“The Molly Maguires” (1970)
Running Time: 124 minutes
Written by: Walter Bernstein based on Lament for the Molly Maguires by Arthur H. Lewis
Directed by: Martin Ritt
Featuring: Sean Connery, Richard Harris, Samantha Eggar and Frank Finlay
[Davies has given McParlan a beating, as part of his cover]
Davies: “They’ll respect you now. It’s about the only thing they do respect round here, a blow and a hard head.”
Recently released on blu-ray, on the imprint label, is the drama “The Molly Maguires” (1970) featuring screen legends Sean Connery and Richard Harris, in roles as antagonist and protagonist respectively in a story about miners set in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s. It is primarily about a group called the Molly Maguires, who were an Irish 19th-century secret society active in Ireland, Liverpool and parts of the Eastern United States, best known for their activism among Irish-American and Irish immigrant coal miners in Pennsylvania.
When talking about older films, especially those that were made over fifty years ago were period pieces then it cab be difficult to place them even in terms of good and bad. When “The Molly Maguires” was released it was a flop at the box office, even with established actors as well as relatively new ones, it was an expensive film, obviously because of the leads in Sean Connery and Richard Harris who take their own roles very seriously as one would expect. However the issue with the movie has more to do with the script as well as the general narrative that unfolds, they seem not to be thought out completely and many of the situations feel paint by numbers, especially in terms of the Richard Harris character, the Pinkerton James McParlan.
“The Molly Maguires” begins in a coalmine in Pennsylvania in the 1876. Coal is still dug by hand and taken out on rails in wagons pulled by ponies. Pit props are improvised with timber. Conditions are always dirty, often cramped and generally unhealthy. Miners are shown with naked flames on their hats as their only light source. Men are shown planting charges. This appears to be work-related but all men leave the mine and the resultant explosion destroys the mine. Pinkerton sends James McParlan (Richard Harris) to investigate. He arrives by train in the late evening and goes to a local bar and orders a beer, while Kehoe (Sean Connery) observes and motions for Dougherty and Frazier to deal with the matter. McParlan joins Dougherty and Frazier at a card table and says he is looking for work in the mine. They are suspicious and see his hands have never dug coal. They accuse him of cheating and deliberately start a fight. Police Captain Davies (Frank Finlay) breaks up the fight and arrests McParlan. However this is just a ploy as the police know McParlan’s role. Davies explains to McParlan the problem of the Molly Maguires – and that they are named after a gang in Ireland. They need an inside man to infiltrate the pit which sets up the rest of the movie.
“The Molly Maguires” is not a bad film at all, however it is not great and I believe that comes down to the way the narrative has been constructed which is not out and out bad but the way the characters are written as to be archetypical and drawn too broadly. A good example is the head policeman, Captain Davies who is always in black and appears out of nowhere in the most improbable places to make contact with his agent, McParlan, it becomes a bit of a joke in the end it happens so often. Speaking of McParlan this is an undercover agent with all the tropes one might expect, he is supposed to be gathering proof of the Molly Maguires but struggles with the fact that he makes friends and has to turn them in, he is looking for a better life, maybe a promotion or something ti being him status and complain. That is the major problem with the “The Molly Maguires” it is trope laden as well as many of the characters being archetypes but not in a good way.
Directed by Martin Ritt who I am a huge fan of and here with “The Molly Maguires” is about mid career, he had made a few movies with Paul Newman which were extremely well received, however maybe he had too much ego with Sean Connery who was James Bond at the time and Richard Harris who was at his most popular, he had was coming off the popular “Excalibur” (1967). Ritt would direct a few socially relevant movies and would later direct Sally Field to an Oscar with “Norma Rae” (1979) it would be nominated for four Oscars, winning two. Ritt is a very good director but this is a misstep in terms of direction, it feels like a constant setup and hang wringing from everyone involved which inhibits everything going on and detracts from the overall of what could have been a very good socially conscious film. Also in trying to give two sides to a story, maybe even attempting to understand both sides weakens both and it becomes a chore, it is also means that both sides come out on the negative side.
Even though “The Molly Maguires” seems to have a lot going against it this is still a high budget film with some serious people in front of and behind the camera, for that alone I think its worth the watch.
- 1080p High-definition presentation by Paramount Pictures on Blu-ray
- Audio commentary by film historian Howard S. Berger
- Audio commentary by author/producer and film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer
- A Complicated Film: Anthony Zerbe on The Molly Maguires
- Theatrical Trailer
- Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
- Audio English DTS-HD 5.1 + LPCM 2.0 Mono