Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Far from the glitter and glamour of Hollywood, in a remote mountain range of Pennsylvania, the film industry’s best and brightest gathered in the late 1960s to make a film that has been described as a dismal financial failure and, ironically, an extraordinary critical suc­cess. Before cameras whirred in and around the communities of Hazleton, Luzerne County, Jim Thorpe, Carbon County, Ashland, Schuylkill County, and Bloomsburg, Columbia County, in 1968, the ingredients for success appeared to be in place: an accomplished, insightful director; one of the most gifted and innov­ative cinematographers in the world; a prolific and respected screenwriter; a young, talented cast; a multi-million dol­lar budget; and a fresh angle on an epic American labor struggle that had fascinat­ed people for nearly a century. Despite the fact that the unsettling episode in American labor history had it all – a spy, murder and mayhem, duplicity, and the age-old struggle of good versus evil – the motion picture was one of the largest and most expensive box office duds of its time.

That a film was made about the wave of violence in northeastern Pennsylvania’s hard coal region following the Civil War is not surprising. What is astonishing is that it took so long for Hollywood to tackle the subject. The Molly Maguires became part of popular culture even before the trials of the accused Irish Catholic coal miners had ended. The brutality in the anthracite region during the 1860s and 1870s was the focus of several “dime novels,” popular with readers in the late nineteenth century. A significant work that contributed heavily to the mythology surrounding the Molly Maguires appeared in 1877. The Molly Maguires and the Detectives was among fif­teen popular books ghostwritten under the name Allan Pinkerton (1819-1884). It was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency­ – and its chief operative on the case, James McParlan (1844-1919) – that eventually sent twenty miners to the gallows. Through the years, the secret society would be featured in at least six novels, the most intriguing of which, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear (1915), pits Sherlock Holmes in battle against orga­nized evil in a coal mining region.

Early fictional treatments of the Molly Maguires echoed heavily biased contempo­rary accounts of the secret society, largely offering the American Protestant stereotype of Irish Catholic working-class men as alco­holics predisposed to savagery and vio­lence. The perception of Molly Maguires as ruthless cutthroats persisted until the Great Depression when revisionist historians took a closer look at the record. Anthony Bimba, author of The Molly Maguires (1932), and Walter Coleman, with The Molly Maguire Riots (1936), raised the possibility that the Mollies were not criminals but working­-class martyrs, victims of capitalist oppres­sion who stood up for labor in the age of the omnipotent – and oppres­sive – robber baron. The saga of the secret society would be partic­ularly appealing, nearly a century after its collapse, to Martin Ritt (1914-1990), a film director noted for his handling of the theme of social justice.

Martin Ritt was born to Polish and Russian immigrants on New York’s upper Lower East Side. A successful stage and television director, his first movie, Edge of the City (1957), starring Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes, dealt with dockworkers and a corrupt union. Film critic Carrie Rickey, in an appreciation of Ritt’s work written shortly after his death, noted that Edge of the City intro­duced the themes of working-­class integrity; racial integration, and impassioned union loyalty that the filmmaker explored in later films. Through the 1960s, Ritt directed a string of notable films, including Hud (1963), with Paul Newman, which earned the director an Academy Award nomination. It was not long before Ritt found himself in negotiations for his most ambitious project to date, The Molly Maguires.

The Mollies intrigued Ritt since he had first read about them as a history student. The story also fascinated an old friend, Walter Bernstein (born 1919), who had helped write the screenplay for one of Ritt’s earlier films, Paris Blues (1961). The pair even­tually co-produced The Molly Maguires. Bernstein was inter­ested in writing about the organiza­tion in the late 1930s while a Dartmouth College undergraduate; how­ever, the develop­ment of the idea was actually initiated in 1964 with the success of the semi-fictional Lament for the Molly Maguires by Arthur H. Lewis (born 1906). Even though there were few similarities between the bestseller and the motion pic­ture, Lewis, a native of Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, received a screen credit, intimating that his Lament suggested the screenplay.

Ritt and Bernstein presented their idea to MGM studio executives who turned it down for legal reasons. They felt strongly about the subject and continued to shop it around. “We felt the time was ripe for this kind of story,” said Bernstein. “We got Paramount interested in it so I started on a great deal of research into the Molly Maguires. I did my own research in the Library of Congress, in Pennsylvania, university libraries and dug up everything … then wrote essentially a fic­tional story … based on the characters. We submitted it to Paramount and before we knew it we had a picture underway.”

To accurately tell the story of the Molly Maguires, it was important to capture the hardscrabble living and working conditions of coal miners in the nineteenth century. Fortunately for the Paramount Pictures set crew, Eckley, a small miners’ village in Luzerne County, had retained much of its historic character and appearance. An old company-owned community, known as a patch town, Eckley counted only eighty-six residents in the late sixties. Even more fortu­itously, the village was owned entirely by an independent coal operator in the area, George Huss, of Ringtown, who ran a nearby strip mining operation. Location scouts were delighted that they had found a location that could be transformed to a nineteenth-century mining village. But it would not be easy – or inex­pensive.

Telephone and utility poles had to be eliminated and wiring buried underground, which cost more than one hundred thousand dollars. Television antennas came down. If a garden, hedge, tree, shrub, or even a flower bed, was deemed out of place in a nine­teenth-century northeastern Pennsylvania coal region patch town, it disappeared. Birch trees, prevalent a century earlier, were planted. Tons of coal slag camouflaged the paved road that stretched for about a mile through the village. Paramount’s crew erected about two dozen shell houses to add to the village’s original forty company­-built houses. Crews added a company store and transformed the Eckley Sports Club into the Emerald House Saloon. Watering troughs were placed in front of several houses. Even a graveyard appeared adja­cent to a church building. The project’s cen­terpiece, a ninety-six-foot high coal breaker, cost two hundred thousand dollars. In Hollywood, special attention was given to detail and realism to maintain a documen­tary effect. Art director Tambi Larsen craft­ed twelve hundred plastic molds of a coal mine and re-created a mine on the same stages where Cecil B. DeMille filmed some of the greatest scenes in The Ten Commandments. Two hundred tons of anthracite, imported to Hollywood from Mahanoy City, was used on the set. A re-created coal mine, costing two hundred and sixty thousand dol­lars, measured four hundred feet in length, the longest interior setting ever constructed on a Hollywood sound stage.

Originally budgeted at eight million dollars, The Molly Maguires eventually came in at about eleven million dollars, an exorbitant amount for its time. The head of Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans, appar­ently had a great deal of confidence in the project, but Ritt and Bernstein had to com­promise with studio executives on several issues before the movie was completed. Ritt wanted to give the film a documentary quality and believed filming it in black and white – and not color – would be most effective. He and cinematographer James Wong Howe (1889-1976), brought on board for the project, successfully used black and white in Hud, for which Howe, a veteran of more than one hundred and twenty-five films made between 1922 and 1974, won an Oscar. The studio rejected the concept, arguing that audiences expected color and that color enhanced a movie’s value for television release. Ritt was ready to aban­don the project, but after a meeting with Howe, it was agreed to work with the art, wardrobe, and set directors to “remove” color. Howe biographer Todd Rainsberger believed the measures were extraordinary. “Thousands and thousands of gallons of black spray paint were used on location to dull the colors of houses, grass, and trees around Eckley,” Rainsberger recalled, “and when trees began to bloom in the spring, townspeople were hired by the hundreds to pick the buds off. When the flowers became too prolific, Howe had an airplane sprinkle them with coal dust.”

The incredible amount of work by pro­duction specialists did not go unnoticed by reporters dispatched to Eckley by both local and major newspapers. “Their coverage fueled public interest and before long thou­sands of people, many traveling long dis­tances, roamed the set on Sundays when shooting was not taking place. As many as five thousand visitors crowded the set on one weekend alone, returning home with a variety of souvenirs such as hats, penknives, license plates, ashtrays, mugs, and wooden nickels bearing Eckley, Pa. – ­The Molly Maguires – 1968.

Ritt was immediately distracted as shooting began. He was besieged at his headquarters at the Gus Genetti Motor Lodge in nearby Hazleton by all kinds of requests, proposals, and suggestions. People deluged him with manuscripts, musical scores, story ideas, scripts, even a request to sponsor a bowling team. An unusually wet spring frustrated his produc­tion crew that moved forward and shot cer­tain sequences in the rain. The rain, howev­er, turned the dirt-covered road into a steaming swamp of black mud. Despite the tremendous effort to be historically accurate, press coverage of the project indicated the film had as much to do with the late sixties as it did with the past.

Sean Connery, who portrayed John “Black Jack” Kehoe (1837-1878), the leader of the Molly Maguires, was attracted to the venture not only by a million-dollar salary and a percentage of the profits; he hoped The Mblly Maguires would help him break free from being typecast as James Bond, the character that had made him an internation­al star. Because of the overwhelming inter­national popularity of the James Bond movies, there was probably no greater box office draw at the time than Sean Connery. Although he played the leading character, The Molly Maguires is largely filtered through the perspective of James McFarlan, played by Richard Harris, who brought about the destruction of the terrorist band. Both Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein were partial to themes of infiltration and betray­al-they had been blacklisted in the early 1950s as a result of the anti-communism investigations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They gave consid­erable attention to the Pinkerton detective as he deftly penetrates the secret society’s inner circle. Harris took the role of the detective after Ritt’s first choice, Albert Finney, turned it down.

Using McFarlan as the central character, Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein explored the theme of the American success story and the price that individuals are willing to pay to move ahead in society. To maintain his cover, McFarlan obtains a job at the mines and experiences the backbreaking, dangerous labor, harsh treatment, and piti­ful wages that inflamed the Mollies. In time, he appreciates the severity of the prejudice of the Protestant mine owners and the bru­tality of the company police force. McFarlan eventually empathizes with the men he is leading to their deaths. He even makes a sincere effort to get Kehoe and his cohorts to abandon violence.

Who is the hero of The Molly Maguires? To Ritt, the answer was clear. “The leading character, instead of being painted black and white, was painted gray, purposefully. For an audience – a movie audience – it was too complicated. They didn’t know who the hero of the film was. And many of them didn’t agree with what Sean Connery represented. I thought he was the hero of the film.”

What makes Ritt’s contention problem­atic is the fact that Connery’s character took part in the shooting of a mine superinten­dent, which the film minimized. The mur­der is nearly botched because of McParlan’s work as an informant. Furthermore, word of the superintendent’s death comes to Kehoe in a whisper from a fellow Molly Maguire as they work in a mine, deep underground. The moral ambiguity attrib­uted to this act of violence asks a most important question: When is violence a viable weapon of social change?

While members of the secret society were thought to be responsible for suspi­cious mine fires in the 1870s, as well as assorted acts of industrial sabotage, the crimes which led to death sentences were acts of violence toward mine bosses or rival gang members. Fire plays a prominent role as The Molly Maguires moves to its conclusion. The film climaxes with an attack on the symbol of economic exploitation in the coal region – the company store. At the wake of an elder­ly miner who spent his life toiling in the mines, Kehoe real­izes that the deceased doesn’t have a decent suit of clothes for his burial. In a drunken rage, he decides to loot the company store.

Kehoe is not satisfied with simply stealing a suit; he ransacks the store and sets it on fire with the help of McParlan, who is also moved by a sense of rage against the system. When McParlan vis­its Kehoe in prison, they reflect on the burn­ing of the store and the detective admits, “It did make a lovely blaze.” Sheila Whitaker, film critic and author of The Films of Martin Ritt, notes that fire is a major symbol in Martin Ritt’s motion pictures and claims the blaze in The Molly Maguires is emblem­atic of social action against “the destructive forces of political institutions.”

Surprisingly for the work of a pro-labor director, The Molly Maguires deals with the exploitation of workers and unfair child labor practices largely through implication. The concept of trade unionism is raised only once, with a reference to the Long Strike of 1875 that ended in bitter defeat for the miners. Much dearer is the emphasis on conflicts between Irish miners and the police. Ritt emphasized the brutality and prejudice of the Coal and Iron Police. In one scene, a suspected Molly is singled out for a beating in the aftermath of a melee at a Gaelic football game. The Welsh leader of the police force, played by Frank Finlay, can barely contain his loathing of the Irish. He helps McParlan avoid suspicion among the Mollies by savagely striking him on the head with a dub. Bernstein’s screenplay also depicts the Wiggan’s Patch Massacre, in which a vigilance committee murders an accused Molly Maguire and his pregnant wife. Historians have not been able to pin­point responsibility for the attack, but the act leads to the most horrifying scene in the movie as the couple is murdered in their bed. The Molly Maguires leaves Little doubt that the police are responsible for the crime. The film’s advertising campaign also played on perceptions of police injustice, and promotional clips and trailers showed a crowd scene with the Mollies facing a group of heavily armed Coal and Iron policemen.

The Molly Maguires might be seen as endorsing the idea that violence is neces­sary, at times, to a just cause and that it can bring about change. Ritt, however, viewed the film as more of a commentary on the roots of violence, “Certainly this picture is not an advocacy of violence, but there is an attitude in this country that doesn’t realize that if you treat people in a certain way there will be violence. Understanding that does not mean you’re condoning violence, but you can’t put the blame on the victims of oppression.” In the closing scene, the imprisoned Kehoe shows no regrets and believes violence did get the mine operators to “move a bit.”

Ritt had a final dispute with Paramount’s executives before the release of The Molly Maguires. The motion picture was longer than the studio had anticipated. The studio edited the motion picture considerably, down to one hundred and twenty-four min­utes, leaving scenes with many area residents who appeared as extras falling to the cutting room floor. The director complained that the film lost a great deal of its punch in the final cut. Paramount then shelved the film for nearly a year. When The Molly Maguires finally debuted in January 1970, reviews were mixed. The realistic setting, James Wong Howe’s cinematography, and Henry Mancini’s score were lauded, but the story line confused critics. The film did manage to garner an Academy Award nom­ination for Larsen’s art direction.

The Molly Maguires was a commercial failure, taking in barely two million dollars. Ritt worried that he would never again find work. Many have speculated on the reasons moviegoers stayed away. The Molly Maguires could be considered a textbook example of the importance of movie titles. Few people outside of northeastern Pennsylvania were familiar with a relatively obscure chapter of American labor history; furthermore, the film’s advertising cam­paign did very little to provide insight into the significance of the subject. In addition, labor-themed films have generally not done well at the box office because most Americans go to the movies to escape work – not to confront it. Timing may also have been a factor. A few weeks before the motion picture’s release, Joseph A.”Jock” Yablonski, an activist with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), his wife Margaret, and their daughter Charlotte were murdered as they slept on December 31, 1969. Yablonski had recently lost a hard-fought UMWA elec­tion against incumbent president W. A. “Tony” Boyle and was seeking an investiga­tion of election fraud. Boyle was later con­victed of orchestrating the killings (see “Living for Reform” by Ken Wolensky, Winter 2001). Just about a week after the release of The Molly Maguires, 20th Century Fox stole the nation’s attention with the enormously successful Oscar-winning Patton starring George C. Scott. And per­haps, some have suggested, the time for the movie’s message had passed.

While public response to The Molly Maguires disappointed Ritt, the film remained his personal favorite – despite making critically acclaimed movies such as The Front (1976), Norma Rae (1979), and Murphy’s Romance (1985). In later interviews, Ritt described The Molly Maguires as a film that “keeps coming back,” noting that it had been receiving more attention in Europe than in this country. There are indications that time has been good to the film. It has been aired on television’s popular American Movie Classics channel and has through the years attracted a cult following. Critics now usually give it high marks. In his recent book, The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man, Gabriel Miller writes, “The Molly Maguires remains a remarkably fine social film and one of Ritt’s premier achieve­ments. It is a richly textured work, offering the strongest naturalistic depiction of the abuses of coal mining ever put on film.” James Wong Howe and Henry Mancini, Hollywood veterans of the highest caliber, considered their work with The Molly Maguires to be among their best. Rainsberger argues that Howe actually made the movie look too good. “The story of roughneck min­ers in poverty-stricken Pennsylvania some­times seems at odds with Howe’s technical virtuosity,” Rainsberger believes. “There is too much perfect composition; the rich blacks and warm highlights create pictures which are too stunning, too well pho­tographed to suggest the gritty reality and horror of the situation.”

Someone writing about The Molly Maguires suggested that Ritt would have been better off if he had heeded the words of movie producer and Hollywood mogul Jack L. Warner (1892-1978), “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” But Ritt never subscribed to that philosophy. He did not allow commercialism to dictate con­tent, and he took risks in order to address issues he believed important. And he believed that films should address the problems of modern society – even as he was booming CUT! – on the mud-swollen road of what appeared to be a nineteenth­-century patch town somewhere in north­eastern Pennsylvania in the heady, promis­ing spring of 1968.


Eckley Miners’ Village is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Today, a visit begins with an ori­entation slide show and a tour of enlightening exhibits at the Visitors’ Center that graphically illustrate the lives of the workers and their families. Visitors are encouraged to leisurely stroll through the village, which includes two churches, a rectory, a mine owner’s house, and a series of laborers’ dwellings, as well as the breaker, mule barn, and company store specifi­cally built by Paramount Pictures for the film­ing of The Molly Maguires. For more infor­mation, write: Eckley Miners’ Village, R.R. 2, Box 236, Weatherly, PA 18255; telephone (570) 636-2070 or 636-2071.


For Further Reading

Broehl, Wayne G. Jr. The Molly Maguires. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Curran, Joseph M. Hibernian Green on the Silver Screen: The Irish and American Movies. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1989.

Jackson, Carlton. Picking Up the Tab: The Life and Movies of Martin Ritt. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1994.

Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lewis, Arthur H. Lament for the Molly Maguires. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

Miller, Gabriel. The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Parker, John. Sean Connery. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1993.

Rainsberger, Todd. James Wong Howe, Cine­matographer. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1981.

Whitaker, Sheila. The Films of Martin Ritt. London: British Film Institute, 1972.


The author ded­icates this article to the memory of his father, Norbert J. Noon, who contributed to the devel­opment of the Visitors’ Center at Eckley Miners’ Village in the early 1970s as a construction supervisor for the Pennsylvania Department of General Services.


Mark A. Noon, of Conyngham, Luzerne County, is an instructor of composition at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He earned his doctoral degree in English literature and criticism in 1998 from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where his dissertation, entitled “Nothing to Arbitrate: The Strike in the American Novel, 1888-1915,” focused on fic­tional responses to the major labor struggles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen­turies. His most recent scholarly endeavors include a series of contribu­tions to two forthcoming book projects, An Encyclopedia of American Labor (Greenwood Press) and An Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse University Press). From 1982 to 1989, he worked as a reporter and editor for the Shenandoah Evening Herald.