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Case Number 22762: Small Claims Court

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An Injury to One

Icarus Films // 2002 // 53 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // November 19th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Russell Engebretson recommends steel-toed work boots to protect the piggies during May Day's Kick-a-Capitalist festivities.

The Case

The 2002 film by Travis Wilkerson, An Injury to One, is a precise, condensed history of the battle between Capital and Labor in a Montana mining town a few decades prior to and during the First World War. Wilkerson narrates events over a series of archival photographs tied together by short, almost entirely black-and-white, video sequences.

Wilkerson states that, by the early 1900s, the Anaconda Mining Company supplied ten percent of the world's and thirty percent of the United States' copper supply from their ore mining operation in Butte, Montana. A strong labor union existed in the late 1800s when Anaconda finally beat down its competitors and monopolized the mining operation. However, by the time of the First World War the company's power and influence permeated Butte's political and legal infrastructure, and workers were feeling the crushing weight of Anaconda's iron heel on their necks. Hundreds of Union members were accused of being Socialists and summarily fired; living and working conditions—already hellish—further deteriorated; martial law was declared and the town occupied by soldiers.

In the summer of 1917, an IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) organizer was dispatched to Butte to rally and organize the divided workers. His name was Frank Little, a half-Cherokee, half-white Oklahoman well known for his fiery speeches and organizing campaigns in other states. One of his speeches in Butte drew a crowd of 6,000. Anaconda denounced Little as a seditious agitator. They attempted, unsuccessfully, to have him tried under the Espionage Act. After the smear campaign against the organizer failed, more direct action was taken.

In the early morning hours of August 1, 1917, Frank Little was rousted from his bed by a group of six masked men. He was beaten, tied to the bumper of a car, and dragged to the outskirts of town, where he was hung by his neck from a railroad bridge trestle. His funeral was attended by more than 8,000 Montanans.

Flash forward to November 1995: Migrating geese come to rest on the deep body of water of an abandoned mining pit. The following morning, 342 dead geese are found floating on the water, their feathers matted, with lesions on their carcasses, corroded trachea and esophagi, and their livers and kidneys loaded with toxic levels of copper, manganese, zinc, and cadmium. Representatives of Arco—formerly Anaconda—assure residents that the water is safe.

Wilkerson introduces an unexpected twist to the film when he relates a story about Dashiell Hammett, the famed writer of detective fiction. His novel, Red Harvest, was partially based on his sojourn in Butte as an employee of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Not much is known of Hammett's real experiences in Butte, except that he was purportedly offered a large sum of money to kill Little. He was radicalized by the experience, and later resigned from Pinkerton. Wilkerson also tells us that almost no written material relating to Frank Little's murder is still extant; the police dossier and coroner's report were destroyed.

Wilkerson's historical recitation includes a brief explanation of the mechanics of war profiteering, how the price of copper was vastly inflated, and how Anaconda actively supported the First World War—not as patriots, but as scavengers intent on fattening their already bloated bank accounts. He demonstrates how Anaconda committed acts of violence against peaceful gatherings of miners, then used that selfsame violence as an excuse to declare martial law and enact unconstitutional laws such as the Espionage Act. All in all, it's a depressing account of class war from above, but nothing new or startling to anyone who has read even a smattering of labor history. Nevertheless, the film is a fine introduction to the subject of worker struggles at the start of the twentieth century, illuminating a corner of social history that has been consigned to oblivion by most school textbooks.

The majority of the film is ably presented in shades of gray, and the audio is a basic but solid Dolby stereo track. Traditional labor tunes played by Will Oldham, Jim O'Rourke, and others reinforces the film's turn-of-the-century atmosphere. The DVD transfer is more than adequate for a documentary.

The elite's mantra that the United States is a classless society is handily debunked by An Injury to One. The documentary is an ample, enlightening lesson on a basic tenet of labor resistance that many Americans are coming to understand once again after the passing of too many decades: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Icarus Films
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 53 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Filmmaker Bio


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