Matewan. The Sicilian
History, politics, style, and genre

by John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 30-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

Two recent history films, John Sayles' MATEWAN and Michael Cimino's THE SICILIAN (based on Mario Puzo's post-Godfather novel), though very different, demonstrate the problematic interrelationship among history, politics, style, and genre in film. Both deal with class conflict in underdeveloped rural areas of otherwise developed countries. While making valuable observations about class oppression in those areas, they retreat from these original insights by imposing genre conventions on the historical material.

MATEWAN narrates events which took place in Logan and Mingo Counties, West Virginia, during a United Mine Workers organizing drive in the early 1920s. On May 20, 1920 a civic-minded sheriff and some striking miners shot it out with company goons hired from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency (Coleman, 99). THE SICILIAN quite carefully describes the broader social context that gave rise to the infamous Sicilian bandit, Salvatore Giuliano, in the 1940s. Before I discuss these films' style and representation of history, I want to give brief plot summaries and set their events in their social and historical context.


MATEWAN makes a sincere effort to document something important about U.S. labor history and its struggles. Many friends involved in trade union work felt buoyed by the film. Since I am an union organizer myself, I enjoyed seeing the organizing process presented in a mass distribution film. Joe Kenehan, a United Mine Workers organizer with a pacifist Wobbly background, arrives in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920 to organize the local miners. He finds the miners split along racial and ethnic lines — white, black, and Italian immigrants. The mine operators have hired thugs from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to keep their area nonunion.

With the special help of Few Clothes, a black miner played by James Earl Jones, Kenehan unifies the miners and takes them out on strike. Increasing tension and confrontation with armed goons lead to a brutal murder of one young miner, a shoot out in the woods, and a final showdown on the main street of Matewan. At a key moment, a company spy frames Kenehan. But just as the latter is to be shot by Few Clothes, the truth of the frame-up, which Few Clothes suspected all along, comes out

Throughout, the local sheriff, Sid Hatfield, supports the miners and is the central figure in the shoot out. Kenehan, a pacifist, tries to stop the violence and dies in the shoot out. Danny, a young miner-preacher turned union man, carries Kenehan's legacy into the present. The preacher's voice (as an old man looking back on the events in 1920) narrates the film.


THE SICILIAN tells Salvatore Giuliano's story from his first brush with the law in 1943 to his early, mysterious death in 1950. Combining accepted facts with equal measures of myth and Puzo's own ironic romanticization of the gangster figure, the film weaves together the major events — first brush with the law, assembling his band, increasing fame, massacre at Portella della Ginestra, mysterious death — and the major historical characters — his cousin and faithful companion Aspanu Pisciotta, the major Sicilian Mafia leader who protects Giuliano because he admires him, and the university professor who often acts as go-between in Giuliano's career.


Both films deal with mysterious and exotic underdeveloped areas in advanced capitalist countries. These areas supply not only raw materials and cheap labor but also the stuff of myth to the more advanced areas of their countries. Appalachia and Sicily developed in relative isolation (or more properly, hardly developed at all) up to the moment these films cover. The people there have a culture, including dialect speech, that is very foreign to the rest of the country. Carlo Levi's Impressions of Sicily, written in the early 1950s, reads very much like books now being written about trips to third world countries (and includes a very different view of the Mafia than Puzo's novel and Cimino's film).

As brutally exploited regions, Appalachia and Sicily fostered very violent social relations. At the level of personal and family relations, the Mafia bears a striking resemblance to the Hatfields and the McCoys. And agencies like the Baldwin-Felts protected the wealthy in the same way the Mafia did in Sicily. A culture of violence combined with a culture of hunting as a means of survival, and both traditions produced an armed populace. Furthermore, in each historical case, a major war had just ended, with many combat veterans returning to their communities.

Both films concern moments of violent change as these areas get dragged into the 20th century. And these changes set in motion violent contradictions to which people responded in different ways. In the early 1920s the minefields of Logan and Mingo counties were almost completely nonunion and a United Mine Workers organizing drive was showing some success. At this time, over half of the coal miners in West Virginia were union (Lane, 20). The coal operators in Mingo and Logan counties protected their interests by turning the area into an armed camp, buying off politicians, sending out labor spies, and bringing in Black miners and Italian immigrants to cause dissention.

Sid Hatfield, a distant relative of the famous Hatfields, and sheriff of Matewan resisted the operators and defended the civil rights of the organized miners. Why Hatfield did this, the movie does not show other than attributing it to reasons of personal pride. Such a defense of striking miners would not have been possible or even conceivable prior to the union organizing effort. Hatfield is a man caught between contending forces and ultimately crushed by then.

In the 1930s, Mussolini had tried to crush the Mafia in Sicily. When Sicily was "liberated" by U.S. and British forces in 1943, the U.S. forces of occupation brought in major Mafia figures as liaison people to run local government These Mafiosi quickly regained their old hegemony and turned Sicily into a major drug processing and transportation center.

But the war liberated other forces as well. Community organizers like Danio Dolci and Communist peasant leaders like Pia de la Torre began organizing the peasants to take possession of the large tracts of uncultivated land on the island. The postwar government in Rome had passed an agrarian reform law, but the Mafia helped the landowners prevent implementation. Previously, a man like Salvatore Giuliano would have become just another soldier for the Mafia. But in 1946 opposing forces contended for his adherence: a monarchist-based popular separatist movement, the Mafia, and an organized peasantry. How this struggle is resolved is the story of Salvatore Giuliano (Maxwell).

Cimino, following Puzo, adds to the story Giuliano's personal relationship with a peasant organizer. He is a minor character, a boyhood acquaintance and the brother of Salvatore's young wife. Giuliano's men kill him during the infamous massacre at Portella della Ginestra on the first of May, 1947. Neither the young wife nor the organizer brother seems to have existed in real life. In the film, the organizer stands as the stereotypical leftist: thin, intense, talkative, idealistic, and impractical.

By inventing the organizer and giving Giuliano a sympathetic personal relation to him, Puzo/Cimimo cover over Giuliano's extreme right-wing, anti-communist politics. In real life it seems that Giuliano, who had a great popularity with Sicily's peasants became manipulated by various mafia-dominated separatist and monarchist groups as well as by various government figures. The right needed a popular figure to off set the rising popularity of the Communist Party and of the People's Bloc of which it was a major part. The tragedy of Giuliano's life is this: despite his apparent sympathy for the peasantry, his anti-communism prevented him from actually joining them.

In the April, 1947, elections for the Sicilian Regional Parliament, the People's Bloc outpolled all other parties with 30% of the vote. The ruling Christian Democrats received several hundred thousand less votes, and the monarchists and separatists lagged way behind. Attacking the communists became the highest priority for the right, and Giuliano enlisted willingly in their campaign. Soon thereafter he and his men attacked the May Day feria at Portella della Ginestra, killing 11 and wounding 33. Many of the dead and wounded were women and children.

Debate continues to swirl around this event and especially Giuliano's role. He claimed the deaths were an accident and there is much evidence to indicate this is true. In the film, one of his lieutenants who was bought off by the Mafia causes the massacre. Yet afterwards Giuliano's band continued to attack Communist and Socialist Party headquarters and distribute anti-left leaflets.

Puzo, and Cimino after him, clean up Giuliano's act for him, romanticizing him and painting him as a Sicilian Robin Hood and disillusioned, idealistic, romantic hero. This distortion of history does violence to the complexity of Sicily's situation and makes it impossible really to understand the contending forces.

Eric Hobsbawn sheds further light on this subject. He finds a recurring pattern of banditry appearing in rural societies that have social extremes of rich and poor, powerful and weak. Banditry is a phenomenon which has a very traditional, pre-capitalist structure. It thrives on backwardness and is threatened by capitalist production relations and the kinds of peasant organizing that industrialization brings in its wake. For example, Giuliano was from Montelepre, one of Sicily's most backward areas. Social banditry arises most forcefully during periods of social tumult — war, famine, major social change — such as the period during and after the Second World War in Sicily.

Much like today's guerrillas, social bandits must align themselves with the rural poor, whether they begin with this ideology or not. The bandit will rob the rich to feed the poor among whom he lives. Hobsbawm writes,

"He is virtually obliged to, for there is more to take from the rich than from the poor, and if he takes from the poor or becomes an 'illegitimate' killer, he forfeits his most powerful asset, public aid and sympathy"(19).

Giuliano was a man whose beliefs about justice and whose ideals were close to those of the organized peasants, but he was used and then thrown away by mafia-controlled separatist forces. His story illustrates a kind of contradiction that we can see at moments of great change, and this contradiction is, politically speaking, the most fascinating thing about Giuliano's brief life.


These films could hardly be more different in style. Sayles, noted for his flatfooted style, has made a cliché-ridden film that moves very slowly and predictably. It often approaches filmed theater with unnecessarily long scenes with the actors in set positions — around the table in the boarding house, meeting in the general store, around the camp fire — and dependent on conversations to move it forward. It is a very verbal film, reflecting Sayles' considerable experience and skill as a writer. The visuals contribute little except the period look. Usually a brief series of short bits of action or short scenes connect these major scenes.

MATEWAN has a tight, cramped feel to it, reflecting the poverty and oppression of the people and the setting in Appalachian hollows. As the film depicts the mine, boarding house, general store, and the miners' tents after they are evicted, it shows small and cramped spaces. Even outdoors buildings, surrounding trees and hills screen off and block our view. I remember only one shot which contained a vista. Two boys climb up a hill and pause to look out over a river valley receding into the distance.

Haskell Wexler's photography looks somewhat like the depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, and Walker Evans. Yet in Sayles' search for what he calls "psychological realism," (72) as opposed to documentary realism, the film uses much diffused light and molding of faces. Kenehan's face is usually in full light, while the villains' faces are often in half or full shadow. Visually, the film seems split between its search for "naturalness" and its use of Hollywood conventions.

Visually, THE SICILIAN reminded me of HEAVEN'S GATE. The luxurious color photography is expansive and dynamic. The camera often stays in motion as do the people. Giuliano rarely stands still and the camera follows him. Giuliano (and the camera) look down on the ancient Sicilian villages from his mountain retreat. His band swoops down to rob, assassinate, free jailed prisoners, fight the carabineers, and then returns to the mountains. Many long shots show huge expanses of the Sicilian landscape. The visual aspect of the scenes usually tells more about the interactions than what people say.

We see much posturing and posing in this film. The poses include that of the vulnerable, sorrowing artist looking out over the mist-covered valleys and the massed blocking of powerful armed men reminiscent of gangster films and westerns. Stylistically, Cimino often seems caught between an intense dynamism and epic sweep, on the one hand, and static poses, on the other. Robin Wood sees in these and other dislocations in Cimino's films a sort of Brechtian distancing that hopes to break the headlong flow of the narrative. While this seems likely, these static poses are also the most conventional images in the film. They indicate to me an inability to follow along where the contradictions he has fairly clearly revealed would lead. In a sense they stop the action and prevent further insight.

Stylistically, then we can see Sayles and Cimino caught in an opposing, but equally failed dialectic. Cimino tries to stop dynamic movement with conventionally posed images of power or reflection. Sayles tries to dynamize static scenes with bits of unconvincing action. The unresolved contradiction between the static and dynamic, the inability to integrate the two at the level of style, reveals, I think, an inability to resolve the political contradictions they approach, but back away from.


Films about the past are actually films about the present. What do Sayles and Cimino say about our present world with these films about past worlds? What vision do they have? Both films seem split between a fairly progressive intent or vision of history (e.g., both clearly define how class oppression works) and the demands of the Hollywood film (e.g., both collapse their class perspective into personal action, psychology, and genre conventions).

Both these filmmakers seem to express differing versions of left-liberal politics. That is, they accept/see that the status quo is corrupt and destructive, in large part because it depends on class oppression, on stark differences between rich and poor, powerful and weak. Organization, agitation, and even revolt by the lower classes (miners in MATEWAN and peasants in THE SICILIAN) would be justified and is probably inevitable. Yet both filmmakers back away from the full implications of this insight. I will argue that they do this by uncritically imposing Hollywood conventions onto the historical material.

Both films present fairly accurate pictures of the historical moment's class dynamics. They give all the information needed to come to a fairly clear Marxist understanding of these historical moments. Yet, without a Marxist understanding of class dynamics and history, their vision goes only so far. They see these events through a class filter, from a privileged perspective. Each film offers a point of view not from the "people," but from men who are both onlookers and participants.

The filmmakers draw back from their insights in two additional ways. First, as I showed above, they change, distort, and suppress certain historical facts that would strengthen a class analysis. Second, as I will discuss below they superimpose a story of romantic heroes, fighting against impossible odds, doomed to inevitable defeat. In this tradition of bourgeois and some left art as well, defeat in the material/social world becomes compensated for by spiritual victory. Joe Kenehan's legacy will be taken up by Danny. Giuliano's child (made up by Puzo) and a mysterious young boy who bids him farewell at the end offer some hope that his struggle (whatever that actually is) will continue.

In both films the hope, the spiritual victory remains very vague. What Danny actually learned about unionizing is unclear. How Giuliano's unborn child and the mysterious young boy will carry on for Giuliano or what that would actually mean cannot be know. How different are Lucia's unborn child in the second part of Humberto Solás' LUCIA (Cuba, 1968) and the young girl who watches Lucia and her estranged husband fight and argue on the beach in the film's third part.

Here we clearly understand that those who will carry on are beginning at a very different historical level, because of the actions of their parent's generation. Here, youth represents the next lurch of the dialectic. Lucia 2's unborn child could be Lucia 3, as the girl watching that battle of the sexes could become Lucia 4. Solás has made a film about how old values linger on in new social situations and also how old values are changed. I see no such dialectical movement in either MATEWAN or THE SICILIAN even though the historical material they are based on could easily supply it.


MATEWAN tells about a series of failures. Sayles advocates non-violence, but seems pessimistic about this strategy. Though Joe does manage to forge a kind of unity among the miners, this unity — the miners' strength — leads inevitably to the armed conflict and to Joe's own death. Joe has an heroic intent, but does not accomplish very much or have much impact on the miners except on his protégé, Danny.

As Sayles describes his hero, Joe Kenehan is

"not a slogan-spouting Marxist with a book education, not a little Indian guy in white robes preaching a kind of mystic Eastern acceptance, not a stranger at all but just about the most regular fella you'd want to meet…"(17).

Leaving aside the silliness of Sayles' phobias, Joe comes off as boring as Sayles makes him sound. Joe has none of the interesting flaws and contradictions that the organizers do in SALT OF THE EARTH or NORMA RAE. What he gains in just-one-of-the-guys reality he loses in intensity and credibility. We don't see him die in the climactic shoot out, we only stumble on his body afterwards. Sayles' hesitation comes in how the director deals issues of violence.

"The two most successful creations of U.S. movies are the gangster and the Westerner: men with guns. Guns as physical objects, and the postures associated with their use, form the visual and emotional center of both types of films." — Robert Warshow

Sayles sets as the crucial enigma: "Can he get justice for the miners without a gun?" (17) Sayles wants to question violence and Joe, with his pacifist background, argues against any violence. In the same connection, Sayles rejects both the socialist and communist traditions in U.S. labor even though they have been mostly responsible for the gains labor has made. He implies, it would seem, that these traditions advocate or have caused violence. Sayles becomes caught up in a contradiction of his own making. He understands and shows in the film that the system itself is a form of violence as it is the subjugation of one class by another. Yet, the question of violence is addressed in the film as a matter of individual choice: Joe rejects it and the sheriff takes up the gun in his defense.

Thus, Sayles cheats on this issue. He tries to have his cake and eat it too. Joe upholds his pacifist beliefs and dies a martyr in the main street of Matewan. His protégé, Danny (our narrator Pappy as a youth) lowers his rifle and lets a Baldwin goon escape across the river. Pacifism preserved! Yet at several points in the film armed men — Sid Hatfield several times and some strange hill people out hunting — save Joe from serious trouble with the goons, Hickey and Griggs. Sid Hatfield and the armed miners shoot down a whole bunch of Baldwin goons. Alma, the Matewan widower who befriends Joe, gets to give the repulsive Hickey both barrels and splatter him all over her clean laundry. And Mrs. Elkins, whose young son was brutally murdered by the Baldwins, pumps pistol shots into a Baldwin thug as he lies in the Street. Violence redeemed! Vengeance is sweet!


According to Cimino, Giuliano strives to live a life of purity, fighting the corrupt forces around him for a higher ideal. Yet his very effort to live and create purity leads to corruption. By joining neither the left or the right (in the film!) Giuliano hopes to remain above the contending forces. Yet at the same time, only protection from the most powerful Sicilian Don protects him and permits him to operate. It is not hard to see in this situation, as portrayed by Cimino, the traditional "neutral" position of the petty bourgeoisie — neutrality dependent on class privileges.

Giuliano's Robin Hood fantasy, his inability to understand or even begin to imagine his actual situation, leads to the massacre of peasants at Portella della Ginistra. Like previous Cimino characters — Stanley White in YEAR OF THE DRAGON and Jim Averill in HEAVENS GATE — Giuliano thinks he's in control because of his personal qualities of goodness and good intentions, but he finds that, in fact, he has little or no control of the forces that oppose him. As in HEAVEN'S GATE, in THE SICILIAN enlightenment comes only at the end of the film, when it is too late to do anything about it. The only alternative is a self-willed death at the hands of his cousin and closest friend, Aspanu Pisciola.


In both films, the controlling point of view is not from the people but from an individual who stands somewhat to the side of the action, a participant/ observer, who is also a local intellectual and thus exercises a "superior" point of view. Once again we can see the analogy with the position of the petty bourgeoisie — not one of the contending parties (bourgeoisie and proletariat), but between them.

In MATEWAN the controlling point of view belongs to Danny/ Pappy the preacher (i.e. local intellectual) who looks back nostalgically on the hard days of his youth.

"The miners was trying to bring in the union to West Virginia and the coal operators and their gun thugs was set on keeping 'em out"(Sayles, 4).

In the SICILIAN the professor (also a local intellectual) is the liaison between his former student Giuliano and the Mafia Don. His cynicism and pessimism about any meaningful change control the tone of the film.

Both films begin at the end, looking back at events from a future perspective. This structure emphasizes the "historical" aspect of the films, and signal that we are seeing events that have clearly passed. But such a structure also creates a sense of inevitability, necessity, and destiny — a sense that little or nothing can be done to change the course of human history. Such a perspective tells history as if it is only the precursor of today, leads directly to currents events. This teleological view tends to minimize the contradictions of history, seeing instead only the flow toward the present. The backward looking narration also necessitates the distortion and suppression of historical fact, as we will see below.

Pappy's occasional voice-over narration sets the action in the past and emphasizes the "history lesson" aspect Sayles wants to give. In the end Pappy learned the lesson Joe wanted to impart:

"'Hit's just one big Union, the whole world over,' Joe Kenehan used to say, and from the day of the Matewan Massacre that's what I preached. That was my religion" (Sayles, 180).

THE SICILIAN begins with Giuliano's body being thrown out of a car onto a Church's steps. A Carabiniere officer then stands over the body and riddles it with machine-gun fire. Then a radio announcer describes the fast-breaking events. The professor rides through Palermo, its walls covered with posters and graffiti celebrating Giuliano, and enters the Ucciardone Prison. We do not know the meaning of this shot until the end when we realize that the professor was going to poison Aspanu in prison. (All this comes at the end of Puzo's novel; Cimimo moved it to the front.)


Both films are semi-genre movies. Sayles structured MATEWAN on the classic Hollywood western, and THE SICILIANS is a gangster film (more accurately, a subgenre, the rural bandit film, like BONNIE AND CLYDE). Both films rely on standard genre icons. In MATEWAN the sheriff faces down the bad guys, cleans and loads his gun in preparation for the battle, and the men are arrayed on main street for the shoot out. In THE SICILIAN we see the gangster arrayed in formation with his men, Giuliano's body tossed out on the church's steps, and informers ritually executed.

Sayles says he used the western film conventions to structure his film in such a way to make it more popular to a general audience. This film was his effort to move out of the marginality in which his prior films have been successful. Cimino has made a war film (DEER HUNTER), an urban cop thriller (YEAR OF THE DRAGON), a western (HEAVENS GATE), and now THE SICILIAN. While there is a contradiction between an accurate portrayal of history and especially of historical change, on the one hand, and the conventions and audience expectations of the genre film, on the other, I don't see any inherent reason why a genre film cannot deal with the complexity of history.

Yet genre films that try to deal with history in a dialectical way break out of the rigid rules of the genre, use the genre film as a base to move out from in some way. Francesco Rossi's LUCKY LUCIANO has many gangster film attributes, yet it mostly follows the detective as he builds his case against Luciano. Segments of reports are reconstructed within the film as the detective narrates them and even bits of newsreel footage are included. GODFATHER II uses alternating time segments to contrast the past and the present and thus more effectively show the changes in the family and in its social context.

As Robin Wood points out, Cimino's own, much maligned HEAVEN'S GATE counters the genre expectations of the western to make important statements about U.S. class relations. Many of the better Cuban films have found intriguing ways to undermine the genre form they begin with or use the shell of. BAY OF PIGS (Manuel Herrera, 1972) uses the Hollywood war film to recount the Cuban success at the Bay of Pigs. War film conventions are mixed with personal accounts of participants at the very site of their participation. LUCIA parodies the historical costume drama in part 1, the gangster film in part 2, and, in part 3, the rural musical romance film. THE OTHER FRANCISCO(Sergio Giral, 1975) turns a realistic literary adaptation/ historical recreation upside down by questioning the origins of the original story and telling another version (the "other Francisco").

In MATEWAN and THE SICILIANS Sayles and Cimino begin with historical actuality, but, backing away from their original insights, they impose genre conventions on films that don't need them. Using the genre conventions (and larger Hollywood conventions as well) as they do, undermines the political possibilities their films promise and contains the contradictions they open up.


Ciment, Michel. Le Dossier Rosi. Paris: Editions Stock, 1976.

Colman, McAlister. Men and Coal. New York: Farrar & Reinhart, 1943.

Hobsbawm, Eric. Primitive Rebels. New York: W.W. Norton, 1959.

Lane, Winthrop D. Civil War in West Virginia. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1921.

Maxwell, Gavin. God Protect Me from My Friends. London:. Readers Union Longmans, Green, 1957.

Puzo, Mario. The Sicilians. New York: Bantam Books, 1985 (origninally Linden Press, 1984).

Sayles, John. Thinking in Pictures: The Making of Matewan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Warshow, Robert. "Movie Chronicle: The Westerner." Partisan Review (March-April, 1954).

Wood, Robin, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986.

I want to thank Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage for their help and encouragement with this article.