The Molly Maguires aspires to lift the veil and provide social commentary about a little-known act of ecoterrorism through the eyes of a period piece (which makes sense considering the rise of groups like the Manson Family and the SLA during the period). The story of a group of coal miners has its moments, but never provides any proper meat or context other than “Things were bad,” nor does it leave the audience with any lasting impact. The acting from Richard Harris and Sean Connery, especially Connery, is good but the wildly inconsistent tone of the script undoes everything. The Molly Maguires is a performance vehicle if you like the actors or want a cursory history lesson.
In a Pennsylvania mine during the 1860s, detective James McParlen (Harris) is tasked with infiltrating a coal mining secret society, The Molly Maguires. The group hopes to rid the mining industry of corruption and health violations by blowing up mines and causing other destruction. When McParlen finally works his way inside the group he cements a bond with leader Jack Kehoe (Connery).
The film is one whose reputation precedes it. The movie was a massive failure upon release, resulting in Connery being labeled box-office poison outside of his Bond role (he had only recently given up on playing the character), and Richard Harris never moving into leading man territory; director Martin Ritt also felt that his career was tarnished due to the film’s failure (although he would snag critical and commercial success with another tale of revolution, Norma Rae nine years later).
Having no prior knowledge of the actual group or rebellion, I was at the mercy of what the movie was detailing, and the overall portrait is one of sympathy for the Molly Maguires. The footage within the mining town is bleak and filled with drudgery. The men are covered from head to toe in soot, and based on what we know about coal mining, probably riddled with health problems. While the Maguires never have a clearly defined manifesto, it’s obvious that they want to stop the corrupt officials who take their pay (they deduct supplies and other necessary items to do the job, leaving the men with pennies on the dollar), but that’s it. Yes, they mention that the men are sick, but they never connect the health problems to the mine and to their overall goal. Really, the only crime focused on is the lack of money.
The movie is damned by a half-baked script, written by Walter Bernstein. The undefined motivations of the group notwithstanding, there’s really no characterization other than lumping the society into leaders (Kehoe and McParlen) and followers (the other three guys). Sure, there are early sequences of the group doing fun stuff that would lead to development, but it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment. It’s a shame, because the actors all have a manly camaraderie with each other, and are natural in the roles. It’s frustrating that Connery wasn’t embraced for trying something new because I found his Jack Kehoe to be a fascinating enigma. He gets the distinction of being the star, but doesn’t say a word until forty minutes into the movie! Keep in mind, there’s no dialogue at all from anyone until the fourteen-minute mark. Connery is a swirl of powerful emotions throughout, and yet he never raises his voice. There are rare moments where the dialogue sings and two in particular are between Kehoe and a confessor-type character. The first involves Kehoe talking to a priest after a death has occurred. The priest is quick to excoriate Kehoe only to have Kehoe turn around and condemn the church: “Sin at the start and grace at the end, bending your head in between.” You learn that Kehoe isn’t a man who believes in intangibles; he’s not one to serve under the idea that something good will happen eventually, he wants it to be now. The rest of the characters may present muddy characters, but Kehoe is clearly drawn.
The finale sequence, a confrontation between Kehoe and McParlen is also amazing as it’s one of the few moments where the two illustrious actors are alone together. The two started out as friends only to turn into bitter enemies, and when McParlen tells Kehoe he’ll “see you in Hell,” you better believe it. Harris is able to be a strong leading man, in a plot not too far removed from Robert Redford‘s in Brubaker. Unfortunately, the designation of hero comes with the term “romantic lead,” so McParlen is given a local love interested played by Samantha Eggar. When the narrative breaks away from planning the next attack, we’re treated to idyllic scenes of McParlen and Mary Raines going shopping and playing house. It’s all very sitcom-esque, complete with wistful music and it distracts from the otherwise serious tone of the movie. It doesn’t help that once McParlen turns rat on the group Mary takes it either in stride or not at all and just disappears. Eggar continues to disappoint (between this and The Brood) because she’s a blank canvas; and of course, her character provides nothing other than being a hot chick.
I wouldn’t consider this a failure, and I doubt its worthy of the vitriol it received upon release. The script may be a tad wonky, but the cinematography by the iconic James Wong Howe is lovely; the men exiting the mine right before it blows up, with the darkness swallowing up everything but the candle flames on their helmets is beautiful even if it wants you to see these men as shining beacons for freedom. The musical score, composed by Henry Mancini, is also a soaring mix of jaunty Irish tunes and roaring dramatic epics. The Molly Maguires is far from perfect, but it’s nowhere near as bad as expected. The cinematography, music, and Connery’s performance all stand out against a rudimentary script and ill-defined script. The Molly Maguires is out now courtesy of Warner Archive.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.