07 June 2010

Butte: the Original -- a review of the film

A lot of films have been made about Butte, Montana. The rich history and interesting culture lend themselves to the screen. As author Edwin Dobb (himself the scriptwriter for the film Butte America) says, "Butte is that little stage where the history of America played."

A new "documentary" film, Butte: the Original, opened this past weekend. The film was funded to the tune of one-half million dollars by ARCO-British Petroleum, the corporation responsible for America's largest Superfund site, $1 billion and counting, here in western Montana (though that honor might soon be eclipsed by BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). The film is an interesting historical artifact and truly a primary source. It is most decidely not historical in any credible sense.

First, a description: At 84 minutes, the film opens with a personal introduction by the narrator, Butte native Tom Satterly, who mined for a brief time as a young man. It proceeds to an overview of the Speculator Mine Disaster of 1917, which killed 168 miners, as the critical event defining Butte's unique character. The film then ticks through a bunch of historical characters (in no particular order) ranging from national figures such as Evel Knievel to local figures such as Nickel Annie. It then moves to the collapse of the underground mining economy and concludes with the construction of the 90-foot tall Our Lady of the Rockies religious statue.

In terms of historical criticism, Butte: the Original provides little context for what happened here and even less explanation for why it happened. Events simply unfold in a passive way -- "Frank Little was killed" and "underground mining ended" and "the Columbia Gardens were torn down" -- with no active agent that kills Frank Little or stops mining or tears down the Gardens.

As Dick Maney, the director, said, "the most important message that comes out of this film for me is that Butte people love Butte." In that, the film succeeds brilliantly: it is a feel-good homage to those who already know and like our little city. Anyone who does not already know Butte would probably not get much out of the film.

In examining the film as a primary historical document, however, I find it interesting. My analysis is based on what the film leaves out as well as what it does present. The film omits any explanation of corporate or political responsibility for the dangerous working conditions that killed so many miners, the murder of labor leader Frank Little, the martial law occupation of the town by National Guard, the end of underground mining or the closure of the Berkeley Pit, the success of the unions in improving conditions, and the success of the EPA & environmental groups in promoting Superfund cleanup. The fact that uptown Butte is a highly contaminated EPA Superfund site is never mentioned at all! Credit for funding the film is even given to "The Atlantic Richfield Company"--never mind that the company has been a subsidiary of British Petroleum since 2000 and was known simply as "ARCO" long before that.

In Butte: the Original, miners and citizens are like hapless children who must immediately "forget" the bad things that happen to them in order to prepare for the next act of abuse. The Company -- whether the Anaconda Company, Arco-BP, or Dennis Washington's Montana Resources -- are always the powerful father who must not be challenged. Rebellion, growing up, or talking back simply makes life unsafe.

Thus the film portrays Butte as a culture of co-dependency and abuse where bad things are forgotten and the strong (abusive) father is idolized: "No, teacher, Father did not beat me and cause this black eye. I, ah, fell. It was my fault." Children might tell the truth among themselves, but truth is concealed from the outside world.The film's lesson: safety depends upon keeping the strong (abusive) father in charge.


Jim said...

I understand the consternation about the historical accuracy and the lack of explanation of the "root causes" of items from the film. Would you offer as an alternative a different piece to view that has a bit more truism to its presentation?

EcoRover said...

Hi Jim, the Butte America film is much better as a historical piece, nevermind that it repeats the myth about Butte having 100,000 or more people (there is simply no historical basis for that exagerration). I recommend the uncut version--PBS cut some important footage comparing Butte with other mining communities.

For a book, read Janet Finn's comparison of Butte with its sister city Chuquicamata (the "real" richest hill on earth).

I love Butte, warts & all, and believe strongly we should understand it as a historical totality.

Janie said...

With a BP subsidiary sponsoring this film, it's credibility is automatically doubtful. Sounds like the film left out all the most important parts of the story.

troutbirder said...

I knew some of this but not all the details. I had done history lessons on the great Colorado strikes and the Progressive Era. Each time my sons and I passed thru Butte heading to Rock Creek those towering remants of the mines left me with a cold chill.

Richard Gibson said...

I agree, that this film seemed to be made for the people of Butte, while "Butte America" tried to encapsulate the outline of all of Butte's history for those who know/knew nothing about it.

I don't think Arco's sponsorship had any visible impact on it. There was certainly no whitewashing of problems, nor glorifying of restoration - just laying out Butte and Butte people, almost a memoir.

To my mind both this film and Butte America are as true and as honest as a film can be, in an hour and a half, about a place that can barely be outlined in that short time. The have different focuses, and will be useful and valued in different ways by different audiences.

Anonymous said...

Mr Gibson,

The film was "true and honest" so far as what it did show.

The film was not "true and honest" in leaving out the critical parts of our story.

Our families and the environment paid a heavy price for the profits that the Copper Kings hauled out of the town. This goes for Dennis Washington also. The ARCO-British Petroleum Company has not been honest about their debt to the town. Just the same really as their dishonesty about the Gulf oil spill. Always lying to minimize the problem as if lies make problems go way.