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#220. Coal Mining

When you think of a profession steeped in poverty, what do you come up with? More often than not, you’ll arrive at a job that requires manual labor. What is even more disheartening is the fact that many of these jobs are dangerous. Many of these jobs have to do with energy. Working on an oil derrick can be dangerous, but usually pays pretty well for this potential hazard. Coal mining, however, has all of the danger, but none of the pay to compensate for it. Perhaps this was why the main character from The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, lived in a coal mining district: the poverty of the workers stood in stark contrast to that of the rich lifestyle of The Capitol. While there have been very few films made about coal mining, there have been a handful that artfully show the tragic circumstances of this dangerous profession. This week’s two films are set in towns supported by coal mining.

How Green Was My ValleyHow Green Was My Valley
Year: 1941
Rating: G
Length: 118 minutes / 1.96 hours

The trick with making a film about coal mining is that it is prime Oscar bait. Think about all the dramatic tensions that arise from a small, coal mining town: poverty, death, political unrest, religious overtones . . . the list goes on. It is no wonder that this film was nominated for ten Oscars, winning five of them. Aside from Best Picture and Best Director for John Ford, How Green Was My Valley won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Donald Crisp, as well as Oscars for Best Black-and-White Cinematography and Best Black-and-White Art Direction (both a split designation that lasted until 1966). Of course, director John Ford was skilled at adapting novels that excelled at presenting poverty, as he had won a Best Director Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath the year before. That being said, the danger presented in the coal mining of How Green Was My Valley surpasses the mere poverty of the dustbowl.

While mining coal initially has the promise of wealth to its workers, the reality almost always ends up being the opposite. Huw (Roddy McDowall) is the youngest of five brothers, all of whom work in the coal mine with their father, Gwilym Morgan (Donald Crisp). As the industry of the mine begins to blacken the town, both literally and metaphorically, Huw finds his innocence slowly being taken from his idealistic mind. After a strike to protest a lowering of the miners’ wages leaves Gwilym ostracized by the town and his older sons, an accident takes the eldest, Ivor (Patric Knowles) on the very day he too became a father. Even with these facts in his mind, Huw forgoes his chance to escape the doomed village and study at university. Instead, he follows his father’s footsteps into the mine, where he must face yet another tragedy brought on by an accident-prone work environment.

October SkyOctober Sky
Year: 1999
Rating: PG
Length: 108 minutes / 1.8 hours

In the dystopic future of the aforementioned Hunger Games, the United States was divided into twelve districts based on their chief export. As such, what used to be West Virginia was converted into District 12: the coal mining district. Unfortunately, not much changed between the 1950’s and this futuristic tale. This area has been in poverty for some time, but unlike the protagonist of How Green Was My Valley, not everyone wants to simply submit to their fate in the mines. Many small towns fueled by the coal mining industry are filled with children trying to figure out how to avoid the same fate that their parents and grandparents have suffered. Unfortunately, unless there’s a compelling way to rise above the predestined career path of a coal miner, these children will be forced into the perpetual poverty in which their family has always lived.

John Hickam (Chris Cooper) is the mine superintendent who hopes that his sons will carry on in the job that he loves. Unfortunately, when Jim (Scott Miles) leaves Coalwood to attend college on a football scholarship; the burden of the father’s expectations falls on Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal). This puts Homer in a conundrum, as he has fallen in love with the idea of going to space, as Sputnik 1 has just been launched by the Soviet Union. As he pursues this rocketry hobby, his group of friends tags along. None of the boys have exemplary home lives, and the only encouraging force comes from their science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern). John is vehemently against the rocketry hobby, but is injured saving a dozen men from a mine accident. Undeterred, Homer and his friends enter into the national science fair, eventually winning the top prize.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 magnificent mining tales

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One response to “#220. Coal Mining

  1. Pingback: End of Act Five | Cinema Connections

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