In 1914, one of the most influential, though tragic, incidents in United States labor history occurred in Ludlow, near Trinidad, Colorado. The coal miners of Colorado Fuel & Iron Company demanded raise and improvement in working conditions. They made a list of seven demands and went into strike in 1913. The Rockefellers, the owner family of the company, simply ignored the worker’s demand, brought in the detective agency to intimidate and terrorize the strikers. In the following April, the Colorado National Guard was brought in and the strike ended in violence. More than twenty people including 10 children were killed. The details of the “Ludlow Massacre” are well documented at University of Denver website.
In “Behind the Mask of Innocence”, Kevin Brownlow lists several movies which were inspired by the Ludlow Massacre. One of them, “The Blacklist (1916)”, was directed by William de Mille, starring Blanche Sweet. Even though the movie was released long after the incident, the echo of victim’s cry were still heard. MOTOGRAPHY praised the realism in the de Mille’s movie:
It is not unusual to see plays dealing with this question or condition in which wither capitalist or the laborer it put in an impossible light. Either the capitalist is hopelessly greedy or the laborer is a malcontent for reasons that are never clearly explained. In these particulars, “The Blacklist” differs from the average; for the capitalist is quite human and the conditions which cause the workers to grumble about slavery and oppression are depicted convincingly.
However, during the course of movie, this story of capitalist-labor relations was eventually pushed aside for the romance between one of the worker’s daughter and the capitalist. Of course, that would become the leverage to solve the whole problem of labor according to the synopsis. It’s 1916. It’s the melodrama. It’s the role of mass entertainment.
What about the reality of the labor issue, then. Newsreels were supposed to bring the reality on the screen. One of the Pathe newsreel cameramen named Victor Miller was dispatched to Ludlow during the autumn of 1913, when the strikers were actually armed up with rifles to fight off aggressive intimidation by the company.
The editor of the Denver Post informed me that there was a real mean strike going on. The miners there were justifiably striking for better wages, treatment and living conditions. The owners of the mines who for all purposes owned Trinidad were militantly determined to break the strike. Up to the time I got there, they had been able to prevent any news not to their liking getting out of the area. When I checked into the hotel, I was met by the local sheriff and told that I had better not take my camera out of the hotel, if I knew what was good for me and wanted to remain healthy. He also told me to leave the town the following day. He did let me wander out of the hotel that evening and I dropped into a local bar where I met a few miners. When they learned my business, they arranged to get my camera, film and suitcase smuggled out of the hotel. Early the next morning they took me to the scene of the strike. It was really a battlefield, trains had been sandbagged and everyone was armed to the teeth.
Denver Post reported about this daredevil “newspaperman”, who shot the battle scene between the strikers and the owner’s ‘troops’.
The bullets came so fast and thick about the newspapermen at the depot that the telephone and telegraph wires overhead were repeatedly struck, as if from hailstones. … He (Victor Miller) stood out in the open, griding away at his camera as calmly as though he was taking moving pictures of one of those ‘actor’ battles.
Taking pictures is one thing. Getting out of the place is another. He got a car to drive him out of the town, but “the locals” learned about it and chased his Model-T: “If my Model-T hadn’t been a bit faster than theirs I would have been buried in Trinidad.” When the newsreel was released in Colorado, it was confiscated by the state’s attorney general and used as evidence in the prosecution of the striking miners.
I always thought I would never be able to see this newsreel. As always, such a precious moving images must have been lost a long time ago. Rotten in a can, forgotten in a forgotten basement. Maybe destroyed by the Rockefellers to expunge their tarnished past. But I discovered this very newsreel at YouTube Library and Archives Canada channel. This is the newsreel of Ludlow mine strikers fighting back, shot by a cameraman named Victor Miller, who later changed his last name to Milner.
Victor Milner went on to become one of the most prolific cinematographers in Hollywood and served as the president of American Society of Cinematographers from 1937 to 1939. His filmography includes “The Love Parade (1929, Dir. Ernst Lubitsch)”, “Trouble in Paradise (1932, Dir. Ernst Lubitsch)”, “One Hour with You (1932, Dir. George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch)”, “Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch)”, “Desire (1936, Frank Borzage)”, “The Lady Eve (1941, Dir. Preston Sturges)”, and “Dark City (1950, Dir. William Dieterle)”. Yes, he is the cinematographer for Lubitsch during his most productive years of the Pre-Code era. That is why all the more fascinating and fitting that he was the one to voice the counter argument against Ernst Lubitsch when Lubitsch complained Hollywood cinematography is “too perfect to be the real thing”. Lubitsch, having seen “La Grande Illusion (1937, Dir. Jean Renoir)” and “Pepe le Moko (1937, Dir. Julien Duvivier), suddenly realized realism was desperately lacking in Hollywood movies. “It doesn’t seem necessary always to take such scrupulous pains to see that every square inch within the camera’s range is lit and photographed with such meticulous technical perfection.” On March 1938 issue of “American Cinematographer”, Victor Milner made reply to Lubitsch “as to realism”, counting many factors governing the Hollywood’s modus operandi. Then, he went on to say this:
I have known many directors who have praised unusual photographic effects seen in other films. But when I have tried to incorporate similar effects in films I have photographed for them, these same directors have been the first – and the most vociferous – in resenting any change from standard “Hollywood camerawork”. Some of these experiments have been made in films photographed for my close friend Director Lubitsch. The retakes of such experiments almost never run to realistic camerawork.
Then, Milner commented “the true answer to Mr. Lubitsch’s query as to whether or not American cinematographers can wield their cameras in a realistic mood is that they can”. Knowing Victor Miller had been wielding his camera in the Ludlow strike, the word “mood” has more bite than it sounds.
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