Salt of the Earth
Cast & Crew
Herbert J. Biberman
Thirty-four-year-old Esperanza Quintero, who is pregnant with her third child, lives in Zinc Town, New Mexico, a mining town owned by Delaware Zinc. Esperanza's husband Ramón, a miner, narrowly escapes a catastrophe when he lights dynamite that has a defective fuse. When Ramón later objects to the dangerous working conditions, company man Barton replies that Ramón can easily be replaced by "an American." That night, Esperanza complains to Ramón that she must chop wood for hot water five times a day, while the Anglo miners' homes have hot running water. Ramón, however, insists that safety at the mine is their most important concern. One day, a group of women decides to picket at the mine for more sanitary conditions. As they try to convince Esperanza, who is reluctant to get involved, to join them, an alarm sounds at the mine. Ramón tells superintendent Alexander that the accident would not have happened if conditions were better. Barton accuses Ramón of lying, and when Alexander orders the men back to work, they strike. That night, a few of the women, including Esperanza, attend the union meeting, and one suggests that the strikers also demand sanitation and plumbing for their houses. The men, however, table the discussion. As the men begin picketing outside the mine entrance, out-of-town strikebreakers are recruited, but they turn back when they see the size of the picket lines. After his son Luís and a friend spy some "scabs" at the mine, Ramón chases them, and when he discovers that one of them is a Mexican American whom he knows, he spits on the man and is arrested. As Ramón is beaten by bigoted police, Esperanza goes into labor. Despite the sheriff's refusal to send for a doctor, she delivers a healthy boy. Esperanza waits to christen the baby until Ramón returns from jail. That night, while all the strikers celebrate at the Quintero home, Ramón is criticized for his distrust of whites, but takes the union leader, an Anglo named Frank Barnes, to task for not having learned about Mexican culture. Barnes admits he was at fault, but criticizes Ramón's paternalistic view of women, until his wife Ruth points out his own deficiencies. By the seventh month of the strike, money and food are running low, and some families leave, but soon aid arrives from workers around the country. When the sheriff delivers a Taft-Hartley injunction ordering the striking workers to stop picketing, Barnes explains that if the men obey the order, the strike is lost, as scabs will move in as soon as the picket line is gone. If they defy the order, however, they will be arrested and the strike will be broken. As the men argue, one of the wives suggests that the women take over the picketing since the order applies only to striking miners. The idea is greeted with laughter and then debate. Esperanza insists that the women be allowed to vote along with the men, and the motion narrowly passes. Women from all around the area join the wives of the strikers, while the men watch from the side, but Ramón forbids Esperanza to participate. When a fight breaks out between the deputies and the women, Esperanza passes the baby to Ramón and with a shoe, knocks a gun from an officer's hands. Temporarily defeated, Barton calls off his men. Esperanza now joins the picket line, taking the children with her. After further efforts by the police fail to dislodge the women, Hartwell, a company official from New York, asks the sheriff to arrest them. The Mexican-American scab points out the leaders and includes Esperanza, who brings her baby and little girl to jail with her. When the baby refuses the milk the sheriff provides, the women start to chant. Ramón and Luís retrieve the children. Seeing the determination of the women, Ramón begins to do the housework and realizes the validity of the women's complaints. After four days, Esperanza and the other women are released from jail. Ramón insists that the women have no chance of winning, but Esperanza contends that they can outlast the company and criticizes him for treating her as the bosses treat him. On a hunting trip, Ramón thinks about Esperanza's words. Later, the company obtains an eviction order against the striking miners, and begin their efforts with Ramón and Esperanza. As the women gather outside the Quintero home, the sheriff and his men remove their belongings. The men return from a hunting trip and join the women, and as word spreads, workers and women gather outside the Quintero house. When Ramón understands that the company has resorted to the evictions because, as Esperanza predicted, they cannot fight the picket line, he suggests that Esperanza take their belongings back inside. The other women follow her, and the sheriff, who does not want the women in his jail again, leaves with his men. After Alexander and Hartwell decide to settle the strike, Ramón thanks the "sisters and brothers" and publicly praises Esperanza for her dignity and determination. She now knows that they have won something the bosses cannot take away, which they can leave to their children, the "salt of the earth."
Herbert J. Biberman
E. A. Rockwell
Joe T. Morales
Mary Lou Castillo
E. S. Conerly
Salt of the Earth
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 "its chances 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 Wilson
Cinematography: Stanley Meredith, Leonard Stark
Music: Sol Kaplan
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
Salt of the Earth
Because blacklisted people were among those who made the movie, the production was fraught with outside interference. The entire cast and crew were met by a citizens' committee in Central, New Mexico, where they had planned to film, and were ordered to leave town. The following day they moved the production to Silver City, NM, and were warned to "get out of town... or go out in black boxes."
This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1992.
Because the producers feared both sabotage and destruction of the film, the exposed footage had to be developed in secret, and at night, by a sympathetic lab technician, with the film delivered in unmarked canisters.
This movie was the only blacklisted film ever in American film history. It was blacklisted during the 1950s during the height of the Cold War scare.
Independent Productions Corp. was incorporated in 1951 by Simon Lazarus, Herbert J. Biberman and Paul Jarrico to employ blacklisted filmmakers. Writer Michael Wilson based the film's story on a 1951-52 strike by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers against Empire Zinc, a subsidiary of New Jersey Zinc, in which Juan Chacón and Clinton Jencks participated. Chacón, who played "Ramón," was president of Local 890 of the UMMSW and worked for Kennecott Copper Corp. at the time of filming. Jencks, who performed the role of "Frank Barnes," was an international representative of the union. Many of the other characters were also played by miners and their families.
In an article, Chacón wrote about the unequal treatment of Mexican American miners: "The companies built houses for the Anglos while we were given shacks....the miners who spoke Spanish would be put to work as 'helpers' to the 'skilled' Anglos-doing the same work for which the Anglo was paid twice as much....separate pay windows, separate washrooms, the separation even in the movies." According to Biberman's book about the making of the film, the role of "Esperanza" was intended for his wife, Gale Sondergaard, and the part of "Ramón" was also to be played by a non-Hispanic actor, but the filmmakers changed their minds when they realized that they subconsciously believed Hispanics were incapable of portraying leads.
Contemporary news items add the following information about the production: In February 1953, during filming, California Republican Representative Donald Jackson, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) from California, declared that the picture was "deliberately designed to inflame racial hatreds," and was "a new weapon for Russia." Jackson claimed that "in one sequence, two deputy sheriffs...proceed to pistol whip the miner's very young son." Wilson countered that "there is not one shred of truth in [Jackson's] description of the subject." He called the film "pro-American in the deepest sense. It...depicts honest working men and women of our country in a light most Hollywood films have ignored....It stresses brotherhood and unity." Jackson named investors in the film and portrayed them as having ties to the Communist party. He singled out Biberman, Sondergaard, Jarrico, Wilson and actor Will Geer, who had all been hostile witnesses before HUAC. Lazarus was called to testify before Jackson's committee in 1953.
A UMMSW representative denied that the picture was being made "under Communist auspices," and added that Sondergaard was not connected with the film. He also noted that no "violence against any young Mexican-American boy" is depicted in the film, as Jackson claimed. After Jackson's denunciation, Roy M. Brewer, head of the American Federation of Labor Film Council and the international representative of IATSE, told reporters that he and other union officials, including Walter Pidgeon, president of the Screen Actors Guild, had been trying to halt production of the film for over a year. Later, Jackson submitted a request to the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Commerce and the Attorney-General to find legal means to ban the export of the "propaganda film."
On February 25, 1953, Mexican actress Rosaura Revueltas, who played "Esperanza," was arrested and held without bail because her passport had not been stamped at the border. In response, Jorge Negreta, president of the National Association of Actors of Mexico City, threatened to bar Hollywood actors from Mexico unless Revueltas was permitted to finish the film. SAG then stated that the actress was working for "a non-union company not signatory to our contract." Biberman and Jarrico countered that every member of the crew carried a union card (although not from IATSE unions for the most part) and that they had hired people who had been effectively blacklisted by IATSE, including four African Americans, the assistant to the director, an assistant cameraman and two technicians, excluded under IATSE's Jim Crow policies. On March 6, 1953, Revueltas returned to Mexico, and her last scene was filmed near Mexico City. Her voice-over narration, modern sources note, was also taped there.
On March 2, 1953, the film's cast and crew were met by a citizen's committee in Central, NM, and ordered to leave town. The following day, in Silver City, NM, the company was warned to "get out of town...or go out in black boxes." Jencks was beaten and shots were fired at his car while it was parked outside his home. When the company did not capitulate to the demands, there was a "citizens' parade" led by a sound car blaring, "We don't want Communism; respect the law; no violence, but let's show them we don't like it." The UMMSW, which had been expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations for alleged pro-Communist leanings, responded that "we have the right to make and complete our movie." Then on March 8, 1953, the union hall in Bayard, NM was set on fire, and the union hall in nearby Carlsbad was burned to the ground, according to Biberman's book. Biberman also notes that cast member Floyd Bostick's home was destroyed by fire. A March 15, 1954 Los Angeles Times article notes that the majority of the film was shot on a New Mexico ranch owned by Alford Roos, who also appeared in the picture.
In his book, Biberman states that before filming began, Lazarus asked Brewer to supply a union crew for the film. Brewer refused, stating that he would not allow union members to work for blacklisted filmmakers. Afterward, according to Biberman, Pathé Laboratories in Hollywood refused to process their exposed film. Consequently, the filmmakers were unable to view the rushes. Soon other technical companies followed suit. According to a modern source, Howard Hughes of RKO stated, "If the motion picture industry-not only in Hollywood, but throughout the United States-will refuse these skills [processing, dubbing, editing, etc.]...the picture cannot be completed in this country."
In July 1953, Brewer asked Film Council members and other studio workers not to work on the film, calling it "one of the most anti-American documentaries ever attempted." Before a preview screening in New York, IATSE projectionists refused to run the film, provoking Variety to comment that "IATSE like any other organization is entitled to its opinions and prejudices, but in this instance...the precedent is a bad one." The editorial added that IATSE opposition would make the picture seem more important and powerful than it was. Finally, on March 14, 1954, Salt of the Earth had its premiere at an independent theater in Yorkville, NY, and at the Grande Theatre in New York, also a non-IATSE house. Although an extra detail of police was assigned to the neighborhood in Yorkville, no trouble was reported.
A March 15, 1954 Daily Variety article noted that both the New York Mirror and The Journal-American, owned by William Randolph Hearst, ignored the film's opening. (According to modern sources, the film had its premiere at the Sky-Vue Drive In near Silver City and played there for three weeks.) Chicago screenings were canceled in early June 1954, according to Motion Picture Herald, after protesting projectionists failed to show up for work. The picture was never generally released in the U.S., modern sources state, although it appeared occasionally in theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Berkeley and San Francisco.
Salt of the Earth was received favorably overseas and won the grand prize at the Prague Film Festival. Revueltas also won an award for her portrayal of Esperanza. She was blacklisted by the Mexican film industry after her work in the picture, modern sources note, but continued to act in the theater in East Berlin and Havana. On May 24, 1959, New York Times reported that the United States Information Agency had provided Congress with a list of eighty-two movies that the agency refused to show overseas. Among them was Salt of the Earth. In the article, Republican Representative Frank T. Bow of Ohio stated that such films created a false picture of the United States. The film was re-released in 1965.
In a 1953 anti-trust suit, Independent Productions Corp. and IPC Distributors, Inc. charged Brewer, Jackson, Hughes, RKO and Pathé Laboratories, among others, with an "illegal conspiracy" to prevent production, distribution and exhibition of the film. The suit was appealed several times. Finally, in November 1964, a Federal Court jury found in favor of the defendants, now reduced to twenty-five. A documentary titled A Crime to Fit the Punishment, about the making of the film, was released in 1984 and was directed by Barbara Moss and Stephen Mack.
Released in United States 1954
Released in United States June 5, 2015
Released in United States September 2000
Shown at San Sebastian International Film Festival September 21-30, 2000.
Film became a huge target of McCarthyism at the time of its production and release.
Released in United States 1954
Released in United States June 5, 2015
Herbert J Biberman was one of the "Hollywood 10" blacklisted after his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Selected in 1992 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in United States September 2000 (Shown at San Sebastian International Film Festival September 21-30, 2000.)