Based on true events, as they say, but I looked into it a little and it seems reasonably accurate. There really was a gun battle between striking miners and so-called “detectives” from the Baldwin-Felts Agency in 1920. What a joke. B-F was a company that hired armed thugs to terrorize and even kill miners who wouldn’t fall into line with the coal barons. Flat-out murderers, usually backed up by the state and federal governments. One example: after the shoot-out, in which seven thugs and three miners were killed, Sid Hatfield (yes, of those Hatfields), the police chief of Matewan who supported the miners, was brought to trial for murder. As he and his deputy and their wives appeared at the courthouse, unarmed, several B-F thugs assassinated the men in broad daylight. Just flat-out shot them. No one was ever convicted of the murders.
Chris Cooper plays a union organizer for the United Mine Workers. He’s a socialist, maybe even a communist, a former wobblie. (It seems no one knows where that term came from as a name for the Industrial Workers of the World.) At about the same time two B-F thugs, played by with wonderful contempt by Gordon Clapp and Kevin Tighe, arrive in Matewan and begin bullying everyone around. Cooper counsels non-violence, pointing out (correctly) that if the miners start shooting the government will simply send in the Army or the National Guard, as it did many times during labor struggles. But it’s a volatile situation, and when push comes to shove … well, the miners are just too damn tired of being shoved. The system of company stores that would take only company scrip that was worthless anywhere else was just about the next best thing to slavery, for the pig mine owners. Few could ever earn enough to escape the town.
All the performances are good, and the story cuts off before the really bad shit starts to happen, so you leave with a good feeling after seeing so many of the thugs cut down. But I was a little dubious about one aspect of the script. At the beginning a trainload of black workers, including James Earl Jones, are ambushed and assaulted by the white workers. This rings true to me. But later Cooper persuades the white miners to accept the black men as equals, and I really don’t believe that. Sure, “one big union” sounds good in a speech, but I don’t see these peckerwoods going along with that when it comes to Negroes. The same thing with Italian Catholics. Hard-shell Baptists from way back in the hollers wouldn’t want no truck with them papists. Sorry, but that’s just the way it was. Still is, in many ways. Poor whites in the Deep South and Appalachia have the attitude that, hell yeah, I may be poor and no-‘count, but at least I’m better than a Negro. Only they wouldn’t say Negro. I’m not using the real word to spare your sensibilities.