Triumph and Tragedy

In 1954 two exceptional films on organized labor were
produced. Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront worn innumerable
awards and is often recognized as one of the best films of the decade.

The other, Salt of the Earth, was boycotted by
virtually every theater in the nation, and has seldom been seen
anywhere. Like Kazan’s film, it earned a place in history. According
to the video liner box, it is the only United States film that was
blacklisted. The reason: most of its cast and crew were blacklisted
because they refused to testily before the Un-American Activities
Committee and reveal co-workers who had had Communist Party affiliations.

Partially financed by the International Union of Mine,
Mill and Smelter Workers, Salt of the Earth is a remarkable
film which was several years ahead of its time. Using a largely
non-professional cast, it made a plea for economic and sexual equality
years before these issues made front page headlines.

The film tells a simple, straightforward story of the
struggle by Mexican workers in a New Mexico mining community to
achieve better working and living conditions. Narrated by a woman,
it sends a strong message of human dignity and freedom, and raises
some social issues which remain virtually unchanged today.

When the workers strike, the mining company obtains
a court injunction ordering them to stop picketing. If they comply,
the strike will be lost; if they continue, picketers will be arrested
and fined, and the strike will still fail.

In the Union meeting that follows, a woman points out
that the injunction prohibits only striking miners from picketing.
The strike will not be broken if women take over the picketing.
In the ensuing discussion, one of the miners says "We can’t
think of them as housewives. We have to think of them as partners."
Another replies, "Brothers don’t count enough on their women;
bosses don’t count on them at all."

As the strike continues for six months, tensions build.
The corporation bans striking workers from purchasing food at the
company store. and male-female roles are reversed. Men are forced
to watch helplessly from the sidelines as women are harassed by
sheriff’s deputies, and they undertake the traditional women’s roles
of doing the laundry. preparing meals, mid eating for children.
When the central character is denied public assistance because lie
onlN’ has three children to teed. it reminds arc that some things
still haven’t changed very much. Many of today’s unemployed have
tried to obtain food stamps and other services only to be told that
they are not poor enough to qualify.

Attempting to break the picketers, sheriff Will Geer,
has his deputies ram the line with cars. A woman is hurt and a brief
scuffle follows, but the line continues, and grows in strength.
As a last resort, he orders them to "get off the picket line
or get arrested." They refuse and are taken to jail. Realizing
they will prevail, and worrying about lost profits, the company
agrees to compromise.

In lesser hands, this might have become bad, inept melodrama
or a strident treatise with a too-pat ending. Michael Wilson had
an excellent ear for dialogue, and crafted a lean screen play featuring
quiet, sensitive narration by Rosaura Revueltas, who was one of
the cast’s few professionals.

The production was filmed in black and white in what
looks to be a real miner’s village set on a southwestern desert.
As it unfolds one has the feeling of watching documentary footage
of an actual strike as it is transpires. The ending is a much more
logical and believable conclusion than in Kazan’s film, which built
to a climax with a bruising fight between dock worker Marlon Brando
and waterfront boss Lee J. Cobb.

Much of the credit goes to director Herbert Biberman,
who guided his cast of unknown professionals and amateurs to uniformly
good performances. Knowing that many of them were not professionals,
there is a tendency to try to pick out the pros from the firsttimers.
When the credit roll at the end identifies the two groups, this
viewer had guessed wrong in virtually every case. The reason: everyone
is so right for their part and speaks dialogue so realistically
that it is difficult to imagine them as anything other than the
characters they are portraying.

If the film has a flaw, it is that it moves rather slowly.
But to have quickened the pace would have destroyed the sense of
watching a documentary.

Cult Movies II has said, "No American film is more
inspiring and emotionally satisfying than this remarkable 1954 film."
Biberman’s triumph was in simply getting his film made. The tragedy
is that it took almost 40 years before it became available on MPI
Home Video so everyone can see it.

As such, it is an enduring statement of the quest for
human dignity. It is also a sad reminder of the time when America
submitted to fear, and by doing so, suppressed a voice that was
fighting for fundamental principals which were theoretically guaranteed
when the nation was founded. MM

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