Landmark semi-documentary account of a strike by Mexican-American mineworkers in the American Southwest which was released at the height of McCarthyism and led to the imprisonment and/or blacklisting of several of the key figures involved. This was one of the first films to deal with the
rights of Chicanos and to depict women as playing a central role in the labor movement.
SALT OF THE EARTH was filmed using actual participants of the real-life struggle on which it is based (Chacon, a non-professional actor, does an amazing job in his real-life role). The film rises above the level of agitprop by avoiding sloganeering and using the real words of real people to tell
its story. Its feminism, too, is real and unforced, with women simply being shown struggling alongside--and when necessary defying--their male counterparts.
Naturally a film with such liberal leanings became a source of controversy in the 1950s; SALT OF THE EARTH was doubly cursed, for its content and its background. Producer Paul Jarrico had been banned from Hollywood, but this could not stop him. He joined with director Herbert Biberman, a member of
the "Hollywood Ten," who had served a 5-month prison sentence for being an uncooperative House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witness. They wanted to create a film company which would give work to blacklisted members of the film industry. Their intent was to create stories, as the two
wrote 20 years later, "drawn from the living experiences of people long ignored in Hollywood--the working men and women of America." As it turns out, this was their only production, made in association with the International Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers. They were lucky to make the film at all;
shortly after production began in early 1953 the pro-McCarthy establishment press sought to discredit the film and filmmakers. Hollywood actor Walter Pidgeon, then president of the Screen Actors Guild, upon receiving a letter from a New Mexico schoolteacher warning of "Hollywood Reds...shooting a
feature-length anti-American racial-issue propaganda movie" alerted his contacts in government, ranging from members of HUAC to officials of the FBI and CIA. Donald Jackson, a member of HUAC, claimed he would do everything he could to prevent the screening of "this communist-made film," citing
non-existent scenes as examples of the film's Red leanings. Even billionaire Howard Hughes, head of RKO, got on the bandwagon and came up with a plan to stop the film's processing and distribution. The local population near the shooting site also got into the act. Vigilante groups took action,
picking fights with crew members and setting fire to real union headquarters. Local merchants refused to do business with anyone in the production. One group threatened to take out the company "in pine boxes," and finally the New Mexico State Police had to come in to protect the filmmakers.
Problems were compounded when Revueltas, a Mexican actress, was arrested by immigration officials for a minor passport violation. She returned to Mexico, and the film had to be completed with a double. Some of her scenes were also shot in her native country on the pretext of being test shots for a
future production. (Sadly, the Red fever of this country spilled over into Mexico, and Revueltas was blacklisted there for her work in this film. The talented actress would never work again.) SALT OF THE EARTH enjoyed critical acclaim in Europe but, due to continued blacklisting, did not enjoy
wide US release until 1965, when it became a rallying point for the political activism of that decade.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Landmark semi-documentary account of a strike by Mexican-American mineworkers in the American Southwest which was released at the height of McCarthyism and led to the imprisonment and/or blacklisting of several of the key figures involved. This was one of… (more)