Even in 1970, it must have struck some executives at Paramount Pictures as a form of madness to spend $11 million (which would be somewhere north of $100 million in 2013 dollars) on a period piece about late 19th century Pennsylvania coal miners who got so fed up with the way they were treated that they resorted to self-destructive terrorism.
The movie boasted a huge star in Sean Connery, a very respected actor in Richard Harris, and the lovely recent Oscar nominee Samantha Eggar in the female lead.
There is a touch of romance in the film, but “The Molly Maguires” is basically about the conflict between two Irish immigrants — pro-labor Jack Kehoe (Connery) who resorts to violence in his fight against management and the Pinkerton undercover detective James McParlan (Harris) who was sent in by the coal mine owners to infiltrate the group that was planting bombs in the mines.
Warner Archive recently added the movie to its ever-growing list of rare titles that have never managed to stay in print very long (the DVDs are made on demand as orders come in). It’s a quintessential Warner Archive title — a seriously flawed movie that understandably flopped at the box office, but now has considerable interest as a time capsule from an earlier era in Hollywood.
“The Molly Maguires” went into production in 1968 when studios were still gambling huge sums of money on epic dramas and musicals in the hope of scoring another “The Sound of Music” or “Doctor Zhivago” windfall. The low-budget revolution represented by “Easy Rider” had not yet happened and the impact of two 1967 hits, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate,” was just starting to trickle down.
Paramount was on the hook for a vast amount of money tied to three 1969-1970 releases — “Paint Your Wagon,” “Darling Lili” and “The Molly Maguires” — all three of which would turn into financial disasters. If not for the late 1970 release of “Love Story” the studio might have imploded.
“The Molly Maguires” was easily the best of the super-expensive trio because it tried to dramatize a little known aspect of American history, and it examined a political/moral issue in a surprisingly even-handed way. Sadly, the overscaled physical production, and the very leisurely pacing, hurt the storytelling.
Director Martin Ritt clearly fell in love with master cameraman James Wong Howe’s stunning location cinematography — shots run for minutes at a time, including an much too long opening sequence that seems designed to show off the elaborately recreated mining town before the first bomb goes off and the credits begin.
Labor stories have always been a hard sell in American mainstream moviemaking. Add to that an attempt to understand oppressed terrorists and you have a movie for which there was no mass audience.
A decade later Martin Ritt scored a hit with a contemporary strike movie, “Norma Rae,” but he learned his lessons from “The Molly Maguires” — the 1979 filme was shot on a modest budget without major stars in the leads (of course, Sally Field would win an Oscar for her work and became a top star of the 1980s).
Still, there is great integrity in “The Molly Maguires” and fine work by everyone involved.