A guest post by commenter Bill:
Back when I was a neo-con doofus, the movie Matewan was a guilty pleasure. For those unfamiliar, Matewan is a fictionalized depiction of the events surrounding the Battle of Matewan. This was a violent confrontation, set off by a union organizing drive, in Matewan, WV between members of the United Mine Workers and the Stone Mountain Coal Company. One of the many intellectual benefits of moving to the real right is appreciating this film without guilt.
Seen through one lens, the movie is straight-up socialist agit-prop. The protagonist is a former Wobbly, career labor activist, Joe Kenehan. The antagonists are a couple of drunken, degenerate, dishonest pinkerton goons. The movie is well-made and visually beautiful, but its plotting is crude and predictable with the socialist Kenehan as improbably angelic as the pinkertons are demonic. The Kenehan character is boring to watch and difficult to identify with.
So, how does the movie draw our sympathies to the UMW’s side? There is only one technique on offer. We are presented, over and over, with the clash between real, organic, traditional cultures on the one side and the cold, empty, but overwhelmingly powerful forces of modernity on the other. Modernity is played by, first, the railroad, and, second, the pinkertons.
Early in the movie, the pinkertons get off the train in Matewan and find, sitting at the train station, a pretty young woman. It seems that she spends her days watching the trains come and go. This seemingly stock character is not. Normally, Hollywood portrays this woman very sympathetically as a visionary and dreamer, a woman “too big for this small town.” Here, she is portrayed as empty, stupid, and essentially autistic. Naturally, the pinkertons are very unpleasant to her, but the interaction comes off less as the pinkertons victimizing her than three people failing to interact meaningfully because there is an empty space where
that-which-interacts should be. They who come from the railroad and she who hankers after it.
Later, the pinkertons go to a Sunday service at the local Baptist assembly and drunkenly laugh through “There is Power in the Blood.” Again, what one comes away with is not so much hatred for the pinkertons but horror at the contrast between the evident fullness, community, and rootedness of the townspeople and the yawning, tinny, broken emptiness of the pinkertons.
In another scene, Kenehan recounts his time during the First World War in prison with some Mennonites. He describes with evident awe watching, day after day, as the Mennonites pried the buttons off their prison-issued clothes, sure in the knowledge that they would be punished but surer in the knowledge that their traditions require that they take the buttons off.
In a climactic scene, the strikers (now consisting of blacks & Italian immigrants brought under false pretenses by the company to break the strike, along with the indigenous Appalachians) are at
their campsite. They are about to be dispossessed of what little they have left by the pinkertons. From nowhere arrive a bunch of Hillbillies who chase off the pinkertons via a show of force (evidently, they have been harboring a longstanding grudge against the company). As the pinkertons leave, one comments on a
Hillbilly’s outdated firearm, asking if it was used in the Spanish War. No, he replies, in the War Between the States.
One could go on in this vein. The case the movie makes for the UMW could not be more clear. The union will protect your culture and way of life. The company will destroy it. Whether this is actually true in the real world is of no moment. The sales-job presupposes traditionalism. As Bonald points out in one of his posts, Hollywood sometimes makes traditionalist movies by accident. We are so off their radar screen that they sometimes stumble accidentally into our territory—because we are right about how humans are, humans respond to traditionalist themes.