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Miners on Film

Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2014

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The working class tends suffer a subordinate role in mainstream films under capitalism: the unfortunately short-lived socialist cinemas offered an alternative as did Labour Movement films. Organised labour, in the presence of miners and mining communities is one frequent representative.

In 1933 Joris Ivens and Henri Storck made Borinage, focusing on a miners’ strike in Belgium. The Lad from the Taiga (Paren’ iz Tajgi, 1941) is a Soviet drama directed by Ol’ga Preobraženskaja and Ivan Pravov, the film follows the conflict between individualism and co-operation among gold miners in a remote area. In 1953 a group of filmmakers blacklisted by the Hollywood Studios, dramatised events from a strike in New Mexico. Barbara Kopple in 1976 made the independent Harlan County, USA depicting the violence directed against striking miners in Kentucky. The last film deservedly received a high rating from the Sight & Sound critics poll of ‘great documentaries. Grupo Ukamau produced The Clandestine Nation (La Nación Clandestina, 1976) which portrayed the struggles of miners in the Bolivian Andean plateau.

Mining and miners is one area, which has enjoyed some space and prominence for working class characters and communities in the mainstream. Examples can be found in most film industries. Hollywood’s Daryl F. Zanuck produced an adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s classic novel, How Green was My Valley, in 1941. One of the early classics of European cinema is Kameradschaft (The Tragedy of the Mine, 1931) which celebrates working class solidarity across borders. And there are at least six film versions of Emile Zola’s classic novel, Germinal: though the most radical is also one of the earliest, in 1914. From farther afield comes The Human Condition (Ningen no jôken, Japan 1959 – 1961) in which the protagonists supervises forced Korean labour working in mines. There is also Blind Shaft (Mang Jing, 2003) which deals with exploitation in open cast mining in China.

As one would expect mining and miners have been a recurring feature in British cinema as well. The conditions and dangers of mining make for dramatic situations. The fact that there are often whole mining communities involved, not just a group of workers, offers strong characterisations. And, in Britain especially, for much our industrial history, mining has been a core industry and the miners have been in the vanguard of the organised working class.

So miners turn up in the early days of British cinema. Mitchell & Kenyon were a regional film company, based in Blackburn and filming and distributing both actuality films and short fictional films. There are several short films on mining in the surviving archive, including a Miners Demonstration at Wakefield in 1908. This expression of solidarity, involving miners, women and children, was seen as rather threatening by the political establishment: a press report described it as ‘organised rowdyism’.

More substantial is A Day in the Life of a Miner filmed by Keystone in 1911 for the London & North Western Railway: the colliery featured was Alexandra Colliery of Wigan Coal & Iron Co Ltd. There are clearly staged scenes, actual footage in the mine workings and shots of women workers hauling away on the surface. But, apart from Newsreels, there do not seem to be any contemporary film reports or dramas of the 1926 General Strike, in which the miners were key players.

Coal Face title

Sound cinema bought new presentation to the industry and its workers. Coal Face (1935) was produced for the GPO Film Unit and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti. Cavalcanti had a background in European avant-garde cinema. The eleven-minute film enjoyed contributions from composer Benjamin Britton and poet W H Auden. Predominately the film used ‘found footage’ from other work by the Unit, which was then edited into a very distinctive montage.

It is worth noting that in the 1930s the Regional Committees of The Miners Welfare Fund were able to organise leisure facilities. These were especially extensive in Wales and a number included cinemas equipped with 35mm sound film projection.

The strength and centrality of coal mining and the political issues around the industry can be seen in The Stars Look Down (1939). Produced by the small Grafton Production Company, it was filmed at the Denham Studio with location work at mining pits in Cumberland. The story was adapted from the novel of the same name by A. J. Cronin, and adapted by J. B. Williams and Cronin himself. The film was directed by Carol Reed and starred Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Emlyn Williams. The film develops its story to a serious accident at the mine, a staple of mining films. But the disaster and the victims are tied to a message of nationalisation, already becoming a key industrial battleground before the war. A year earlier, in 1938, the British arm of MGM had produced another adaptation of a novel by Cronin, The Citadel. The follows the travails of a young doctor, played by Robert Donat, working in the slums of a Welsh mining village. Again in 1939 Ealing Studios produced The Proud Valley. A wandering black stoker joins the Welsh village choir and the pit workforce. Almost predictably he sacrifices his life in a mining disaster. The stoker David Goliath is played by the charismatic Paul Robeson, who enjoyed better roles in British sound films than those in his native USA.

The focus on disaster is found again in a post-war film, The Brave Don’t Cry (1952). Philip Leacock directed an almost documentary recreation of the 1950 mining disaster in Knockshinnock in Scotland, though using some conventional melodrama and stars like John Gregson.

40-years-on-1977-001-national-coal-board-management_0

However, by now the mining industry had been nationalised. The National Coal Board produced a whole series of films about the mines, mining and miners, including between 1947 and 1983 a Mining Review newsreel. But the new management in 1947 included some of the representatives of old and discredited owners. This is an issue addressed in Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45

The contradictions of this strategy came to a head in the famous conflict of 1974. The independent film collective Cinema Action made a 16mm black and white documentary [with a grant from the British Film Institute] presenting the point of view of the miners during the 1974 dispute. The film took a social and historical view, including reflecting back to the 1926 General Strike. This sense of the relevance of that earlier event was also seen in Robert Vas’s documentary Nine Days in ’26 (1973): in an episode of the TV series Upstairs Downstairs in the same year: and most famously in the final episode of Ken Loach’s Days of Hope (BBC 1975).

The historical references were to be again potent in the great miners’ strike of 1984.

Ken Loach’s Which Side Are You On? (London Weekend Television, 1985) is a beautifully crafted montage of miners, mining communities, organisers, activists, singers and poets. It was originally commissioned for the South Bank Show. Melvyn Bragg found the film ‘too political’, but worked with Loach to achieve an ‘acceptable final cut.’ But then the LWT management banned the film. It was later screened by Chanel 4. This sort of censorship was going on right through the strike and for a considerable time afterwards. A detailed study can by found in the research by the Glasgow Media Group and The Campaign for Freedom in the Press and Media.

Which side title

Since 1984 there have been several documentaries and features focusing on these events. Two important films are Mike Figgis’ The Battle of Orgreave (C4 2002): and this year’s Still the Enemy Within (2014).

Features include Billy Elliot  (2000) which follows the story of an eleven-year old boy, the son of a miner involved in the struggle. But the focus of the film is the son’s interest in ballet, with the strike featuring as background and context. The earlier Brassed Off  (1994) also relies on personalised drama. Produced by Film Four and Miramax, it was written and directed by Mark Herman. The cast is led by Pete Postlethwaite, and includes Ewan McGregor, Tara Fitzgerald and a host of familiar faces from both film and television. The film directly addressed the aftermath of the 1984 strike through the programme of pit closures that followed over the next decade. If Billy Elliot offers an unlikley combination of ‘Swan Lake’ and coal hewing, Brassed Off has the brilliant marriage of the coal miners and the Brass Band culture, so strong in the mining regions. This film does also actually show some working miners, actual labour power not being a common sight in British films.

Both films aspire to provide an entertaining story and feel-good resolution. Empire commented on Billy Elliot “The first genuinely exhilarating Brit Flick of the new millennium…”. Time Out commented that Brassed Off  “pulls off a popular proletarian comedy which might actually appeal to the people its about … [but which also is] not shy at laying the blame”.

The success of both films suggests that they did manage to combine comedy, drama and notable historical events to effect. What is interesting is both leave [or attempt to leave] the audience with an upbeat ending, despite the miners actually suffering defeat. It struck me that there are not any major dramas on film recording the victory in 1984. Is this the [supposed] sympathy of the British public for the underdog? Certainly in political life there is much less sign of sympathy for organised labour.

Brassed collapse

These films about miners are part of a larger cycle of British films about ordinary working people; for instance The Full Monty (1997). They don’t actually suggest social or economic change, they celebrate survival. The film that actually ends in a real-life victory is Made in Dagenham (2010), celebrating the working women at the Ford Motor plant. However, the latter film is more about women’s rights than industrial conflict: part of the problem is male trade unionists. Women are important figures in a number of the mining films, despite the stereotypical image of the male miner. The Lad from Taiga has a woman engineer as a central character. In Salt of the Earth the women take over the picket when the men are barred by a court injunction. Days of Hope and Which Side Are You On?, in different ways, both rely on the women participants to progress the struggle.

However Brassed Off, whilst it has emotional scenes involving wives, fails to provide a close focus of the ‘Women Against Pit Closures’. And in Billy Elliot the one notable women character comes from outside the mining community. Indeed Brassed off and Billy Elliot both fail to develop a strong sense of the miming communities. Whereas Which Side Are You On? is centrally about those communities.

It is difficult to find a film that exposes the interests of the capital class directly. The film that come closest to this is Ken Loach’s Days of Hope, where the final words following the end of the 1926 General Strike are given to two members of the Communist Party of Great Britain [and a caretaker]. But this series received some of the most apoplectic criticism seen in recent years in the mainstream media.

Pride (2014), like some of the earlier films, is based on actual events. The scriptwriter Stephen Beresford hawked the idea around for years without success. Then David Livingstone, the producer, became interested. He obtained some development money from Working Title. The film was eventually produced by Pathé with financial support from BBC Films and the British Film Institute.  The pre-release publicity suggested that it combined personal drama and comedy and was likely to end with some sort of feel-good resolution. It certainly relies on certain British generic conventions and a cast of recognisable British character actors. Beresford and the film’s director Mathew Warchus main experience is in theatre and the film relies on acting and character. The film’s distinctive contribution, very much of the C21st, is ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’: in the guise of a Welsh mining village.

The film is stronger on the role of women and has a greater sense of community than most of the other films in the cycle. The depiction of Gays and Lesbian’s in the film is somewhat stereotypical, and issues like sexuality and Aids are shied away from. The latter presumably down to the inhibitions of the BBFC. Fundamentally though the film follows the cycle in its concentration on the personal rather than the political or the economic. What lies under the surface of this famous conflict is not unearthed. The economic imperatives of the 1980s, including the weakening of the power of organised Labour, is absent from the film. Certainly, like Brassed Off, the film develops sympathy for the miners. For an understanding of what the events actually signify one still needs to return to a film like Which Side Are You On?

Developed from Notes for an Introduction to a screening of Pride at the National Media Museum.

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