Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Angry Silence

(UK, 1960)

I think this one could inspire debates that might go on for days, if not years. In fact, it is still going on. I’m trying to think of movies that express an anti-union sentiment, even a mild one, and I’m not coming up with many. On the Waterfront qualifies, I guess. But I doubt that we’re ever going to see a lot of movies that are really critical of unions. Hollywood is a union town, after all.

And I’m a union man, from way back. But I am not blind to the bad things that sometimes happen. The worst, of course, was when some unions got entangled with the Mob, but that’s not all. “Solidarity” is something that is probably necessary to the union movement, but if solidarity must be enforced, it can stifle reasonable dissent. A lone man can hardly stand against it.

Richard Attenborough is an ordinary factory worker who finds himself taking a stand when some over-aggressive organizers call a wildcat strike, not authorized by the union. The big majority of the workers go right along with it, though many if not most of them don’t really know what it’s all about. The shop steward says strike! and they strike. A small handful hold out, but are soon ground down by their mates, until only Richard is left coming to work. Then the strike over, and he is “sent to Coventry.” It seem no one is sure where this term came from, but it means to be cut off, shunned, ignored, not spoken to. A man in Coventry is invisible to others. The pressure on Richard is enormous. And, predictably, a few of the more hot-headed hooligans take to throwing bricks through windows and setting fires, more because it is in the nature of thugs to do things like that than from any real union fervor. They are ignorant butt-heads, the scum of “rocker” culture in England at the time.

It is the very ugly side of unionism, and denying that it exists does no one any favors. Management is far from blameless. They reflexively resist any idea of becoming a union shop and are only concerned with landing an important contract. The thing the bosses and the union have in common is not caring a tinker’s damn for the individual and only wanting to get rid of this nuisance in any way possible. I have found this to be true in real life.

The most problematic element here, for me, was a rather mysterious man who opens the movie by arriving on a train, and closes it by leaving on one. He is never explicitly identified. I expect audiences in the turbulent labor organizing climate of the ‘60s in Britain, where things often got very hot indeed, would have known who he was. A communist? I suspect so. An outside agitator? Whoever he is, he meets with the shop steward early on and they become thick as thieves. It is he who guides the steward in just about everything, and he who advocates the most extreme measures, “teaching him a lesson.” My feeling is that the movie would have worked just as well without him, making it a purely local tragedy.