It may not be what you think.
By Ed Rampell
Since the silent movie era the class struggle has provided plenty of grist for the cinematic mill. The saga of capital versus labor has spawned many great films. Some are comedies, such as Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 “Modern Times." More are dramas, if not outright tragedies, like John Sayles’ 1987 class war opus “Matewan.” Some of these films focus on individual characters; others portray collective protagonists, rising up as a group. Many of the best labor movies depict women in leading roles, on the picket lines and in the factories.
The history of proletarian pictures continues. This year a feature and documentary about the United Farm Workers were released, “Cesar Chavez” with Michael Peña and America Ferrera and “Cesar’s Last Fast.”
This Labor Day we honor the hard-working people and their fight for a better life by taking a look at the top ten working class hero films of all time.
1. Man’s Inhumanity to Man: “Intolerance”
After D.W. Griffith, “the man who invented Hollywood,” directed the pro-KKK “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915, he was reviled for its despicable racism. In an effort at atonement, Griffith plowed the profits from his hit into the avant-garde epic “Intolerance”, which The New Yorker hailed as “Perhaps the greatest movie ever made.” Griffith simultaneously told four stories depicting man’s inhumanity to man through the ages, intercutting the tale of the fall of Babylon (for which Griffith built a famously gigantic set in Hollywood) to the crucifixion of Christ, to the Massacre of the Huguenots in 1572, to a dramatic story of capital versus labor in then-contemporary America.
In the last saga, a factory owner cuts workers' wages, and the proletarians go out on strike. Mobilized troops mow down unarmed striking workers with machine guns. After the industrial action is crushed, The Boy (Robert Harron) and the Dear One (Mae Marsh) relocate and face the vicissitudes of life in capitalist America. The Boy is falsely convicted of murder and as he heads to the gallows one of the screen’s most nail-biting last minute rescues unfolds. Released when the United States was on the verge of entering World War I, “Intolerance” also had a strong antiwar theme.
But the three-hour plus extravaganza, with its parallel editing and four intertwining stories set in various epochs, confused audiences, and Griffith’s masterpiece flopped -- except in the newly created Soviet Union, where workers lined up around the block to watch it. Since the Bolsheviks didn’t pay royalties, Griffith didn’t make a red cent from the one place where “Intolerance” did boffo box office. (Served him right for making the dreadfully racist “The Birth of a Nation”!)
2. Workers of the World: “Strike”
Sergei Eisenstein made an auspicious screen debut with his first feature film in 1924. In “Strike,” the Soviet director used highly cinematic techniques to vividly tell the tale of a 1912 strike at a Moscow factory. The managers and czarist government deploy soldiers to brutally suppress the unarmed strikers, massacring them in a sequence powerfully intercut with cows butchered in a slaughterhouse. Eisenstein was a student of Griffith’s parallel editing, which he heightened with the rapid cutting of his montage sequences, which exploded onscreen in Eisenstein’s 1925 classic “Battleship Potemkin”, about mutinous sailors supported by Odessa’s working class.
3. The One Big Soul that Belongs to Everybody: “The Grapes of Wrath”
In this brilliant, 1940 Oscar winning adaptation of John Steinbeck’s proletarian novel, after being released from prison Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) reunites with his Oklahoma family who have been kicked off their land by bankers and are embarking on an “Okie” odyssey to California. They are joined by Preacher Casy (the scene-stealing John Carradine), but after an arduous cross-country trek the Joads discover that instead of being the land of milk and honey with plentiful jobs, California is beset by labor troubles. Casey becomes a union organizer and agitates for a strike among fruit pickers. He’s murdered by a policeman, who in turn is killed by Tom. The uneducated ex-con realizes he must leave the family, and in an absolutely heartbreaking farewell scene tells Ma Joad (Jane Darwell won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her über-earth mother) of the dawning of his new class consciousness:
“A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody. . . . I’ll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I'll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad . . . ”
It was Steinbeck’s genius to transpose the transcendental notion of oneness to the union movement that swept America during the Depression. What religion once offered, unionization promised with, as the Wobblies declared, “One big union.” John Ford scored a Best Director Academy Award, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and Jane’s dad Henry were both nominated for Oscars, and “Grapes” was for Best Picture.
4. John Wayne’s Lost Lefty Picture: “Three Faces West”
Offscreen John Wayne may have been a virulent anti-communist, but onscreen he had no problem acting in pictures by Hollywood’s Reds. Made the same year as “Grapes of Wrath,” the nearly forgotten “Three Faces West” is arguably more radical than the former, with harrowing scenes of the Dust Bowl. In “West” John Phillips (Wayne) leads Dust Bowl survivors from North Dakota to a Works Progress Administration-like Promised Land in Oregon. This is one of New Deal cinema’s classics, a sort of fictional counterpart to Pare Lorentz’s 1936 Resettlement Administration sponsored documentary “The Plow That Broke the Plains.” In addition to being pro-WPA, the 1940 “West” was also explicitly anti-Nazi, plus co-written by Communist Samuel Ornitz (later one of the Hollywood Ten) and directed by Bernard Vorhaus, who was named as a Communist Party member during the 1950s’ House Un-American Activities Committee hearings and also blacklisted.
Vittorio De Sica’s acclaimed 1948 film, which scored a Best Foreign Film Oscar, epitomized Italian Neo-Realism, a cinematic trend away from Hollywood glamour that often cast non-professional actors and depicted blue collar characters. In his first role Lamberto Maggiorani plays Antonio Ricci, an ordinary man who desperately strives to care for his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in postwar Rome. Antonio receives a job posting ads around town, but the modest position requires a bicycle. His wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns prized possessions so Antonio can get his bike out of hock to begin work. But after Antonio’s bicycle is stolen he’s again faced with unemployment. Destitute, Antonio takes desperate measures to try and feed his son, who shamefully witnesses a mob apprehending his father, whose real “crime” is trying to make a living for his family during hard times. Cesare Zavattini was Oscar-nominated for his screenwriting.
6. Let’s Drink to the Hard Working People: “Salt of the Earth”
HUAC caused hundreds of leftist talents and others who simply refused to “name names” to lose lucrative La-La-Land jobs, but 60 years ago some of those blacklisted filmmakers fought back by creating an enduring, endearing classic. In 1954, “Salt of the Earth” portrayed striking New Mexico Latino miners, with a pivotal role played by militant women led by the aptly named Esperanza (Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas).
“Salt” was directed by another one of the Hollywood Ten, Herbert Biberman; the film’s other blacklistees included actor Will Geer as the sheriff, producer Paul Jarrico and screenwriter Michael Wilson (who went on to co-write -- often uncredited -- 1957’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia”, 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” and 1969’s “Che!”). Inspired by an actual strike against the Empire Zinc Mine, the anti-racist, pro-feminist, pro-union “Salt” had a social realist style. Due to the era’s repressive climate, “Salt” was made and released under very difficult conditions, although it won awards at the Czech Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
7. “Them” and “Us”: “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”
During the 1950s and 1960s British “Kitchen Sink” dramas criticized the U.K.’s stultifying class system, often featuring proletarian protagonists called “the angry young man.” This trend was epitomized in 1962 by “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, written by Allan Sillitoe, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtenay, who delivers a powerhouse performance in his first feature. After committing petty theft as a form of rebellion, Courtenay’s working class character from industrial Nottingham, Colin Smith, is sentenced to a reform school run by the upper class Governor (Michael Redgrave, Vanessa’s father), a symbol of privilege. The Borstal boy’s prowess as a long distance runner allows him to move up the reformatory’s social ladder. The Governor wants Smith to win a track competition, and although in the lead, shortly before the race’s finish line he stops running, and stands still, defying the Governor and the established order.
8. The Mass Strike: “Coup Pour Coup” (“Blow for Blow”)
Inspired by France’s worker-student general strike of “Red May,” in 1968, “Coup Pour Coup,” released in 1972, is a lost gem directed by Bucharest-born Marin Karmitz, who co-made this documentary-like feature film with the workers often playing versions of themselves at the factory where it was shot. Worn down by the drudgery of assembly line speed-up, noise, and monotony, a young female factory worker, who enters the plant before dawn and leaves after sunset, snaps, screaming she wants to see the sun. To protest and improve their lives, oppressed workers—mostly women—at the Rouen textile factory commit industrial sabotage, go on strike, stage a sit-in at the installation, and hold the boss hostage. Their solidarity and militancy is infectious, and joyous, as the workers, fighting blow for blow against the powers-that-be, win, in the best feature inspired by France’s 1968 mass strike.
9. Which Side Are You On? “Harlan County, USA”
Barbara Kopple’s 1976 nonfiction account of a nearly year-long violent strike by impoverished Kentucky coal miners won the Best Documentary Academy Award. One woman in “Bloody Harlan County” tells Kopple’s camera: “If I get shot they can’t shoot the union out of me.” Black lung disease, a proposed no-strike clause, UMWA internal union power struggles, the fatal shooting of a striking miner, scabs, gun thugs, dangerous working conditions, mining disasters, and Duke Power Company’s obscene profits and practices are all part of this harrowing, gripping, gritty film that takes viewers down into the pits and proves truth really can be stranger than fiction. This is documentary filmmaking at its best.
10. Solidarity Forever: “Norma Rae”
As Norma Rae, Sally Field won the Best Actress Oscar for playing real-life textile worker (Crystal Lee Sutton) in this 1979 drama about class struggle in the South. Bad working conditions such as the deafening clatter of the assembly line in the Dickensian North Carolina mill where she works spurs local good ol’ girl Norma Rae to a new consciousness. She joins forces with New York Jewish union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) to unionize the factory. The stirring scene where Norma Rae defiantly climbs atop a worktable holding a handmade cardboard sign proclaiming “UNION”, inspiring her co-workers to shut their machines down, is unforgettable. “Norma Rae” was directed by Martin Ritt, who ran afoul of the blacklist during the 1950s and went on to direct “The Molly Maguires”, a 1970 ode to labor militancy starring Sean Connery, and 1976’s anti-HUAC “The Front” with Woody Allen.
—Ed Rampell is a frequent contributor from Hollywood to The Progressive.