Directed by Hollywood Ten writer-director Biberman and produced by the blacklisted Jarrico, this hard-hitting drama tells the story of some New Mexico zinc-miners who go on strike for better pay and conditions in the early 1950s. The company gets a court order that prohibits picketing, but the law doesn't extend to the miners wives ... An extraordinary film, made under extraordinary conditions and based on real events.
Unavoidable classic on a 1950 mine strike, made by McCarthy era blacklisted filmmakers.
Kudos are in order for this extraordinary film for all it has to say that rings true about workers' rights, racism, and feminism
Members of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten decided to actually do something subversive, go to New Mexico and make this powerful humanist fiction focusing on the striking Mexican American zinc miners there. The result is arguably the only truly leftist feature of the period, co-produced by the depicted union. "Liberal" Hollywood not surprisingly used their muscle to suppress it, keeping it out of all the studio owned chains. However, the effort against it went far beyond the usual Hollywood vs. everyone else. It went far beyond our mythological aviating "hero" Howard Hughes trying to use his clout to keep the negative from even being developed. For those interested in how far it went, James J. Lorence wrote "The Suppression of Salt of the Earth: How Hollywood, Big Labor, and Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America". While the film was highly regarded abroad, particularly in Europe, Salt had to wait 11 years to be semidiscovered in the US. But the film is notable for a lot more than the effort against it, it's a work years ahead of it's time, particularly in trying to set straight our backwards attitudes. More than just a pro union work; it's one of the only, and certainly the strongest American feminist film of its time. Though the men are on strike, the main character is the wife of the leading Mexican American, played by one of the only professionals in the cast (most of the others are from the striking union), Rosaura Revualtas, who was repatriated to Mexico due to appearing in this evil film. The film shows that as bad as the American workers had it, the Mexican Americans had it that much worse because of racism, and their wives had it far worse than anyone because of sexism. We see Revualtas rise from a neglected unappreciated submissive to a key player in the strike, though it's not one of those films that makes the main character too grand or heroic. She never becomes bigger than the film, rising through some small actions that are a big step forward for her own courage. Her voice over narration is a big key to the film, typically used for reportage, which becomes an excellent condensing tool and allows the cast of non actors to go about business, be themselves. There's one intense particularly memorable crosscutting sequence that's far ahead of it's time, going between Revualtas giving birth without a doctor (because the company doctor won't help a striker) and her husband not being able to help her because the police are beating him up in the back of the squad car. Generally the film is solid though unspectacularly made, but it's daring in legitimately depicting labor issues and prejudice makes it stand out amongst the frivolous entertainments and sugar coated imposters. Though dated in some respects, it's more relevant than ever in others, like what paying for everything on installment does to your freedom. Unfortunately, the one place it goes wrong in concluding that the rights won will be passed on to the children, as we know they disappear as soon as we turn our backs or are distracted long enough
More than a typical Miramax/Tarantino extravaganza, it's films like this that establish the historical precedent and importance of truly independent American filmmaking
March 15, 1954
THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; ' Salt of the Earth' Opens at the Grande -- Filming Marked by Violence
By BOSLEY CROWTHER
Published: March 15, 1954
Against the hard and gritty background of a mine workers' strike in a New Mexican town—a background bristling with resentment against the working and living conditions imposed by the operators of the mine—a rugged and starkly poignant story of a Mexican-American miner and his wife is told in "Salt of the Earth," a union-sponsored film drama, which opened last night at the Grande Theatre on East Eighty-sixth Street.
It is the story of a husband's firm objection to women—and, especially, his wife—mixing in the grim affairs of the strikers, and of the strong determination of the wife to participate, along with other women, in the carrying on of the strike.
This is the film that occasioned controversy and violence when it was being made near Silver City, N. M., just one year ago. The facts were then widely noted that members of the independent company making it, including the director, Herbert J. Biberman, and the producer, Paul Jarrico, had been identified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities as past or present Communists and that the organization sponsoring the picture, the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, had been expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for left-wing leanings.
Threats of Vigilante Action
Rosaura Revueltas, the Mexican actress who plays one of the leading roles, was seized as an illegal alien while the production was underway, and fisticuffs and threats of vigilante action occurred in Silver City while the company was there.
Recent sub rosa difficulties of the film's producers in getting a theatre in which to show it here have further evidenced the pressures against it and the obstructions placed in its way.
In the light of this agitated history, it is somewhat surprising to find that "Salt of the Earth" is, in substance, simply a strong pro-labor film with a particularly sympathetic interest in the Mexican-Americans with whom it deals. True, it frankly implies that the mine operators have taken advantage of the Mexican-born or descended laborers, have forced a "speed up" in their mining techniques and given them less respectable homes than provided the so-called "Anglo" laborers. It slaps at brutal police tactics in dealing with strikers and it gets in some rough, sarcastic digs at the attitude of "the bosses" and the working of the Taft-Hartley Law.
But the real dramatic crux of the picture is the stern and bitter conflict within the membership of the union. It is the issue of whether the women shall have equality of expression and of strike participation with the men. And it is along this line of contention that Michael Wilson's tautly muscled script develops considerable personal drama, raw emotion and power.
Conflict of Personalities
For this conflict of human personalities, torn by egos and traditions, is shown in terms of sharp clashes at union meetings, melees on dusty picket lines, tussles with "scabs" and deputy sheriffs and face-to-face encouners between the husband and wife in their meager home. It is a conflict that broadly embraces the love of struggling parents for their young, the dignity of some of these poor people and their longings to see their children's lot improved.
Under Mr. Biberman's direction, an unusual company made up largely of actual miners and their families, plays the drama exceedingly well. Miss Revueltas, one of the few professional players, is lean and dynamic in the key role of the wife who compels her miner husband to accept the fact of equality, and Juan Chacon, a non-professional, plays the husband forcefully. Will Geer as a shrewd, hard-bitten sheriff, Clinton Jencks as a union organizer and a youngster named Frank Talevera as the son of the principals are excellent, too.
The hard-focus, realistic quality of the picture's photography and style completes its characterization as a calculated social document. It is a clearly intended special interest film.