we can go." 

Joe attends a sermon in the local church.  The preacher speaks of those connected with the devil and he mentions the union man as being such a creature. 

They miners say that "niggers" and "dagos"  are taking their jobs.  And the miners have to deal with the profit-oriented coal operators and their gun thugs.  Few Clothes shows up at the meeting saying he's got business with the union.  Some men yell:  "Go home nigger.  Go home scab."  Few Clothes doesn't scare easily.  He stands his ground and says that he's been called a nigger before, but:  "I ain't been never called a scab."   Joe is disgusted with this racism.  He stands up and says:  "Union men, my ass."  He says that unless all the miners band together, the company will never treat any of them like men.  The miners are just so much equipment to the coal company.  "If you stand alone, you're just so much shit to those people."  He asks, pointing to Few Clothes:  "You think this man is your enemy?"  He adds:  "Any union who keeps this man out, ain't a union."  They got to stop this fighting of whites against coloreds. 

Joe goes to talk to the Italians now.  Fausto is their leader.  He tells Joe if the Italians join the union, the company thugs will shoot them and if they don't join the union, the miners will shoot them.  Joe figures that's about right. 

Daniel Radnor preaches a union man's sermon.  He says that Jesus didn't know nothing about the union and its rightful grievances. 

A spy writes Mr. Felts of the Baldwin-Felts company saying that he is sure that Kenehan is a Red!

Bridey Mae is at the station when two mean hombres arrive. The boss of the two asks Bridey Mae if she has seen this man named Kenehan?  She says no.  She tells the two men that she was married once, but her husband got killed in the mine.  The boss says that Bridey Mae "is the best looking mountain trash I've seen in a long while." 

Meanwhile Elma tells Joe not to use her boy Daniel in any union business.  She wants him to stay alive. 

The two bad guys come to speak about a room for each of them at the inn.  Daniel tells the men:  "We're full up"  The men say then they are going to have to throw some people out of the inn, because the Stone Mountain company send them to stay here.  Elma says she has one room, but that's all.  Joe speaks up saying he'll go down to stay in the hotel.  So the bad guys take two rooms. 

Joe comes up to Bridey Mae.  She asks him:  "You doing union business, ain't you?"  A man comes along to tell Joe that the Baldwin-Felts thugs are down in town evicting people from their homes.  Joe runs down into town.  He learns that the men in charge are the boss Bill Hickey and his assistant Tom Griggs.  The mayor of the town tells the two men that this is town property, not company property.  Bill and Tom say that the company own the houses on this property.  The local sheriff,  Police Chief Sid Hatfield, tells the two company men to stop evicting people.  They will have to go into the capital, Charleston, West Virginia to get a writ from the judge there.  Bill and Tom aren't not going to stop.  So the sheriff tells the locals to go get their guns.  Bill tells the sheriff:  "You can't win, you know."  But Bill and Tom do cease the eviction. 

At the union meeting, a lot of the men push for keeping the scabs out of the mines with force, if necessary.  They have a lot of support at the meeting. 

The Radnors are having trouble with the bullies Bill and Tom.  Danny is so mad at their presence that he refuses to pass the peas to Bill.  This becomes a big standoff until Danny gets up and leaves the table to go to his room. 

The miners learn that tonight the company is sneaking the blacks and Italians in for a night shift and they are going to stop this from happening.  The miners surround the scabs.  The company men have a machine gun trained on the miners.  It's another stand-off until the blacks and Italians say they will join the union.  Joe shouts:  "From now on Stone Mountain don't move one piece of coal unless it's a union man who moves it."

A big problem is that the mining company owns virtually everything:  the land, the town, the houses and the stores.  Mrs. Radnor sneaks some company supplies out to the miners who are now living in a tent city. 

The sheriff and the mayor meet with Bill and Griggs.  Bill says that Felts has given them funds to help the sheriff and mayor cooperate with the company.  The sheriff threatens the men with jail.  Bill warns the sheriff not to push his luck. 

Joe explains to the miners at night by the camp fire the principles of the union relief fund.  The amount of money received from this fund depends on the progress the strikers are making.  Some company thugs start shooting and Few Clothes tells Joe to get down and be quiet. 

Elma Radnor says well, at least nobody got killed.  And by the way:  Where are all the men?  The men are in town having a union meeting.  They are talking about using violence.  Few Clothes says it won't look good if the blacks start killing whites.  Joe excuses the black and Italians from participation in the gun fighting because of the race/ethnicity barriers.

Bill and Griggs arrive with some other thugs at the tent camp.  They say that the miners have taken a lot of items into their camp that actually belong to the company.  He says he and his boys are going to retake the goods not paid for yet.   Joe comes along and asks Bill:  "You got a list of goods?"  No.  Well, without a list how can Bill tell what is and what is not paid for?  Bill gets very mad and Joe warns him that if he shoots him, folks will know Bill murdered him.  Bill says he ain't going to kill Joe, but Griggs hits Joe in the gut with the butt of his rifle.  Joe goes down.  Things look bad, but just then some mountain men out hunting come to the rescue with their rifles pointed at Bill and Griggs.  The newcomers tell the company men to get out of the camp.  Then they go back to hunting. 

It's just Bill and Griggs at the table with Mrs. Radnor.  They start asking questions about where is the grandmother and Danny?  Elma gets so fed up with the two bullies that she too leaves the table. 

An explosion occurs and the company thugs run to the scene.  In the camp mother wonders where her boy Hillard is.    Hillard and many other miners have set up an ambush.  But suddenly the ambushers are ambushed from behind by the company thugs.  The miners have to retreat fast to get out of there.  They all wonder how did the thugs find out about their plan?  One miner, Sephus Purcell, hides underneath some tree logs. He stays quiet and learns that the proprietor of one of the local restaurants, C.E. Lively, is working with the company and against the union.  Sephus is rescued after the thugs are gone and he's bandaged up. The rescuers find one of their men dead.  Someone tells Joe that he has got himself a martyr now. 

A woman is trying to deliver a letter to Joe from Bridey Mae, who likes him.  C.E. Lively steps up and says she better give him that letter and he will get it to the busy Joe.  So the spy now has the letter from Bridey to Joe. Lively then uses the letter to manipulate Bridey.  He tells her that Joe is not the person he says he is.  Kenehan was laughing and having a high ol' time showing the letter to all the guys.  And he used nasty language to refer to Bridey Mae, such as "brood bitch" that wants to have sexual relations with any man.  Even worse, Joe told the men that Bridey did it with one of the coloreds.  Moreover, Joe may be a spy.  He then asks Bridey for her help in destroying Joe.

Joe tells the union men that they can't fight the company with guns.  Instead, they must all stand together in solidarity.  The boys have heard some bad talk about Joe and one of them tells Joe that he ain't no miner. 

A delegation of men, including Few Clothes, go down to listen to Bridey's complaints against Joe.  She claims that Joe raped her.  Meanwhile, Lively urges the lying woman on.  Now Lively shows the group a letter to Joe from the company, supposedly proving the man is a spy. 

Danny delivers to Bill's room some clean clothes.  While there he starts looking around.  He picks up Bill's Colt pistol.  He hears footstep coming toward the room, so Danny hides in a small closet.  Bill comes in saying that tonight it's goodbye to Mr. Kenehan.  He notices his Colt is in a different position.  He says to Griggs:  "I didn't leave my Colt like this."  They find Dan hiding in the closet.  Bill threatens to kill both Danny and his mother if Danny tries to spill the beans on Bill's plans for Joe. 

Few Clothes pulls the short stick in a contest to determine which miner is going to shoot Joe for being a spy.  Few Clothes pulls the shortest stick. 

Since Danny can't directly warn everyone about what's coming for Joe, he preaches a sermon with a message to get his point across.  Meanwhile, Bill and Griggs are in the back laughing and having a good time.   

Few Clothes talks with Joe.  Joe says he was in Leavenworth with the Mennonites, who were, like him, conscientious objectors.  He came to admire these people, because they would be tortured and still not turn on their beliefs. 

The miners realize what Danny is telling them.  One of the miners runs from the church to stop the execution.  Few Clothes is just about to kill Joe, when the message reaches him to call off the execution.  Few Clothes is so very relieved and happy, that he starts laughing and celebrating, while patting Joe on his shoulders.  Joe is bewildered by this show of mirth and affection on the part of Few Clothes. 

The miners set fire to Lively's restaurant in town.  Someone asks if C. E. is inside the restaurant, but another man tells him:  "No such luck.".  Lively leaves town wading over the Tug Fork River.  Without the spy, the fortunes of the union men go better.  They spread the union word to other towns in Mingo County. 

Danny and Hillard go out to steal coal.  Hillard gets captured.  Bill tells him to give him the names of the ring leaders up in Logan and they will let him go.  Danny watches as Hillard says:  "Never!"  Among the company men, Danny spots C.E. Lively.  Hillard is sentenced to death and they tell him he has just ten seconds to talk.  Griggs starts shooting around Hillard.  The boy has dirtied his diapers, says one of the men.  C. E. tells some to use the razor on Hillard.  Hillard spouts out five names, but they kill him anyway.  Lively says that Hillard just gave them the names of men killed in a gas fire.

The sheriff brings Hillard's dead body into camp followed by the boy's crying mother. 

Bill and the others tell the sheriff that they are carrying out the evictions tomorrow morning.  With him are extra men.  Sid tells the mayor:  "They come to kill me."

There is a service at the burial of Hillard.  Joe says he wants to talk to the men.  Few Clothes passes the word to his men not to go into town tomorrow.  The sheriff cleans his pistol.

The next morning Joe is told that the men are going into town.  With Bill there are thirteen other men.  They walk down the railroad tracks toward the sheriff and an unarmed mayor.  The mayor starts talking fast and furious and says nothing kind of the company and its thugs and a big shoot-out begins.  The mayor is shot down, but the sheriff fires away with his two revolvers.  The miners, hidden around the area, now open fire on the thugs.  Griggs is killed.  (Later Hillard's mom keeps firing bullets into the back of the dead Griggs.)  Bill starts running away and is killed by Mrs. Radnor with her shot gun.  Most of the thugs are killed along with lots of miners.  The mayor dies.  One man runs away and Danny chooses not to shoot him.  Mrs. Radnor finds Joe dead on the railway tracks.  She cries and cries as her son stands near her quietly. 

The narrator says there was a trial but nobody was punished.  The shootout became known as the Matewan Massacre.  Isolated shootings here and there continued in Mingo County.  The Baldwins caught the sheriff alone and shot him 14 times.  The whole fight was called the Great Coalfield War. 


Stirring film about oppressed coal miners uniting in a union and being able to resist the bosses trying to smash them and their union.  The situation of the miners and their families is terrible and they really are being abused by rich men out to make as much profit as possible on the backs of the workers.  It's an old familiar story if one has watched the various films devoted to the workers' struggle against out-of-control, unregulated capitalism.  But the miners here are able to fight the owners successfully. 

Patrick Louis Cooney,  Ph. D. 



Historical Background:

Matewan in the larger Battle of Blair Mountain, Logan County, West Virginia. 

1870-1880 – coal operators establish a system of oppression and exploitation known as the company-town system. The coal bosses maintain their domination by using force and violence. They hire "private detectives" and pay off public law enforcement agents to ensure that union organizers are kept out of Logan County. Other methods used by the big bosses included: intimidation, harassment, espionage and murder

early 20th century – coal miners try to overthrow the brutal system of oppression used by the bosses.

1912-1913 – in the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913 the coal operators attempted to stop the strike through with violence.

Some of the worst violence came from the Baldwin-Felts detectives who actually were professional strikebreakers. The strike lead to the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Mine War. In this war the detectives drove a heavily armored train called the Bull Moose Special through a tent colony at night. The company men shot women, men and children with a machine gun.

By 1920 – the United Mine Workers of American had organized most of the mines and miners in West Virgina. Only the southern coalfields remained under the complete control of the bosses.

early 1920 – the president of the UMW John L. Lewis chooses Mingo County for organizing. In this county there wasn’t an anti-labor sheriff as the Logan County anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin and his little army.

Matewan, Mingo County, has Mayor Cabell Testerman, who is pro-labor, as their leader. He appointed Sid Hatfield to be town sheriff. (The sheriff was from the notorious Hatfield family of the Hatfield and McCoy ‘feud’.)  The UMW helped the striking miners by setting up tent colonies for homeless miner families thrown out by the coal bosses.

By early May, 1920 – 3,000 out of 4,000 Mingo miners joined the union.  In Matewan every miner became unionized and the company through them all out of their homes. 

May 19, 1920 – twelve Baldwin-Felts agents arrive in Matewan, including Lee and Albert Felts. In the afternoon at gun point the agents started evicting miner families from their homes. The other miner were furious.

As the agents were leaving town, when Sid Hatfield and a group of deputized miners tried to put the agents under arrest. Albert Felts tries to place Sid under arrest. Mayor Testerman asks Felts to let him see the arrest warrant. The mayor exclaims: "This is a bogus warrant." That’s when a big gun fight started. Sid Hatfield shot Albert Felts dead. Mayor Testerman died of his wounds. In all ten men were killed, including both the Felts.

Sid Hatfield became the hero of the miners.  Both sides now strengthened their positions readying for a continuation of the larger fight.

1921 (January 26) – the trial begins of Sid Hatfield for killing Albert Felts. Sid was acquitted and his stature grew even more.

1921 (mid-May) – union miners attack nonunion mines in a conflict that consumes the entire Tug River Valley. This conflict is called the "Three Days Battle". It was finally ended by martial law.


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