NR | 1 h 35 min | Drama | 1960
Producer Richard Attenborough’s valiant film exposes the fascist-communist nature of militant trade unions. It depicts worker leaders profiting off the pay and perks of capitalism but without compunction, wielding communist or anarchist means to exploit workers who want nothing more than honestly earned wages. It argues that anti-unionism isn’t anti-worker. If anything, it may be more pro-worker than unionism. It contrasts union stooges provoking hooliganism with conscientious workers, preserving their right to work.
Machine-worker Tom Curtis (Richard Attenborough) works grueling shifts at an engineering factory in England. Conscientious on the shop floor, he’s wedded neither to his work nor his workmates. He enjoys a round of beer or a game of football as much as the next guy. But he works for one reason alone: to protect and provide for his two children and his Italian wife, Anna (Pier Angeli), who is expecting their third child. He isn’t in it to please pushy worker-spokesman Bert Connolly (Bernard Lee).
Prompted by union leaders (who remain off camera), Connolly and his dreaded works committee incite a work strike on flimsy grounds. That polarizes workers.
The old guard balks. Juggling family and financial commitments, they’ve seen manipulative union tactics before. Strikes rarely deliver their promises: better wages, work hours, safety, hygiene. A strike isn’t the silver bullet that unions claim it is. Besides, who pays workers when they’re not working? So, some older workers and Curtis continue working, braving threats from striking workers. Bachelors, though, are game for brinkmanship. Like children, excited over an unexpected school holiday, they rejoice over extra time (that a strike gifts them) to date, drink, play football, or laze about.
Eloquent Exposé of ExploitationScreenwriter and co-producer Bryan Forbes uses the colloquialism of communism to critique communist-inspired unionism. Instead of the duplicitous communist prefix of “comrade,” his worker leaders use a similarly sly word, “brother,” to pretend a familial, equal connection with workers.
A works committee member tells workers that the committee has “moved” (implying that it has decided) to strike work if the management ignores worker demands. Never mind that workers aren’t sure they had any demands in the first place. So, Connolly suggests a less unilateral proposal to pacify workers: that the committee wouldn’t dream of deciding without hearing them out.
Put to vote “in democratic fashion,” almost to a man, the workers first protest the very idea of a strike. “In disputes of this kind,” they wonder, why should committee folk, fattened on the largesse of corrupt union bosses, be the ones to tell those in worker overalls that sacrifices have to be made.
To union bosses, strikes are a ploy to puff up their purses at the expense of workers, who lack the financial cushion to hold out in prolonged face-offs with management. Sure, there’s bargaining. But how on earth is it collective? The committee coaxes most workers to strike, but when it is unable to win over conscientious objectors like Curtis, it punishes them: They dump trash at doorsteps, cut clotheslines, shatter windows, batter bicycles, and burn cars.
Attenborough dazzles as Curtis, whose integrity to his family helps clarify his choices, even if both—his integrity and his choices—anger his activist friends. Angeli is endearing as Anna, struggling to hold her family together and standing by her besieged husband. At one point, her rage at Wallace’s cowardice turns so incoherent that she breaks into her native Italian to have her say.
Ironically, it’s not the management but Connolly’s militant unionism that makes machines out of men, without minds of their own, turned on (and off) at will, doing as they’re told, and coercing co-workers to similarly comply. Their response to Curtis’s insistence on his right to work is one giant, childish sulk: the silent treatment.
Left-wing activists nearly banned the film at the time it was released. Yes, it depicted a responsible worker as a pillar of prosperity. But it went further. It dared to depict his relationship with management as one of respectful interdependence, not one of demeaning dependence that unions love playing up. Workers help deliver prosperity, but the film asks: Can workers do this without the capital and enterprise of producers and traders in the first place?