By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: Spy infiltrates secret group.
In 1876 a group of Irish immigrants form a secret society known as the Molly Maguires. Their aim is to retaliate against the cruel and unfair working conditions of the mining company that they work at by secretly sabotaging the company’s work site whenever they can. Police Lieutenant Davis (Frank Finley) hires undercover detective James McParland (Richard Harris) to infiltrate the group and find out who the culprits behind the vandalism are. He becomes friends with the group’s leader Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery) which puts into question whether he will turn them in or become a part of the protest.
The story is based on the real-life incident that occurred in 1876 in Reading, Pennsylvania and an actual James McParland who infiltrated a group of Mollies and brought them to justice after their actions ended the lives of several men. The term Molly Maguire comes from the name of an actual woman who lived in Ireland during the 1700’s and helped lead a revolt against rent collectors.
On the technical end the film is well done. The majority of it was shot in Eckley, Pennsylvania whose authentic buildings remained virtually unchanged from when they were built in the 1870’s making it easy for the filmmakers to recreate the period without much effort. The coal plant was built specifically for the film and still stands today, but what impressed me most was that director Martin Ritt allows the natural ambiance of the working conditions to permeate the soundtrack to the point that not a word of dialogue is spoken until 15 minutes in and Connery, who gets shown on and off, never speaks a word until the 40-minute mark.
Despite being made on a large budget of 11 million it managed to only recoup 2 million of its investment at the box office. Personally I feel this was a direct result of exposing the Harris character as an undercover agent right from the start. Usually movies try to keep this element a mystery, which then allows for a surprise reveal at the end, but here that gets ruined.
What’s worse is that the Harris character never changes in any way. He stoically sticks to his mission of turning the men in and betraying the trust that he had earned from them, which I found frustrating. As a viewer you start to bond with Connery and his men and connect to what they’re fighting against. Yes, they do commit crimes of vandalism, but for good reason as they were clearly being exploited by their corporate masters. You’d expect Harris to internally quarrel with this as he becomes friends with them, but he doesn’t and without any insight given to his background it becomes, despite the otherwise high production standards. off-putting and emotionally defeating to have to sit through.
Ritt later directed Norma Rae which dealt with the same subject of worker unions, but that film made unions the center point of the story. Here the union issue seems to be only a side element while Harris’ ongoing con game the main drama, which ultimately creates a nebulous point-of-view. I walked away wondering what message if anything the film was trying to convey, which could be yet another reason why viewers never warmed up to it despite being otherwise well executed.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: January 27, 1970
Runtime: 2 Hours 5 Minutes
Director: Martin Ritt
Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube
I’m late to the game here, but I live in the anthracite coal region where the movie is set. The Mollies actually were sort of homegrown IRA, mostly based in Northumberland & Schuylkill County. Jack Kehoe, the ringleader played by Sean Connery, was really a tavern keeper who ran the Hibernian House, a bar/boarding house still open occasionally by his great-great grandson who has the cell door & chains from Kehoe jail cell. It should be noted the the police lieutenant is actually in the Philadelphia Coal & Iron Company police, Pennsylvania permitting private police at that time. Eckley today is a PA State Museum, well worth a visit. Even the coal plant set, (really called a coal breaker), is still standing, somewhat worse for wear, but amazing considering it was built as a movie prop over a half century ago.
I kind of agree with your assignment of the film, who do you root for? The terrorists are doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, the good guy is a Judas going undercover to sell his friends out. (BTW, the real Mollies blew up mines, burned breakers and killed enemies, not a nice bunch)
Thanks for the extra information!