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Honesty Empowers 'Maguires'

April 08, 1993|GEOFF BOUCHER

In contrast to the dense, black dust that clings to their faces and lungs, there is a bright, burning fury in the eyes of the downtrodden coal miners depicted in the 1970 film "The Molly Maguires."

Trapped in a dead-end job in a bleak Pennsylvania town of the 1870s, the miners are first and second generation Irish-Americans who have been ridden too hard by the industry owners. When a strike fails to improve conditions, a small band of miners turns to terrorism, partly as an attempt to spur change, partly to vent their own frustrations.

But their violent campaign escalates, with property destruction leading to late-night assaults leading to murder. Soon, reprisals from the brutal, company-owned police offer the secret society, called the Molly Maguires, little choice but an all-out war they cannot win.

Director Martin Ritt, who also examined labor issues in "Norma Rae," paces the well-crafted film slowly, gradually building suspense. Sean Connery portrays the Maguires' hard-bitten leader, John Kehole, while Richard Harris gives an outstanding performance as James McKenna, the undercover officer sent to infiltrate the terrorist group.

As McKenna earns the group's trust, he begins to identify with the Maguires' motivations and, eventually, even their methods.

By the time his police superior says, "Don't forget which side you're on," it seems clear to the viewer that, in classic Hollywood fashion, he already has. But Ritt's film does not follow predictable lines, nor does it tidy up the personalities it examines.

In the end, that unflinching honesty lends the "The Molly Maguires" pertinence and power.

"The Molly Maguires," (1970), directed by Martin Ritt. 123 minutes. Rated PG

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