An old-fashioned morality tale somewhat in the vein of John Ford’s classic film The Informer (1935), The Molly Maguires offers a fictionalized take on a group of real-life Irish immigrants who worked in Pennsylvania’s coalmines during the late 19th century. When a group of fed-up miners led by Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery) lashes out at their oppressive employers through a covert campaign of bombings and murders, the police send an Irish-born detective, James McParlan (Richard Harris), to infiltrate and expose Kehoe’s group, causing McParlan to experience a crisis of conscience: The more he learns about the secret guerilla organization called “The Molly Maguires,” the more he sympathizes with them.
As scripted by once-blacklisted Hollywood lefty Walter Bernstein and as directed by sensitive humanist Martin Ritt, The Molly Maguires takes an unusually nuanced view of radical politics. The picture lays out the reasons why the workers rebel—dangerous work conditions, a usurious pay structure in which the mining company withholds nearly all wages through outrageous “deductions”—yet the filmmakers don’t paint the Maguires as heroes. Instead, the Maguires are depicted as desperate men who resort to violence when pushed beyond reasonable limits.
This distinction puts viewers squarely inside McParlan’s conflicted psyche, and the melancholy nature of Harris’ screen persona suits the story well. The actor is believable as a working-class bruiser and as a man who realizes he’s selling his soul for career advancement. The betrayal inherent to the story is accentuated by Connery’s tightly controlled performance, since the Kehoe character is acutely self-aware; especially toward the end of the picture, Connery does a strong job of demonstrating that Kehoe values his life less than the goal of making his oppressors understand his rage.
Fittingly for a story about the Irish, there’s a darkly lyrical quality to The Molly Maguires; in particular, the tin whistles of Henry Mancini’s score and the lilting accents of the various players make the gloomy mines and rolling hills of Pennsylvania seem like lost colonies of the Emerald Isle. Several strong supporting players add muscle to the picture as well. Frank Finlay is odiously pragmatic as McParland’s superior officer, while Anthony Costello, Art Lund, and Anthony Zerbe are fierce as Kehoe’s accomplices. Female lead Samantha Eggar, making the most of an underwritten role, is quietly principled as the local girl who falls for McParland without knowing his true identity.
Although too conventionally made and slow-moving to qualify as any sort of classic, The Molly Maguires is intelligent, sincere, and thought-provoking.
The Molly Maguires: GROOVY