Paramount // 1970 // 124 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // May 26th, 2004
"You either end up on the gallows or coughing your lungs out, what's the difference?"
The Molly Maguires were a secret fraternity of Irish miners in the last half of the 19th century. Living and working in deplorable conditions, they fought for workers' rights with a campaign of industrial sabotage, including gunpowder-laden explosives and carefully planned murders. This is their story.
Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery, Dr. No, Zardoz) and the other Irish Catholics working the Pennsylvania coal mines of 1876 have little more than pennies to show for their dangerous backbreaking labor. Attempts at unionizing have consistently being obstructed by the mine operators, who have employed the strong-arm tactics of the local police. As a last resort, Kehoe installs himself as the leader of a group called The Molly Maguires, intent on striking back through violence.
As these acts of on-the-job terrorism become more frequent, Detective James McParlan (Richard Harris, Cromwell, Camelot) is hired to infiltrate the Mollies and provide the police with the evidence needed to put nooses around their coal-blackened necks. But when McParlan starts living in the camp, he not only develops feelings for his landlady Mary Raines (Samantha Eggar, Doctor Dolittle) but also sympathy and understanding for the Mollies.
Paramount probably believed it had a hit on its hands with The Molly Maguires, but sadly, that was not the case. Beautiful cinematography and strong performances were not enough to save this historical drama, which turned out to be a big-budget flop when it was released at the beginning of the 1970s.
As presented through the eyes of McParlan, the film is generally sympathetic towards the Mollies and their plight. This is not surprising considering the talent behind the camera. Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae) and screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail-Safe, The Front) were both blacklisted as Communists during the 1950s. Because of this, some have come out against The Molly Maguires as a "socialist" film, but that's not entirely accurate. For all its faults, the film does make an attempt to present a balanced look at the Mollies and concerns itself with "why" the group did what did, instead of blindly championing them as heroes. Still, I will certainly allow that those who go into the film flatly disagreeing with Ritt's favorable view of these infamous Irishmen probably won't find much to change their minds.
Even those sympathetic to the Mollies would do best to keep the phrase "based on a true story" squarely in mind while watching this film. Great care certainly went into recreating the period and the wretched conditions of the mining towns, and the film was shot at a real Pennsylvania coalmine. The story itself is an important one, and even recent claims that the Mollies were a fiction used by mine bosses to keep their employees living in squalor does not negate the conditions and danger that these immigrants were forced to live in. Where the film falters slightly is in the screenplay based upon those events. It becomes obvious pretty early on that Bernstein has grafted typical Hollywood situations onto historical ones for the benefit of the audience who might not care about the Mollies. Many loose ends are neatly tied up in unconvincing ways, and the film even incorporates an unlikely love story between long-suffering Mary Raines and the detective who wants to give them both a better life. Beyond the set pieces and the costumes, the film just doesn't give the impression of being very authentic, and the underlying message about labor is cheapened by the addition of conspicuously fictitious plotlines.
What might be assumed to be the central conflict of the film -- between the mine owners and the workers -- is strangely missing here, although every other possible source of inequality is explored. The local police force proves to be the Mollies' greatest burden, not only beating down miners and vengefully attacking the rebel bombers, but also hiring Detective McParlan in the first place. A further conflict is thrown in here -- the police force is commanded by a Welshman, whom McParlan feels can't understand his people's tendency toward violence. If that wasn't enough, the film further makes distinctions between the Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics. Admittedly, the actual events were complicated, but so many potential sources of tension dilutes the original reason the miners were fighting back in the first place. Curiously, the owner appears only once, doling out pathetic paychecks to the exhausted miners. The film really would have benefited from focusing on the owners' role; even a scene of the fed-up bosses cracking down on the police for not preventing some of the explosions really would have gone a long way toward giving the Mollies a clear motivation.
The Molly Maguires also contains a mixed message about violence. By his own admission, Kehoe is not a revolutionary, and just commits these acts of terrorism against the mine to show that he's alive, that he won't roll over and take it with a smile. But what is chalked up to playful civil disobedience in some scenes invariably results in more grievous acts by both the Mollies and the police. And the violence in the film is quite striking. Brawls are frequent, and a Sunday afternoon rugby game proves to be as brutal as onscreen fist fighting gets. The ending of the film, a confrontation between Kehoe and McParlan, is ambiguous and concentrates more on personal conflicts than grand statements on violence and industrial sabotage.
The film is also hindered by its purposely slow pace. Occasionally this works, calling attention to the deliberate photography of Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe. Other times, it just makes the picture drag. Clocking in at a two hours, including several stretches performed completely without dialogue, The Molly Maguires feels much longer than it needs to be.
Besides the camera work, the film also gets a boost from its significant star power. Connery does an admirable job with the few lines he has as the tacit Kehoe, but he is overshadowed by Richard Harris, who pulls off a great performance as James McParlan. As the conflicted double agent caught between his duty, his desires, and his ethnicity, Harris gives a subtle, believable reality to his character that propels the film in the right direction. Samantha Eggar is also strong as Mary, easily one of her finest roles before seemingly fading away in a series of low-budget Canadian horror films.
Kudos are due to Paramount for treating The Molly Maguires with a more than satisfactory presentation. Very few scratches are evident on this bright, colorful anamorphic transfer, which does justice to Howe's striking cinematography. The atmospheric effects on the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix occasionally seemed a little forced, especially in noisy bar scenes, but for the most part this a nice, clear track solidly delivering dialogue and Henry Mancini's curiously cheerful score.
Don't bother looking for any extras, because you won't find any.
An interesting but minor film, The Molly Maguires is just too muddled to properly apply an articulate message to its subject. Those looking for a dramatic account of labor relations will be more satisfied with Norma Rae, Martin Ritt's later 1979 film about clothing shop unions, which explores a similar topic in a much more direct way.
Since the film was unable to call a credible witness, I find it guilty of Hollywoodizing history. The Molly Maguires are hereby sentenced to change their name to The Jerry Maguires, and limit themselves to detonating Cuba Gooding Jr. DVDs.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG