The Molly Maguires

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THE MOLLY MAGUIRES  won’t satisfy you if you’re looking for fast, rollicking excitement or sweeping panorama, but if you’re open to 123 minutes of somber reflection on a sad footnote in overlooked American history than you’ll find a number of powerful, elegiac moments to savor in this vivid, atmospheric drama.

The Maguires were a secret group of immigrant Irish coal miners in 1870s Pennsylvania: a militant laborer’s resistance society—deemed terrorists in their day.  Working with passionate commitment, director Martin Ritt does proud by his production design and cast, though scenarist Walter Bernstein doesn’t own up to overmuch clarity of motivation. Other than that scripting flaw, almost everything else works.

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The elaborate sets and James Wong Howe’s fine cinematography capture the hopelessness of breaking your back (and spirit) under the ground as a virtual slave. Henry Mancini’s score manages to be both mournful and rousing in the same refrains.

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Samantha Eggar and the other supporting players are mostly fine, but the only roles that really count are the two leads: Richard Harris and Sean Connery.  Harris is very good, thankfully more subdued than usual, but it’s Connery who really gives the film an anchor, with an unforced, natural power and dignity that makes every scene he appears in belong to him.  Good as Harris is, whenever the two share a spot, it’s Sean you’ll be watching; his plight, rage and leadership are the solid base on which the story rests.

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My revolutionary blood gets stoked aflame with a classic scene where the two take their working man’s frustration out on the accursed ‘company store’. Between the music, the righteous wrath of their characters and the obvious up-from-the-streets rebel delight the actors bring to the anarchic vandalism, it’s enough to make you put down your ridiculous phone toy, grab a pitchfork, march on CrapMart and join the age-old, endless struggle.

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The downbeat saga was a huge box-office bomb, with a cost of $11,000,000 (a lot in 1970) submerged under a grudging return of $2,200,000.  Ritt regarded this as his favorite film,  kvetching that the failure hurt his career. That said, the same year his The Great White Hope was also an ambitious and expensive defeat.  Harris, busy in 1970 after three years off-screen, landed a hit with  A Man Called Horse and a draw with Cromwell, while Connery had just endured another big money-loser with the worthy but unsung adventure The Red Tent.  

Oscar nominated for its superb Art Direction, this features Frank Finlay, Anthony Zerbe, Art Lund, Bethel Leslie, Philip Bourneuf and Anthony Costello.

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