A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954)

Striking miners in Salt of the Earth
Although it holds one's interest and is a largely successful American attempt to imitate the neo-realism of postwar Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Salt of the Earth is not, I think, a great movie. The acting is amateurish -- necessarily so, because most of the actors are in fact amateurs -- and the plotting is tendentious, with "bad guys" who are given no depth of characterization. But I think it is, perhaps more now than ever, an essential movie. It tells the story of a miners' strike in New Mexico that's based on an actual 1951 strike by the workers of the Empire Zinc Company. The point of view is mostly that of a Mexican-American married couple, the miner Ramon Quintero (Juan Chacón) and his wife, Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas). When the miners go on strike for better working conditions, especially to put Latino workers on a par with the Anglos, the company invokes the Taft-Hartley Act, enjoining the striking workers from picketing. But the miners' wives take up the cause, in part because they want to improve the standards of the company-owned housing they live in. The film develops a tension not only between workers and management but also between Juan, who clings to a traditional machismo, and Esperanza, who is pregnant but insists on joining the other women on the picket line, where they are subjected to harassment and threats of violence, and are briefly thrown in jail. The story has a happy ending, with the miners and their wives triumphing, but the film itself was denounced as communist propaganda, and its director, Herbert J. Biberman, was one of the Hollywood Ten who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Biberman went to jail for six months. The film's screenwriter, Michael Wilson, was blacklisted, though he continued to work on films sub rosa: His work on the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957) won an Oscar, though only Pierre Boulle, who neither spoke nor wrote English, was credited. In 1984, the Academy posthumously restored Wilson's credit on the film and his Oscar, as it later also restored his credits on the Oscar-nominated screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962) and Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956). Salt of the Earth itself got a kind of belated recognition in 1992 when the Library of Congress chose it for inclusion in the National Film Registry. And the story of the treatment of its filmmakers could serve as an object lesson in an era when resurgent racism and anti-feminism threaten to turn the clock back to the era in which the film was made.