Salt of the Earth (1954)




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Though it cannot help but lapse into dogma and didactics at times, Salt of the Earth is a powerful, persuasive labor-management drama. With the exception of five actors (including future Waltons star Will Geer), the cast is comprised of non-professionals, mostly participants of the real-life strike action upon which the film is based. Set in a New Mexico mining town, the film concerns the measures taken by the largely Hispanic union to improve working and especially living conditions for the poverty-stricken workers. Remarkably prescient, given that the film was made long before the women's movement, is the fact that it is the wives who keep the strike alive while their husbands are beaten and otherwise oppressed by the owners. Not that the miners wholeheartedly accept this; one of the script's many on-target observations shows the macho workers resenting their wives' intervention. The ultimate victory over the strikebreakers (led by Geer at his most odious) comes about as much from male-female solidarity as the workers' pre-set determination. Co-produced by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelt Workers, Salt of the Earth was assembled under conditions of extreme duress by a group of Hollywood expatriates, all victims of the Blacklist: producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson and star Will Geer. "Freed" of the strictures of Hollywood pussyfooting and censorship, the film's auteurs are able to explore several subjects previously considered taboo. As a result, Salt of the Earth seems even fresher and more pertinent now than it did when given its extremely limited first release in 1954.
Classics , Drama
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Will Geer
as Sheriff
Rosaura Revueltas
as Esperanza Quintero
Juan Chacon
as Ramon Quintero
David Wolfe
as Barton
Mervin Williams
as Hartwell
David Sarvis
as Alexander
Henrietta Williams
as Teresa Vidal
Ernest Velasquez
as Charley Vidal
Ernest Velßsquez
as Charley Vidal
Angela Sánchez
as Consuelo Ruiz
Joe T. Morales
as Sal Ruiz
Clorinda Alderette
as Luz Morales
Charles Coleman
as Antonio Morales
Virginia Jencks
as Ruth Barnes
Clinton Jencks
as Frank Barnes
William Rockwell
as Kimbrough
Frank Talavera
as Luis Quintero
Mary Lou Castillo
as Estella Quintero
Floyd Bostick
as Jenkins
Victor Torres
as Sebastian Prieto
E.S. Conerly
as Kalinsky
Elivira Molano
as Mrs. Salazar
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Critic Reviews for Salt of the Earth

All Critics (11) | Top Critics (3)

Salt of the Earth is a good, highly dramatic and emotion-charged piece of work that tells its story straight. It is, however, a propaganda picture which belongs in union halls rather than theatres.

Full Review… | October 16, 2007
Top Critic

This is pretty amazing.

Full Review… | June 23, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

The hard-focus, realistic quality of the picture's photography and style completes its characterization as a calculated social document.

Full Review… | March 24, 2006
New York Times
Top Critic

One of the most daring "social problem" works in American film history, this movie, created by blacklisted artists, also shows the limitations of making a working-class film within the context of American culture.

Full Review… | November 25, 2006

Kudos are in order for this extraordinary film for all it has to say that rings true about workers' rights, racism, and feminism.

Full Review… | July 25, 2005
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

More than a typical Miramax/Tarantino extravaganza, it's films like this that establish the historical precedent and importance of truly independent American filmmaking.

Full Review… | December 2, 2004

Audience Reviews for Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1953) It occurred to me sometime after I had watched it that it would have been a great idea to co-review Salt of the Earth, Herbert Biberman's muckraking 1953 film about the Empire Zinc Mine strike in southwestern New Mexico, and Dreams of Dust, Laurent Salgues' 2006 drama about Nigerian immigrants who turn to gold mining in Burkina Faso to make a living. Unfortunately, by the time I came up with that idea, I had long completed my Dreams of Dust review, but if you've seen one of them, you would do yourself a service seeking the other one out. For two movies that couldn't be more different on a meta level, they work as a fantastic double-bill. Biberman's movie is a thinly-veiled portrait of the events surrounding the 1951 strike at a mine in Bayard, a town in southwestern New Mexico (now a Superfund site). Thanks to a combination of its location (Bayard sits very close to the Mexican border) and stinginess, Empire had a tendency to hire a large number of Latino workers. This is, of course, not a terrible thing, and you would imagine that in today's world the company would be crowing about its diversity. All well and good except that it got out that Empire were paying the Latino miners a fraction of what they were paying the gringos. This led to the Latino workers going on strike. The movie covers the lead-up to the strike more than the thing itself, though it does devote some time at the end to the actual strike. That was kind of a gutsy move in the fifties, and it works pretty well. Looking back on the movie seventy years later, it can be hard to separate the meta from the actual movie. There is a great deal of meta surrounding this picture. Most of the principals in front of the camera were non-actors (and, unthinkable in Hollywood at the time, most of the actors playing Mexicans were actual Mexicans), while four of the principals behind the camera were blacklisted. (So was the movie itself, the only film in American history to actually be blacklisted; ironically, it is also the only American film that was released theatrically in China between 1950 and 1979. It would not be shown theatrically in America until the mid-sixties.) All of which makes it great on trivia night, but is it good for movie night? It's not a bad little movie, to be sure, but I think the meta has caused it to be lionized maybe a little more than it should. The non-actors do a good job for non-actors, but Cidade de Deus this ain't. Will Geer, as a local sheriff tasked with quelling the natives, brings a touch of professionalism to the proceedings, and male lead Juan Chacôn really does rise to the occasion, but the two of them often have the unintentional effect of highlighting the amateurs around them. That said, that we're seventy years on also makes the film fit a little better. After all, we live in an age where any student filmmaker with a digital camcorder and a DVD-R burner can get a movie streaming on Netflix, so Salt of the Earth is a little more at home. Worth looking into if you're interested in the subject. ***

Robert Beveridge
Robert Beveridge

Should never have been banned, but audiences were probably not sophisticated enough not to riot or whatever, so who knows.

Andy Cramer
Andy Cramer

"If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution" - Emma Goldman In "Salt of the Earth," Esperanza(Rosaura Revueltas), who is married to Ramon(Juan Chacon), a mine worker, has grave doubts about the future while she is pregnant with her third child. A lot of that comes from living in a house owned by the company with inadequate sanitation, and not even being able to afford a small luxury like a radio. And that's not to mention him spending a lot of nights out with the guys. It is not only the low pay that Ramon and his fellow workers are angry about(getting paid less than their Anglo counterparts adds insult to injury), it is the danger of the job as the men are forced into the dangerous position of having to work alone. When an accident does happen, gravely injuring a worker, that is the final straw, as a strike is called. With a cast of professional and amateur actors, "Salt of the Earth" is a rousing and detailed call to arms that was far ahead of its time in not only attacking the racism of the mine owners, as Hispanic culture was in danger of being written over, but also telling the story from a Hispanic point of view which is not exactly common even in this more enlightened day and age. What's even more exceptional is recognizing the roles that women have played in strikes(one of the characters in the movie should have been a lawyer), and not only in support positions, either, but on the front lines of the picket. In fact, Mother Jones(1837-1930) was a fearless union organizer in her time.

Walter M.
Walter M.

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