The power of shoe leather
I've been wanting to see this film ever since watching One of the Hollywood Ten, which, among other things, dramatized director Herbert J. Biberman's efforts to make this film while blacklisted in Hollywood. From that film's perspective, Salt of the Earth was a tremendous moral victory, something that had to be done in general principles.
The events of the film take place in fictional Zinc Town - formerly San Marcos - New Mexico. Naturally, the primary employer is the Zinc mine, and conditions are fairly poor, especially for the Hispanic workers. After a job accident, the workers finally strike. In a company-owned town, this is of course, somewhat problematic.
Salt of the Earth is also, on one level, speaking to the political climate of its time. There was great suspicion of labor unions as being on the same end of the political spectrum as communism. And that brings up the fact that Biberman was blacklisted, and even jailed for a time, for refusing to name names before HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). There is a theme of doing the right thing regardless of the consequences, though we also explore the difficulties of choosing strategy - which battles are worth fighting? There's no easy conclusions, just the steady notion that people need to fight for what is important.
The problem with a moralizing movie so often is that we get nothing but moral, and in the process fail to connect to the characters and thus lose interest in the outcome of the story. Salt was put together by professionals (despite the largely non-actor cast), so we don't lose the pretense of storytelling entirely. The characters are real and distinct, but there's hardly any other topic of conversation in the first third of the film other than the oppression of the workers. We get some relief after that, but we never really lose that underlying morality play, that insistent self-importance behind it all.
There's a lot of voiceover in the film from Esperanza, who is more or less our protagonist. She presses her husband (a leader in the strike) continually to let the wives participate in the labor process, and generally for respect for women as well.
The ideas in this film are not all that controversial nowadays. But back in the 1950s, just asking for these simple dignities was a scary enough thing that the film was actually banned. Perhaps this discrepency is enough to explain at least part of the seemingly self-righteous attitude here. Even today, the Union is not a wholly loved institution, but often met with wary eyes.
Overall, this film is important more for its historical value, rather than for the execution of its story. If you stick with it, the film has a chance of growing on you, yet I can't see anyone coming to love Salt of the Earth strictly on its own merits.
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