Cast & Crew
The film is composed of narrated documentary footage, reenactments of actual events, stock footage, still photographs and newsreels. America's historical struggle for liberty is reflected in the lives and actions of ordinary citizens fighting for the rights guaranteed to them under the United States Constitution: One day in 1934, a hard-working Michigan farmer, Fred Hill, is beaten to death for opposing a group of union busters at a grange meeting. Two years later, a young girl cleaning the windows of a house in Cleveland, Ohio, finds the murdered body of a union activist. In the summer of the same year, vandals destroy a church used by both black and white sharecroppers in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Two sharecroppers, one black, the other white, are killed by the armed vandals. At a Local 131 union meeting, a man named Harry Carlisle falsely accuses another man of spying on the meeting and compiling the names of the meeting attendees for a blacklist. Carlisle, a secret operative in the employ of the company fighting unionization, uses the hysteria created by the accusation to win the confidence of the other employees. Carlisle is given a large bonus and promotion for his work, but despite this, tells his bosses that he no longer wants to be involved in the company's scheme. Threatened with harm and ordered to procure another list of names, Carlisle attempts to sabotage the operation by concealing his new list from the company. When another informant reports the double-cross, the company bosses threaten to expose Carlisle's anti-union activities to union members, and thus force him to continue serving them. Carlisle eventually cracks and confesses his activities to the union. The confession comes too late, however, as Carlisle's company begins firing workers on the blacklist. Workers in other parts of the country are seen demonstrating, fighting and even dying for their rights. In Brooklyn, New York, peaceful protesters are physically attacked by a group of counter-demonstrating agitators. In Memphis, Tennessee, grocer and union supporter Frank Mason is terrorized by a thug who warns him to take his family and leave town. In Florida, on 30 Nov 1935, leaders of the Modern Democratic party are whipped and lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan when they enter a progressive candidate in a primary election near Tampa. In Chicago, 2,000 demonstrators are prevented by police from approaching the Republic Steel plant. A violent clash between the police and demonstrators ensues, during which ten people are killed and ninety are injured. At a funeral service for one of the slain demonstrators, a mourner delivers a eulogy that concludes with the words: "He was the kind of man who stood up for his rights. We don't forget that. Never."
Howard Da Silva
Rev. Charles Webber
Native Land was directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, two of the period's most politically active filmmakers. They regarded the stakes in the struggle over organized labor to be extremely high, and they open the movie with a statement putting the fight for workers' rights on the same level as the fight to win World War II, which the United States had entered just a few months before the film's premiere. "Since the founding of our country," the opening text declares, "the American people have had to fight for their freedom in every generation. Native Land is a document of America's struggle for liberty in recent years. It was in this struggle that the fascist-minded on our own soil were forced to retreat. And the people gained the democratic strength essential for national unity and for victory over the Axis."
The message here is plain: corporate captains who deny employees the freedom to form unions, hold meetings and engage in collective bargaining are as threatening to democracy as foreign foes, and the experience of battling these unjust employers have given ordinary workers additional reserves of grit, determination and courage that will enable them to win the war abroad. This was an optimistic point of view to espouse in 1942 when combat was raging around the world and violent labor confrontations were fresh in memory, but the filmmakers clearly saw bravery in the face of opposition as a deep-died trait in the American character.
To put across their ideas as compellingly as possible, Strand and Hurwitz swing freely between fiction and nonfiction modes, juxtaposing newsreel footage and fact-filled narration with staged reenactments of indignities and atrocities inflicted on workers refusing to relinquish what they regard as basic human rights. After a prologue celebrating the birth and early growth of the United States, briefly tracing the country's progress from the arrival of the Pilgrims to the upsurge of industry and manufacturing in the first half of the twentieth century, the film presents a couple of disturbing scenes - the sudden death of a peaceful farmer, the discovery of a corpse in a hotel room - that are perplexing until the movie's theme comes into focus. Then we realize that these seemingly random tragedies are linked to the insidious campaign being waged by some unscrupulous executives against wage earners who want to unionize or already have.
Similar reenacted episodes follow, some with strong racial overtones, as when a rifle-wielding killer shoots down a black man and a white man after they and other sharecroppers gather in an Arkansas church to plan a request for ten cents more an hour so they can feed their poverty-stricken households. Later, scenes show workers engaged in everyday routines - having breakfast with the family, punching in at the time clock, toiling away in heavy industry - but physical and psychological challenges are never far away. In a brief vignette, a management spy is exposed and shamed by his coworkers. In a longer episode, a man is pressured by smug, arrogant bosses to steal a union membership log so they can dole out instant pink slips to everyone involved. Another hard-hitting scene shows a hired thug messing up a grocery store and bullying a little girl, all because the kindly old grocer has been kicking in a bit to the labor cause as a help to his neighbors. Newsreel clips of violence and death also appear, but the film's ultimate mood is one of confidence that the labor movement will persist and prosper because it is fair and righteous in the end.
The impetus to make Native Land came from the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee in the US Senate, which had set forth reports on a long list of abuses - union busting, strikebreaking, bribery, industrial espionage and the like - as a result of investigations and hearings between 1936 and 1941. Along with Hurwitz and Robson, who both belonged to the socially conscious Workers Film and Photo League, the well-known liberals and leftists working on the film included screenwriter Ben Maddow, working under the pseudonym David Wolff, and composer Marc Blitzstein, who penned the stirring music. Howard Da Silva and Art Smith, both of whom were blacklisted during Hollywood's anticommunist purge in the 1950s, are in the cast. Most famous of all is the movie's narrator, Paul Robeson, the extraordinary African-American actor, singer, athlete, scholar and human-rights activist whose career was fatally weakened by his militant support for left-wing causes. He sings on the soundtrack as well.
Native Land is more racially diverse than the vast majority of Hollywood features from its era, although it has a pronounced male bias, devoting little attention to the problems of working women. Not everyone agrees on the validity of its message, and it gets preachy at times - with an actual preacher in a pulpit at one point - but its idealism is infectious. To solve the problems and reap the benefits of 20th century life, Robeson's voiceover says, Americans need to "work together, and therefore...to think together, to move together, to act together." In living up to that obligation, citizens have learned to cultivate cooperation and other values embedded in words like "brother" and "union" and in institutions like community groups, tenant leagues, public forums, committees and clubs. The workers who use these means to achieve gains like old-age pensions, forty-hour workweeks, and adequate health insurance are putting "the Bill of Rights into action" and serving as "new pioneers facing a new frontier." Agree with that sentiment or not, it has a lovely patriotic ring.
Directors: Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand
Producers: Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand
Screenplay: David Wolff, Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand
Cinematographer: Paul Strand
Film Editing: Leo Hurwitz
Music: Marc Blitzstein
With: Paul Robeson (Narrator), Fred Johnson (Fred Hill), Mary George (Mrs. Hill), John Rennick (Hill's son), Amelia Romano (window washer), Housely Stevens (white sharecropper), Louis Grant (black sharecropper), James Hanney (Mack), Howard DaSilva (Jim), Art Smith Harry Carlyle), Richard Bishop (executive), Vaughn King (Mary), Robert Strauss (Frank Mason), John Marlieb (thug), Tom Connors (Joseph Shumaker), Harry Wilson (Eugene Poulnot), Rev. Charles Webber (minister), Virginia Stevens (widow), Clancy Cooper (eulogist), Tom Pedi (Harry)
by David Sterritt
Native Land contains the following written onscreen foreword: "Since the founding of our country, the American people have had to fight for their freedom in every generation. Native Land is a document of America's struggle for liberty in recent years. It was in this struggle that the fascist-minded on our own soil were forced to retreat. And the people gained the democratic strength essential for national unity and for victory over the Axis." Actor Houseley Stevenson's name was misspelled in the credits as "Housely Stevens." The Variety review notes that the film was based on reports of the United States Senate Civil Liberties Committee and other public documents. The Congressial group, also known as the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, was created to address growing public concerns about the plight of working Americans and unfair labor practices. Many of the events portrayed in the film are based on actual events that took place in the 1930's, including the 1935 Tampa, FL Ku Klux Klan murder of Dr. Sam Rogers, a member of the Modern Democrats political party. Rogers and two other members of the party, Joseph Shoemaker and Eugene Poulot, were tarred and feathered for entering progressive candidates in a local election. Paul Strand, who co-created the film with Leo Hurwitz, founded Frontier Films, Inc. in 1937. This was Strand's last film, and the final picture produced by Frontier. Native Land marked the first feature film screenwriting assignment for writer and director Ben Maddow, who was billed under the pseudonym David Wolff.
Information contained in the Frontier Films Collection at the Paul Strand Foundation in New York indicates the following: The film originated in the fall of 1937, when Frontier Films began shooting a short film based on the findings of the La Follette hearings. By early 1938, Michael Gordon, the director first assigned to the picture, and cameraman Willard Van Dyke completed a number of sequences, including the reenactment of the Republic Steel massacre and a sequence in which a Michigan farmer is killed by hired thugs. Hurwitz and Strand, disappointed with the footage shot by Gordon and Van Dyke, took over their duties and expanded the film to feature-length. Most, or perhaps all, of the footage shot by Gordon's unit was scrapped and reshot under the direction of Strand and Hurwitz. Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, Julia Milch and Sidney Meyers assisted in the editing of the film.
According to a 1942 New York Times article, Strand and Hurwitz resumed production on the newly restructured film in the spring of 1939 with only $7,000 of the estimated budget of $40,000 available to them from Frontier Films, Inc. A few months later, with only one-third of the filming completed, Strand and Hurwitz ran out of money and suspended shooting for six months. During the break in production, incomplete versions of the film were shown to audiences in New York, Washington and Hollywood to generate interest and solicit additional funds. Some of the contributions reportedly came from raffles, auctions and benefit parties held in New York City. In the end, Hurwitz estimated that five to six thousand people contributed money to the film. (The Hollywood Reporter review indicates that director John Ford, screenwriter and director Dudley Nichols and actor and singer Paul Robeson were among the many investors.) Although enough money was raised by the spring of 1940 to resume production, Strand and Hurwitz subsequently encountered numerous delays, all of which resulted in a picture that ran $20,000 over budget, and which was not completed until late 1941. With the outbreak of World War II, according to a 1942 NY World-Telegram news item, Hurwitz and Strand made one final change to the ending of the film before releasing it in May 1942. The added scene, in which Robeson gives a speech comparing the battle against tyranny at home to the battle against Adolf Hitler and fascism abroad, was later deleted from the film. A contemporary Hollywood Reporter news item notes that the film, which was withdrawn from distribution after its first run "because of the war situation," was re-released in May 1946 by Brandon Films, Inc. According to a June 1941 New York Times article, most of the actors appearing in the film were members of The Group Theatre of New York. The New York opening of the film was held as a benefit for the New York Newspaper Guild.
Native Land marked the motion picture debut of actor John Marley (1907-1984), who appeared in the role of a "Thug" under the name John Marlieb. In a modern interview, production manager George Jacobson stated that the brief sequence in which the dead body of a labor organizer (played by Jacobson) is tossed from a truck was originally filmed as part of a longer sequence that featured actor Karl Malden and film director Martin Ritt in the roles of gangsters. Ritt and Malden did not appear in the final film. According to modern sources, some of the newsreel clips used in the film were taken from film coverage of the following historical events: a violent clash at a steelworkers strike in Ambridge, PA, in 1933; an incident of police brutality during the Hans Weidemann protest in Brooklyn, NY, also in 1933; and a 1934 general strike demonstration in San Francisco, where police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Modern sources also note that the bulk of the film was shot in and around New York City, and included shooting at the Communist party's Camp Unity in Wingdale, NY, where the Klu Klux Klan sequence was filmed; on Staten Island, NY, where the funeral of the victim of the Republic Steel massacre was filmed; and in parts of New England, where gravestones, town halls and the Maine coast were filmed for the opening sequence.
Released in France October 21, 1998
Released in France October 21, 1998