Salt of the Earth: Communist Subversion or Polictical Activism?

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Salt of the Earth: Communist Subversion or Political Activism?

Salt of the Earth was released in 1954, during the anticommunist McCarthy era by a collection of blacklisted individuals, including screenwriter Michael Wilson, producer Paul Jarrico, and Hollywood 10 director Herbert J. Biberman. Salt is based on the Empire Zinc strike of Local 890 in Bayard County, New Mexico that took place from 1950-1952. In many ways, Salt of the Earth resembles the archetypal American dream by presenting the triumph of ordinary, working class Americans over the forces of discrimination, inequality, and injustice. Salt enjoyed widespread acclaim in Europe, and won prestigious awards in Czechoslovakia and France. Yet in the United States, its production encountered violent opposition from agencies such as the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Labor and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What particular element of Salt made it seem so threatening and subversive?

According to film critic Pauline Kael Salt was nothing more than "shrewd propaganda for the urgent business of the USSR." (Kael, 331-332) She unhesitatingly asserts that Salt is "as clear a piece of communist propaganda as we have had in many years" (Kael 331-332). In short, Kael argues that Salt is fundamentally subversive, threatening and un-American. Yet what does it mean to be subversive in the context of the McCarthy era? The Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun subversive as wishing to "overthrow a regime" (OED). Kael’s argument seems to be congruous to this definition. Does Salt of the Earth intend to overthrow the existing political order and replace it with a communist form of government?

Several scholars have responded to Kael’s communist reading of Salt. Lorence notes that communist ideology took a back seat to the issues of labor, ethnicity and gender (Lorence 23). In addition, producer Paul Jarrico critiqued Kael's opinion as a "one dimensional charge of propagandist intent" that lacked a "historical approach” (Lorence 195). In order to better understand why Salt was deemed subversive it will be necessary to adopt the historical approach, which Kael’s criticisms lack. By doing so one will be able to understand that within the context of the McCarthy era, the themes of labor, minority and women’s rights were labeled as inherently communist.

There have been a variety of interpretations as to why HUAC and critics such as Kael interpreted Salt as, in the nature of things, communist and subversive. Some have suggested that the production's proximity to New Mexico indicated that Biberman, Wilson and Jarrico had direct orders from the Kremlin to build a secret Russian weapon (Boisson 47). Other less imaginative interpretations have simply noted that Salt is subversive and communist because blacklisted individuals produced the film. The complexity of the context and the question, however, demands a more thorough response.

In applying a historically nuanced reading of Salt, one finds that Salt was an expression of social criticism and political activism, designed to challenge and undermine HUAC and fundamental capitalist values. The function of Salt of the Earth therefore is more aptly described by the verb subvert, meaning to "undermine"(OED). Kael and HUAC denounced Salt as subversive and communist because it challenged the conservative McCarthy era values by urging its audience to question the exploitative nature of the capitalist system, ineffectiveness of law and government, and inequality of gender constructs.

Salt challenges its audience to question the exploitative nature of capitalism by presenting the struggle of the worker from the worker’s perspective. Lorence notes that Salt presents a "sympathetic treatment of American labor and worker culture...the film effectively depicted the strike from the workers viewpoint"(Lorence 201). The focus on working class struggles in film, within the context of the 1950’s is a...