The black gold, ‘Coal’ continues to be our world’s energy cornerstone. Although nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, and other renewables play a vital role as energy sources, for the foreseeable future, the use of fossil fuels like coal seems to be the cost-effective way to provide affordable electricity at a very wide scale. Coal industry supports millions of families by providing jobs and contributes a lot to a country’s GDP. But, there is a dark side to this sedimentary rock, the foremost being the pollution it causes (smog). The black gold has also acquired a huge shared of workers’ blood. The men in coal pit may quickly lose their lives to disastrous accident or they have to endure a slow death in the hands of their employers or through a fatal disease.
The ‘Welsh mining strikes’, Appalachian strike, and West Virginia Coal Wars brought upon violent battles between the rich and proletariat people. Even today, the coal mines in countries like China, India, Mexico etc stands as a symbol for modern slavery. Unlike other art forms, movies have always mirrored the plight of these proletarians risking their lives in coal pits for a meager amount of money. In 1910, a nine minute documentary “A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner” was made, imparting the image of a miner descending down with his lamp. Documentaries like “Harlan County USA” (1976) unflinchingly portrayed the bloody miners’ strike in a small Kentucky town. Let’s look at some of the best feature films on this vital socioeconomic history, which is largely ignored by corporate media & law-makers.
The Proud Valley (1940)
Pen Tennyson’s instigative political movie documents the hard realities faced by Welsh mining village after trying to self-govern its own mine, which backfires as WWII broods over the horizon. This is one of earliest films to depict the role played by coal industry in mobilizing the populace for war. Despite being a studio film (Ealing Studios), it offered effective portrayal of the coal mines. The film also boasts an excellent performance from the pre-eminent African-American actor Paul Robeson. “The Proud Valley” is also credited as a rare studio film to introduce non-professional actors with authentic working class accent.
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
John Ford’s sentimental masterpiece is a warm human interest story, set once again in the Welsh mining community. Yeah, this film has the glossy Hollywood elements and it would be hard for movie-lovers to digest the fact that it won ‘Best Picture Oscar’ over “Citizen Kane” & “Maltese Falcon”, but it also has genuine emotions that might still stir up the light-hearted human within us. The one of dearest moments in the film is the narrator’s voice, which evokes a strong sense of days gone by, showcasing how the movement towards an economic progress altered their village.
Under-rated American film-maker John Sayles’ tale about striking miners in a small West Virginia town reveals us how virtue could be conceived out of adversity. Although is film is based on famous Matewan shootout (in the 1920’s), Sayles weaves his own story, reminiscing the broken up hostilities between county miners and the African-american, Italian immigrant miners. The movie elegantly depicts the union of these culturally different men to fight against the persecutions of an inhumane company. Sayles also brings out the inner struggles faced by the women of the mining community. Although the conflicts of the miners are alleviated for the sake of narrative, the performances (David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, Bob Gunton) are complex and subtle.
Claude Berri’s extremely poignant tale (based on the novel by Emile Zola) presents a very authentic, tragedy-riddle environment faced by 19th century coal miners of France. Director Berri doesn’t gloss over the stark elements in the film, and shows how men and women chosen to endure hellish conditions in mines rather than starving to death. The high standard production design, cinematography, and exemplary cast (which include Gerard Depardieu) give us a whiff of the nauseating circumstances endured by the workers. The class warfare rendered here, between the have-nots and privileged few still reverberates in our times too.
Matthew Warchus light-hearted drama depicts the unlikely alliance between the two outcasts of the Thatcher era (1980’s UK): LGBT activists & striking Welsh miners. The movie gives a human face to the disconsolate and damaging period in late-20th-century British history. The basic theme is once again ‘solidarity against adversity’, but this reconciliation between clashing subcultures yields some touching sequences. The movie hits the usual bumpy spots of such feel-good dramadies, but its talented cast (Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Dominic West, Andrew Scott) and not-so-sugary message makes it irresistibly uplifting.
Other notable films: Blind Shaft (aka Mang Jing, 2003) – a gruesome thriller about life in Illegal coal mines of China (banned in China); Brassed Off (1996) – a bitter-sweet drama set in the Yorkshire mining town; The Molly Maguires (1970) – based on the real secret organization of Irish-Americans in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania (in the 1870’s); Black Fury (1935) – based on the true stirring historical incident on the coalfields of Pennsylvania.