SALT OF THE EARTH -- NOTES AND DISCUSSION ON A GREAT RADICAL FILM
hunterbadbear at earthlink.net
Sun Sep 15 14:14:19 MDT 2002
Note by Hunterbear:
Earlier this morning, I posted "AngloGold signs Global Labour Agreement
[ICEM] -- With Comment." At the conclusion of my Comment, I mentioned that,
as I have since the '50s, I continue to show "Salt of the Earth." Since
that posting I've gotten a couple of friendly off-list queries asking just
to what am I referring.
Although the Empire Zinc strike -- in the Silver City, N.M. mining
district -- on which the film is based ended 50 years ago, and it's been
almost half a century since work began on the film itself, it's still
surprising to me that "Salt" isn't universally known in social justice and
especially radical circles. But the writing of much history is substantially
exclusionary and, as the years pass, it isn't unusual to find folks who
through no fault of their own haven't heard of it -- or even the truly great
and legendary International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers which
made it quite successfully in the face of much New Mexico vigilante
violence and Federal witch-hunting attacks. The latter thrusts, the essence
of poisonous viciousness, continued for a generation thereafter --
succeeding in blacklisting Salt from virtually all United States commercial
movie theatres. But Salt played very successfully in many other United
States settings -- and all around the world as well.
It's still widely shown today.
A genuinely trail-blazing work, Salt of the Earth -- anticipating the Rivers
of the Sixties yet to come -- deals very directly and dramatically and in an
extremely vigorous and effective fashion with worker rights, minority
rights, and women's rights.
This is really the greatest of the great American radical films.
I, myself, have seen it at least 250 times -- having shown it extensively
throughout the Southwest, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Mississippi and other
Deep South settings, Northern New England, Seattle, Iowa, Chicago, Up-State
New York, and extensively in Navajoland and the Northern Plains and now in
Idaho. [And a few other places as well.] Although many of the Navajo viewers
knew no English at all, and some translation was required, the vivid
reality of the film is such that the basic progression of events is readily
understood by non English-speakers. [In off-reservation border town
settings, e.g., Gallup and Farmington and Winslow and Flagstaff and
Blanding, the Navajo people certainly have plenty of experience with many of
the discrimination issues handled so well in Salt of the Earth!]
In the old days and for many years, we always used the three 16 mm film
reels shipped faithfully to me by Juan Chacon and the Amalgamated Bayard
District Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers [Local 890], Bayard, N.M.
Occasionally, after I married Eldri, she of the highly skilled fingers would
have to very carefully indeed scotch-tape a broken piece. Now, with the
film out in video cassette since about '85, it's super easy to show it
Salt of the Earth is based -- in a somewhat fictionalized fashion --
directly on the prolonged and bitter 1950-52 Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers
strike in Southwestern New Mexico by predominately Mexican-American zinc
miners and their wives -- many of whom play roles in the prize-winning film
A key local union leader in this and many other struggles over the decades
was Juan Chacon, who is the male lead in SALT. When an injunction prevented
"striking miners" from picketing, the women took over the strike -- which
was eventually won. A well known Mexican film actress, Rosaura Revueltas,
plays the female lead -- but many of the actual picketing "ladies of the
union auxiliary" are major players in the film.
The film makers were victims of the infamous Hollywood blacklist. Michael
Wilson -- a notable screen writer and winner of top awards -- wrote the
script. Paul Jarrico was producer and Herbert Biberman directed the film.
Will Geer -- who earlier played the Mississippi sheriff in the film
rendition of Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust, and was later black-listed
himself -- plays the hostile New Mexico sheriff in Salt. [After the
blacklist era, he played a few mainline film roles -- but is probably best
known to "younger" people as the grandfather in the television series, The
The film is readily available on the Net at quite reasonable prices. And
there are a number of written works dealing with Salt -- some fairly
recent -- but here are my favourites:
"Salt of the Earth," The California Quarterly, Summer, 1953. Relatively
rare -- includes full original script, interviews with union activists and
film makers, film photos.
Herbert Biberman, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film [Boston: Beacon
Press, 1965.] Much text and includes the final script and film photos.
Robert Kern, editor: Labor in New Mexico: Unions, Strikes and Social
History Since 1881 [Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985.]
Its chapter, "Empire and Opposition: The "Salt of the Earth" Strike" by Jack
Cargill, is 88 pages long and contains several key strike and related
We have a very substantial SALT page on our large Lair of Hunterbear
website. It's immediately reachable at http://www.hunterbear.org/salt.htm
Here are a few excerpts from that -- but there's considerably more on the
>From Lair of Hunterbear in 2002 :
I showed Salt of the Earth countless times in countless organizing campaigns
[including in Mississippi] from the 1950s onward. I still show it today.
During the Red Scare period, the FBI and other witch-hunters made every
effort to prevent our showing the film -- kept some newspapers from carrying
our ads, got some meeting halls cancelled out from under us, broke into my
car once (the film wasn't there) -- but we always persevered and continued
showing Salt to large audiences. We showed it in union halls, churches,
colleges and universities, other meeting halls.
Cruelly blacklisted in virtually all commercial theatres throughout the
United States, Salt played successfully to huge audiences all over the
world -- year after year: e.g., Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, USSR and a
hundred other places! This [film poster] is taken from a very large [25.5
inches by 37 inches] and really excellently done 1957 Salt poster from the
Soviet Union. The artist is Tutrumov. Mine-Mill leader Juan Chacon is at
the fore -- with the backdrop of determined, picketing miners' wives. I own
this great poster. [Note by Hunterbear: The extremely rare poster is on our
I always showed Salt to my classes. I used versions of these notes for
years at University of North Dakota -- as I have everywhere else over the
decades. [Note by Hunterbear: These notes are on our SALT webpage.] This
set of my notes is ca. 1985 to reflect Salt's just out availability in video
cassette. After that very positive development occurred, I've always
provided students and many others as well with info on where to purchase the
film. It's readily available today.
Despite the intensive and venomous United States black-list, Salt won a
great many top film awards from all over the world. Several years after
Juan Chacon's death in February 1985 at age 65, New Mexico Western
University at Silver City named a building in his honor. Recently, the
Library of Congress picked Salt of the Earth as one of the 100 most
important films ever made in the United States: one which must definitely be
Speaking in 1982, Juan Chacon discussed the extremely substantial challenges
faced in the 1950s by Mexican-Americans and militant unionists in
Southwestern New Mexico [among many other settings]. "Working conditions
[health and safety] for Hispanic people were very bad. There were separate
change rooms and lunch rooms for employees. Mexicans had to use a separate
bathroom and had to stand in their own payroll line when picking up their
checks. At that time, it was pretty rough for us."
At Juan Chacon's Funeral Mass, Father Benito Suen spoke very extensively of
the dedicated radical activist's role in the fight for militant, democratic
unionism; in the struggle for human rights for the Chicano people; and in
the battle for bi-lingual education.
Vigorously encouraging the very large number of attendees at the Mass to
remember and continue Juan Chacon's fighting legacy, Father Suen said,
"Life is always a struggle and it is this kind of struggle that advances the
Following my Salt notes, is a reflective piece of mine, posted 11/25/01:
Salt of the Earth -- and Juan Chacon's Good Words.
And much more -- at http://www.hunterbear.org/salt.htm
Hunter Gray [Hunterbear]
www.hunterbear.org (strawberry socialism)
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