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Salt of the Earth (1954) provides one of the best examples of blacklisted filmmaking in the 1950s. Few films were so affected, from every possible direction, by the House Un-American Activities Committees proceedings. For one thing, the movie focused on a highly controversial topic - labor relations - in its story of Chicano workers in a New Mexico zinc mine. When Anglo workers are given higher wages and safer conditions, the Chicanos go on strike to receive the same treatment. The film follows not just their strike but how the workers' wives become involved as well.
The project started with director Herbert J. Biberman who was a member of the infamous Hollywood Ten and had served 6 months in jail for being an uncooperative witness. Blacklisted in Hollywood, Biberman joined forces with producer Paul Jarrico, another film industry expatriate, to create a production company where those on the blacklist could have a chance to work. Co-writer Michael Wilson was among the artists who signed on. Wilson, whose previous credits had included A Place in the Sun (1951), was like many other blacklisted writers who found that they could continue writing, but were not given screen credit for their work. In fact, Wilsons writing credits for Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) (not to mention a Best Writing Oscar for the second film) were awarded posthumously as late as 1995.
With the country in the midst of a red scare, the subject of Salt of the Earth didn't help matters any. Based on an actual New Mexico mineworkers strike, the docudrama depicts measures taken by a Hispanic union to improve conditions for its workers. Many of the actors were non-professionals who were real life participants in the strike. Two exceptions included Will Geer, who would go on to play Grandpa on the TV series "The Waltons" (Geer himself was blacklisted at the time Salt of the Earth was made) and, Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who was mysteriously deported during the making of the film on a minor passport violation. (The movie had to be completed with a double.)
Co-produced with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, who had been ejected from the CIO for alleged communist leanings, Salt of the Earth would be the only film made by Biberman and Jarrico's company. The opposition was too great. Residents of the New Mexico towns while the movie was filmed made life miserable for them, with vigilantes starting fights and merchants who wouldnt do business with them. State police finally had to be called in to allow the filming to be completed. Even then RKO chief Howard Hughes jumped on the bandwagon against the movie, with a plan to stop its processing and distribution. After eight labs refused to process the film, Biberman finally had to submit the reels under the title "Vaya Con Dios" to even get a print made.
Salt of the Earth finally opened in March 1954 in thirteen theatres. Variety called it "a good, highly dramatic and emotion-charged piece of work" but also noted that "itschances as box office entertainment is practically nil." And in fact it received very few showings in the U.S., though it eventually gained a reputation in Europe before being rediscovered in America in the sixties in film societies and repertory cinemas. The film's re-emergence even prompted director Biberman to write a book about the making of Salt of the Earth.From today's perspective, Biberman's film no longer seems to deserve its reputation as an extreme leftist propaganda film. Instead, it provides a surprisingly realistic look at the inequalities mining workers faced, not to mention a behind-the-scenes history lesson on the politics of the time.
Director:Herbert J. Biberman
Producer:Adolfo Barela, Sonja Dahl Biberman, Paul Jarrico
Screenplay:Michael Biberman, Michael Wilson
Cinematography:Stanley Meredith, Leonard Stark
Principal Cast:Will Geer (Sheriff), David Wolfe (Barton), David Sarvis (Alexander), Mervin Williams (Hartwell), Rosaura Revueltas (Esperanza Quintero), E.A. Rockwell (Vance), Juan Chacon (Ramon Quintero)
by Stephanie Thames and Lang Thompson