In 1951, while the cold war raged and Joseph McCarthy ruthlessly hunted communists real and imagined, a few filmmakers decided to share the true story of a miners’ strike in New Mexico. There was a hitch, of course: These particular men had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Commission. Director Herbert J. Biberman was one of the Hollywood Ten convicted of contempt and jailed in 1947 for refusing to testify about their membership in the Communist Party and against colleagues who may (or may not) have been members.
In addition to Biberman, Paul Jarrico (Salt producer), Michael Wilson (writer), and actors Will Geer and Rosaura Revueltas were blacklisted (in 1950); as a result, the film had to be made independently. Even then, they encountered harsh and unceasing opposition, but independence meant freedom from studio agendas and politics. Salt of the Earth simply could not have been made under studio control; it would have been an entirely different movie—dampened and ineffective. The film was created collectively—the typical studio hierarchy thrown out in favor of collaborative decision making.
Other than four professionals, including Revueltas and Greer, the actors were the actual miners, union members and their wives. Male lead, Juan Chacón, was a union leader.
Producer Paul Jarrico, who visited the original miners’ strike in New Mexico (which lasted from October 1950 to January 1952), and came up with the idea for the movie, said, “There was a concerted effort to stop the making of the film. We had started the film in quite a normal fashion with contracts with Pate Lab to develop our film and rental of the equipment from Hollywood, people who supplied such things.
“A whistle was blown by Walter Pigeon, the then president of the Actors Guild. The FBI swung into action and we found ourselves barred from laboratories, barred from sound studios, barred from any of the normal facilities available to film makers.”
The footage was developed secretly, at night, by a sympathetic lab technician and delivered in unmarked canisters. Much of it was edited in an airless women’s restroom in an unused theater outside of Los Angeles.
This is how powerful McCarthy and his crusade was, how the public mood had been influenced: When the crew arrived in Central, New Mexico to begin filming, they were met by a citizens’ committee and ordered to leave town. The following day they moved production to Silver City and were warned to “get out of town . . . or go out in black boxes.” They filmed at a nearby ranch.
During the two months of filming, the filmmakers and crew were continually persecuted. Vigilantes fired shots at the set. Members of the crew were harassed and physically attacked. Planes buzzed overhead. The film-in-making was the source of considerable controversy, protest and later, suppression. Even Howard Hughes was involved, advising the government on methods to hamper the movie’s completion.
Rosaura Revueltas, the female lead and a well-known Mexican actor, was deported before the filming of her scenes was complete.
Though the film was lauded by the miners’ union, and employed many of those miners, other unions refused to show it because the makers were blacklisted. The powerful International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees ordered its projectionists not to run the film and studios threatened to withhold film bookings from uncooperative theaters. It was denounced by the House of Representatives and the FBI investigated its financing. The American Legion called for a nationwide boycott.
It finally opened in New York City to a huge crowd and favorable reviews, but the opposition in this country was considerable; it was shown only thirteen times before Biberman and Jarrico gave up, taking the movie to Europe, where it was well received, winning awards. It was finally released in the U.S. in 1965.
The movie advocated for workers, Mexican-Americans and women—addressing class, ethnic and gender conflicts largely ignored by the media at the time.
In fact, Salt was one of the first films to address women’s issues sincerely and openly—this, in a decidedly anti-feminist era. The film raises the irony of men fighting for their own rights while treating their wives as second class citizens. In the conservative years following World War II, women were being actively forced back into the home, and the media was playing its part. The women in Salt of the Earth are bold and, though initially submissive, by the end of the film, they stand up for themselves and their families and demand respect. It is a beautiful sight.
Do yourself a favor and watch this phenomenal movie. It will touch you as few do—the emotions are real, not manufactured. It is courageous, as few films are. And problems created by the opposition’s tactics do not detract from its value (these include occasional subpar sound and some mismatched edits because of Revuelta’s forced deportation).
This is a ten minute clip in case you’ve got time (here and there, the quality is worse than the movie’s, but it’s a great snippet nonetheless):
And here is an excellent article about the making of Salt of the Earth.
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Speaking of McCarthy and blacklisting . . .
High Noon (1952) was written by Carl Foreman and reflects his experiences as a blacklistee in Hollywood. The town marshall, representing Foreman—played by Gary Cooper (ironically, a “friendly witness” for the House Un-American Activities Commission)—is spurned by the town citizens when outlaws (representing the HUAC) arrive to antagonize him.
According to Foreman, “They were either capitulating to these gangsters—political gangsters from out of town—or they were being executed by them here. And I could see that my time was coming sooner or later— it was just being delayed by a couple years or so—and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about the death of Hollywood. So all that shaped the writing of High Noon. That was very conscious, see.”
(Not long ago, I wrote a bit on gartenfische about watching HN between puppy distractions.)
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If you haven’t seen it, Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney’s movie about Ed Murrow’s defiance of McCarthy and his methods, is a worthwhile watch (great music, too).