WV Film Test Slogan Here

the new coal mine wars – films about MTR

Share This Article

coalcountry-promo-still.jpg

A still from Coal Country by Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller 

Adapted from the essay –

“A Lifetime in the Mines –An Essay on Watching Films about Coal Mining” 

  The next generation of films about coal mine began in 1998 with Charleston filmmaker Robert Gates’ film, “All Shaken Up.”This film was made with U.S. News & World Reporter writer Penny Loeb who wrote the first national story for that publication on the effects of mountaintop removal (MTR)  mining on the people who lived in the communities where this new form of coal mine was taking place. They interviewed 45 residents in southern West Virginia who had their wells destroyed, and their homes seriously damaged by the super-use of explosives that blast the top off mountains. The film was shown by at least one Charleston garden club whose members were horrified when they saw the damage to people’s new homes in the coalfields. The film was also shown at the state library conference at the Greenbrier. Gates made a second film about the effects of MTR in 2003 called “Mucked: Man-Made Disasters – Flash Floods in the Coalfields.” It focused on the wave of major regional flash floods that began on July 8, 2001 in Southern WV counties. Over 300,000 acres of land have been mined by MTR; valley fills have filled in 750 to 1,200 miles of streams.  Six major regional flash floods and the Lyburn Disaster were the result.  The floods had major impacts on 47 communities, 12,000 homes and businesses, and caused an estimated 1 billion dollars in damages. Even some people were killed.  “Mucked” was previewed at the Spring Fling conference for librarians in April 2002 and had its official world premiere in November 2003 at the Shepherdstown American Conservation Film Festival. Between “In Memory of the Land and People and Mucked”, I saw how strip mining morphed into mountaintop removal mining during the 30 year time period.  In October 2002, I programmed a film festival for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition called “The Flooded Out Film Festival,” focusing on films that showed the massive flooding that was caused by mountaintop removal mining. (Pictures and a story about the festival can be seen at – http://www.ohvec.org/galleries/people_in_action/2002/10_10/index.html.) An early version of “Mucked” called “Flood Stories” was shown along with two films from Appalshop including Mimi Pickering’s “Buffalo Creek – An Act of Man” and Tom Hansell’s new film, “Coal Bucket Outlaws.”(2002) Hardy County filmmaker Ray Schmitt traveled from Mathias, WV to present the world premiere of his newest film, “Mountain Memories” that was about Jim Clark, an excellent nature photographer from War,
McDowell County, WV. In the film, Clark talks about his dislike for MTR, destroying the beautiful state that was the subject of his book of photographs by the same name. The film festival received much publicity, and MAY have been one of the causes of the newly created organization, Friends of Coal.

The two MTR films by Gates opened the doors to a flood of another kind – a flood of new films about the merciless destruction caused by MTR coal mine. Both in-state and national filmmakers have learned about the curse, and as a result, made films that have been shown all over the country and world, showing the people who really pay the price for cheap coal. Starting in 1998, immediately after Gates’ “All Shaken Up” was released, other independent filmmakers and the national media started their own exploration of MTR. Lisa Millimet, a New Hampshire resident with WV roots, filmed Larry Gibson on his farm. The 15-minute film was called “Fight toSave Kayford Mountain.” Ted Koppel devoted an episode of “Nightline” to MTR, also interviewing Larry Gibson. It was called “Digging Deep: The Cost of Cheap Energy.”The next year, 1999, Appalshop released a very interesting film on the history of stripmining and MTR called “To Save the Land and People.” This film is still the definitive film made by Appalachians about Appalachians fighting for their land. The film explores the “broad form deed” that was used by the original outsiders who came to Appalachia to steal its coal. Using clips from many other films, it covers the widespread resistance to the contemporary forms of mining. Unfortunately, as far as I know, few people have seen this excellent film that should be required for all anti-MTR activists. 

 In 2000, “Sixty Minutes” produced a story that Ken Hechler feels is still the best media story about MTR. Mike Wallace interviewed many people including Governor Underwood, Secretary of State Hechler, Joe Lovett from the Appalachian Center for the Economy and Environment, James Weekly and others. Gubnatorial candidate Bob Wise used a clip from this episode in his own campaign against Gov. Underwood, defeating him. The producers of “Sixty Minutes” told Wise that it was illegal for him to use their footage, but the damage was done by the time the ad ran on WV television stations. Hechler has shown this story many times, most recently at Swarthmore College when he did a presentation with Larry Gibson on “The Human Cost of Coal.” 

In 2002 a feature documentary was produced about MTR – Sasha Water’s “Razing Appalachia.” I remember seeing the title of the film, and frantically contacting everyone I could to find a copy. Eventually I did, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Waters teaches filmmaking at theUniversity of Iowa. She came to southern West Virginia, interviewing the people who lived in Pigeonroost Hollow, Blair, West Virginia. The time was May 1998. On one side was Arch Coal, America’s second-largest coal company, who planned to expand its mountaintop strip mine above the town. State political leaders and 400 union miners, whose jobs were on the line, joined the coal company. On the other side were the forty families remaining in Blair who were fighting to save their community from being buried under the rock and soil debris of this massive expansion.  The film was very widely shown around the United States, at environmental film festivals and elsewhere. This film was the first feature documentary film to tell the world about MTR.  John Hoskyns-Abrahall, my long-time friend and owner of Bullfrog Films, was a guest at a spring WVIFF event at this time, purchased the rights to this film and still distributes it nationwide.

Another new film in 2002 was Tom Hansell’s Appalshop documentary, “Coal Bucket Outlaws.” At this time, there was a widespread revolt in WV and Kentucky against massively overweight coal trucks. Out-of-control trucks that carried tons and tons of coal were killing children in needless accidents, exceeding the safety limits not only of the trucks but the very highways. Bridges were facing forces beyond their design limits, and people simply felt unsafe on their own highways, both local and interstate. This film, which took a humorous look at the problem, was inspired by Jacob Young’s landmark film, “Dancing Outlaw.”  The film had premiered at the “Flooded Out Film Festival,” and Hansell was traveling all over the region showing it. Ken Hechler spent more than $100,000 of his own money buying ads on TV in support of a law limiting the size of coal trucks in WV which passed by one vote.   2003 was the year that Bob Gates second documentary on the effects of MTR was released. The film has a long title – “Mucked: Man-made Disasters—Flash Floods in the Coalfields.” This film was part of a movement by coalfield citizens to file class action lawsuits against various companies that clean-cut the forests and then blew up the mountains in their backyards. More than any film ever made on MTR, it shows the physical devastation that MTR does by allowing heavy rain to become smashing rivers, rivers that demolished everything in their path.  Quoting from the official description – “Over 300,000 acres of land have been mined by this practice; valley fills have filled in 750 to 1,200 miles of streams.  Six major regional flash floods and the Lyburn Disaster have resulted as well as major impacts on 47 communities, 12,000 homes and businesses, and an estimated 1 billion dollars in damages. People have been killed in these floods.” Gates has exhibited this film all over WV and the region, showing the physical destruction that none of the other films on MTR have shown before, or since.    

   During the five years we have been showing WV films at The South Charleston Museum, SCM has co-sponsored with the WV Labor History Association (WVLHA) the showing  of several films about coal, starting with the night showing McAteer’s film “Monongah 1907″ and “Sludge.” Since then, SCM and WVLHA have shown the DVD of “Harlan County, USA,” (2006), “Coal Camp Memories”(2006), “Mother Jones – The Most Dangerous Woman in America”(2007), “The Widen Film Project”(2008), and “Ken Hechler- In Pursuit of Justice,”(2008).  Other coal-related films shown during the last five years sponsored just by SCM include “The Last Campaign”(2005), “The Kingmaker – Don Blankenship”(2005), Mountain Mourning (2006) with two shorter films by B.J. Gudmundsson that were made with “Mountain Mourning,” “Keeper of the Mountains” on Larry Gibson  and  “Look What They’ve Done  – Maria’s Backyard” about Maria Gunnoe, “Black Diamonds”(2006),  “God’s Gift of a Wild and Wonderful Land”(2007),  and “Rise Up! West Virginia”(2008). SCM also showed part of Tom Hansell’s “The Electricity Fairy” (still not completed).  

Wayne Ewing’s film, “The Last Campaign”(2005) is one of the best films ever made about WV politics. The feature documentary uses clips of “If Elected” and new footage of Warren McGraw’s campaign to seek a second 8 year term on the WV Supreme Court. Don Blankenship, president of Massey Energy, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent millions of dollars to defeat McGraw who was always pro-coal miner. Using outright lies and negative ads paid for by “For the Sake of the Children,” the anti-McGraw forces accused him of putting a convicted pedophile into a school janitor job. The negative campaigning was called the most malicious judicial campaign in American history, making the New York Times and other national publications. Because of this campaign, the WV Legislature passed a law against unlimited funding by non-opponents in WV political campaigns. Recently, the law was struck down and similar groups are currently spending vast sums of money, waging a war against Warren’s brother, Attorney General Darrell McGraw. “Campaign” was shown nationally as part of the International Documentary Association’s collection of award-winning documentaries. It also won “best feature documentary” at the WV Filmmakers Festival in Sutton in 2006 where it was shown in 35 mm at the Elk Theater. This film is probably the best film made to date about the reality of King Coal controlling the politics of WV. The perfect companion film to “The Last Campaign” is Anna Sales’ WVPBS documentary, “The Kingmaker – Don Blankenship.”(2005) (SCM showed both “The Last Campaign” and “Kingmaker” together one night with Attorney General Darrell McGraw present. Anna Sales was present to introduce her film.) This amazing film was shown several times on WVPBS as part of its “Outlook” series. It made the newspapers, and Blankenship called the film “balanced” even though at one point he sued WVPBS. The film shows how Blankenship grew up and still lives in southern WV where he directs the giant coal mine company. Blankenship has continued to make the newspapers in WV on a regular basis, and was chosen as one of the “most powerful men in WV,” as I recall, second only to the governor. (Sales once worked for the Sierra Club and has recently moved out of state with her husband who got a job in Connecticut.)

 Later in 2005, “The Appalachians,” one of the two best series about WV, was released. Produced by Bulltown,Braxton County native Mari-Lynn Evans, the series also included a best-selling book plus an award-winning CD of music used in the series. I worked with Evans for years, helping her find research. Indeed, I put her in touch with Ken Hechler who was interviewed, as I was, but unfortunately, both interviews were not used. Evans drove down from Ohio to show a work-in-progress at the state library conference held in the spring. Eventually, the film was shown on WVPBS after a premiere at The WV Cultural Center where she thanked both WV Film Archives Richard Fauss and me for providing much of the footage for the film. WVLC purchased copies of the series, sending them FREE to every public library in the state. The second and third parts of the series explore the importance of coal mining in great detail, including mountaintop removal mining. Evans is presently finishing her feature documentary on the effects of mountaintop removal mining that is briefly explored in “The Appalachians.” 

 In 2006, there was a general movement by filmmakers to explore MTR. Earlier, ABC’s Nightline series did a show on MTR (1998), CBS’s 60 Minutes (2000), and Sasha Waters, “Razing Appalachia” (2002) did films about MTR. Gates did his second MTR film, “Mucked” (2003) and Jeff Barrie created “Kilowatt Ours” (2004) about the energy crisis in America, including footage about MTR. (The film had its WV premiere at The La Belle Theater, sponsored by the Sierra Club. Mayor Richie Robb gave the keys to the city to filmmaker Barrie. Recently, an updated version of the film was shown nationally on PBS stations.) Appalshop released its own film on MTR called “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear,” (2005) based on an essay by Wendell Berry who was responding to the 9/11 Event, writing that MTR showed true violence against the world. (This film, as far as I know, has never been shown in WV.) In spring 2006, SCM presented the world premiere of Catherine Pancake’s feature documentary, “Black Diamonds.”(2006) Ken Hechler attended the event since he is interviewed in the film.  “Black Diamonds” was the second film, after “Razing Appalachia”, to receive widespread showings around Appalachia and the country. Pancake, a native of Romney now living inBaltimore, had worked with her sister Ann to make the film showing the lives of people who were damaged by local MTR mines.  The film won the Paul Robeson Award, and it was shown at The Museum of Modern Art in NYC as part of the Museum’s “Documentary Fortnight” series. (Ann released her novel, “Strange as This Weather Has Been” in 2007.)  A group of high school students in Pennsylvania produced a very high quality short film about MTR in 2006 called “Bringing Down the Mountains.” Ken Hechler gave me the information that led me to the film that I find to be amazingly concise, accurate, and touching. My review in “Graffiti” magazine helped the students atGreensburg
Salem High School to receive many more requests for the film. WV filmmakers B.J. Gudmundsson and Allen Johnson include excerpts of the film on their DVD of “Mountain Mourning.”(2006) 
B.J. Gudmundsson, a Lewisburg-based filmmaker, started her filmmaking career with “Out of the Storm – The Galford Lumber Story”(2002). She worked with Pocahontas County librarian Allen Johnson on the film that documents a local lumber company that moved to New England to help after a devastating storm destroyed millions of trees.   In 2006, Gudmundsson and Johnson made their first of several films about MTR, “Mountain Mourning” (2006).  This three-part film explores the beliefs of “Christians for the Mountains” and presents biographies of two of the leading anti-MTR people, Maria Gunnoe and Larry Gibson, along with excerpts from “Bringing Down the Mountains” and “A Call to Action.”  They worked together on two more MTR films. “God’s Gift of a Wild and Wonderful Land (2007) was commissioned by Christians for the Mountains and the Wilderness Coalition. Around this time Bill Moyers did several stories on his PBS show on Christian environmentalists, showing that not all Christians supported MTR and global warming. One of the people he chose to profile was Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains. The latest film by Gudmundsson is her own personal story exploring the effects of MTR on the citizens of southern WV. It is called “Rise Up!
West Virginia” (2008), having its world premiere at SCM La Belle. Since then the film has been shown around the country, on local public access stations, and will be shown this fall in various cities around West Virginia as part of a “coal film festival.”
 Johnson was also one of several people shown in the 2008 compilation film, “Renewal” which investigates how different faiths including Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims around the country are dealing with different environmental threats. This film is unique in that it does span the country and different religions, spending about 10 minutes on each of the different groups. Unfortunately, the film has not been shown in WV as far as I know. I will be showing the part about Johnson at the 2008 WV Library Association Conference to be held at The Greenbrier Resort. (B.J. Gudmundsson, who lives near the resort, will present her own life work on film at the conference.)
Michael C. O’Connell of Haw River Films, located in North Carolina, directed “Mountain Top Removal” (2006), his film about MTR. This film is almost entirely filmed in WV. Like “Razing Appalachia” and “Black Diamonds,” he has promoted the film worldwide, receiving top awards at film festivals including the Reel Current Award at the 2008 Nashville Film Festival, presented by Al Gore. The film has been shown in
Europe, truly getting the word out about MTR. It was shown in spring 2008 at The Appalachian Film Festival in Huntington, WV where it won second place for “best documentary.” 
 
(As I am writing this, an art professor from The University of California,
Santa Cruz, who was born and raised in WV, is interviewing Ken Hechler in the WVLC conference room. She is making a film about MTR, focusing on Hechler’s efforts to stop strip mining and MTR.)
 Virginia Bendell Moore was a communications student at the
University of Virginia when she created “Moving Mountains” (2006) an excellent film on the effects of mountaintop removal mining, mainly in southern West Virginia. Funding to produce it came from a
University of Virginia media grants and was made at the Digital Media Lab. She uses classic film clips, borrowed from “Harlan County, USA” and other sources to counterpoise the scenes of destruction and denial that take place on camera. The film opens with WV politicians like Earl Ray Tomlin and Senator Jay Rockefeller talking about the importance of coal to the state. Gov. Manchin’s speech about ”
West Virginia – Open for Business” along with his statements about “moving WV to the forefront of the coal industry” are also shown. President of the WV Coal Association, Bill Raney, is interviewed, talking about the coal industry being “the real environmentalists,” echoing what Warren Hylton, president of Patents Coal, says. There is nothing in the film about the many coal mine deaths that took place that year. The “usual suspects” are interviewed on the anti-MTR side – Larry Gibson, Ed Wiley, and Maria Gunnoe. Also interviewed is Lenny Kohm from Appalachian Voices, Sam Cook, Appalachian studies professor at Virginia Tech, Kenny from
LoganCounty about the bad water and others. Unfortunately, this film has had few screenings. It took me a long time to obtain a copy.  Since You Tube began flourishing around this time, several excellent films about resistance to MTR were posted, most notably “The National Memorial for the Mountains.” Now there are many, many short films posted at YouTube and elsewhere that show the effects of MTR. In 2007, The Charleston Gazette posted a 5-minute interview with Kathy Mattea who has become an anti-MTR activist. She released a new CD called “Coal,” using some footage shot by B.J. Gudmundsson in a video from the album. A recent web-based film is called “Topless America.”  It features Teri Blanton and Maria Gunnoe speaking at Mountain Justice Camp in spring 2008. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7AX3rFye2o)   Two of the most recent films about MTR are David Novack’s “Burning the Future – Coal in America” (2008) and a film version of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s book, “Crimes Against Nature.”(2008) (Release has been delayed.)  I have not seen the Kennedy film yet, but I have watched Novack’s film which has been shown widely in WV and around the country and world. It has won many awards including “best film” at the 2008 WV Filmmakers Festival in Sutton held just last month. Novack has worked in the film industry for many years, mainly in the sound area. When he traveled to Appalachia several years ago, he learned about MTR and started working on the film. The film was shown commercially in NYC and LA and on the Sundance Channel several times. It recently was shown on WVPBS and other PBS stations around the country. Kennedy’s film was shown at The Aspen Film Festival and elsewhere. I am now trying to get a copy to review.  In 2007,
Mari-Lynn Evans, the producer of “The Appalachians,” began making her own feature film about MTR. Her new film is co-sponsored by The Sierra Club, one of the major sponsors of “The Appalachians.” She has sent her film crews all over Appalachia, interviewing “the usual suspects” including Ken Hechler, Maria Gunnoe, Larry Gibson and many others. She has also commissioned Shirley Stewart Burns, the author of the recent bestselling, award-winning documentary book, “Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities.” She presently plans to release the film and book in August 2009. 
 
 In June 2008, the FX cable channel presented the first program of the third season of WV native son Morgan Spurlock’s series, “30 Days.”  Famous for a Sundance award-winning film, “Super Size Me!,” Spurlock created an entire limited series for FX using the same idea from his film – What is it like to do something for 30 days, a month, that is very painful – like eating McDonald’s food. He started the original season of the series living with his girl friend in Columbus, Ohio, working at minimum wage jobs. In 2007, he returned to Southern West Virginia where he stayed with an underground mine supervisor, working the regular day shift for 30 days as a “red hat.” He went to Bolt,
West Virginia and lived with Dale and Sandy Lusk. Dale, the supervisor of the mine where Morgan works, has mined coal for 35 years and introduces Morgan to a miner’s way of life. Morgan gains an understanding of the financial benefits that draw people to coal mine, but also learns, first hand, the dangerous conditions that miners must face every day.   As a new miner, Morgan is assigned much of the grunt work, including plastering, building wooden roof supports, shoveling coal and hauling heavy equipment. On his days off, Morgan leaves the mine to examine some of the bigger issues surrounding the coal industry. He meets with Peggy Cohen, 36, the daughter of a miner killed in 2006 in Sago, West Virginia mine explosion. Morgan also talked to both coal industry executives and environmentalists about surface mining and mountaintop removal to gain perspective on the pros and cons of an industry that provides the
U.S. with the raw materials for 50% of our electricity. I watched the program and really enjoyed it. Spurlock is extremely sympathetic, intelligent, and hardworking. I hope that this episode will be released in summer 2009 on DVD.
 
One of the few films produced in Ohio about coal is called “Coal Ties – Yellow Springs to Meigs County.” Meigs County is located across the Ohio River from Parkersburg, WV. Apparently, it has its own coal mines, and several coal-fired electricity plants. The film explores resistance by people in both Yellow Springs, Ohio, which is a little more than 100 miles northwest of Meigs County, and the people of  Meigs County about plans to build more plants there. The citizens and leaders of Yellow Springs are concerned about the carbon pollution that the new plants will cause given that Ohio already is the most polluting state in the country. Some people in Meigs County do not enjoy the endless explosions used to blast the coal out of the land there. Others feel that the coal mine is necessary to the economy of the county. It was a relief NOT to see mountains destroyed as they are in all of the anti-MTR films. It was unsettling to see that Americans have to face the energy crisis very directly in our current situation.  In April 2008, the world premiere of Russ Barbour and Chip Hitchcock’s feature documentary “Ken Hechler – In Pursuit of Justice” was held atMarshall University. Copies of the DVD were given to all WV public libraries and schools in spring 2009.   I include this film because Hechler spent much of his time in Congress and as WV Secretary of State dealing with the ravages of coal mine on the people of WV and the country. His greatest achievement in Congress was authoring the Federal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. (He was honored at a ceremony in August 2008 at the Charleston Black Lung Office.) Hechler truly tried to pursue justice for America’s coal miners, and as WV Secretary of State, he fought for the rights of people whose land was being destroyed by MTR.        Robert Gates, the leading independent filmmaker in the country with regard to films about coal mining, released two new films on DVD this year. His film on the WV Highlands Conservancy called “40 Years” was filmed most at their celebration of achieving this anniversary in October 2007. Anyone who watches this film which had its world premiere at the Appalachian Studies Association meeting in spring 2009 will meet many of the people who have spent their lifetimes trying to save the environment in our state. Gates’ second film was actually made on February 26, 1972 during The Buffalo Creek Disaster. Mimi Pickering used parts of this film in her two landmark films on the Disaster. Many other media creations including the History Channel have used pieces of film. Now, finally, after all these years, Gates has released the footage without music to show just what he saw during one of the most horrendous events in American history.  After 10 years, Ross Spears and Jamie Ross released their three-part PBS series, ”
Appalachia: A History of Mountains and People.” This series is the first environmental history of Appalachia, and thus focuses on the geology and ecology of the area, using E.O. Wilson as the chief expert. It is fascinating to learn about the area, including of course the people, but mainly the natural world that Native Americans and then European immigrants found when they came to the region. Unfortunately, given the time limits of the series, little time is spent on the history of coal mining, both historically and presently.  This is not to say that some history of coal mining is NOT included, and people such as Denise Giardina are interviewed about the effects of current forms of mining, especially mountaintop removal mining.
 
On June 20th, 2009, The West Virginia Humanities Council released its four-part PBS series, ” West Virginia – A Film History” on DVD. This series, as I wrote above, has an extensive history of coal mining in West Virginia. Overall, it probably is the best film to date to explain the many facets of what coal has meant to the people of a state whose economy has been dominated by the realities of the coal industry.  Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller, the producer and director of “The Appalachians,” finally released their new feature documentary, “Coal Country,” on July 11th, 2009 when the film had its world premiere at The WV State Culture Center. Originally it was supposed to be shown at The South Charleston Museum (like “Black Diamonds” by Catherine Pancake and several films on coal mining by B.J. Gudmundsson.) The SCM board canceled the event after they received information that protesters would be packing the theater, some carrying guns. The producer asked the board to provide metal detectors and lots of police support which the city was unable to provide. Evans finally got Kay Goodwin, the Secretary of Arts and Education at the WV State Capitol, to present the films at theCultural
Center, the site of the premiere of Evans’ PBS series, “The Appalachians.”  Evans and Geller spent four years working on this film, working with The Sierra Club and many, many other people to create the most “balanced” film to date on the effects of coal mining on Appalachia in the 21st century. “Balanced” in that miners, coal company owners and coal industry leaders who support mountaintop removal mining, non-union mining, etc. are interviewed along with many people, including retired miners, who are very much against various aspects of coal mining, mountaintop removal mining in particular. This film will be entered in film festivals around the country and world, and along with the book and CD, will present people with some things they might now know about the source of 50 % of the electricity in America.
 At this point in time, I am waiting to see two new films about coal mining. One is called “MINE,” former called “The Ghosts of Appalachia,” and “On Coal River,” starring Ed Wiley whose daughter is going to school at the Marsh Fork Elementary in Raleigh County, infamous for sitting below over 2 billion gallons of coal sludge and near a coal silo, both owned by Massey Energy.  Thanks to research done by The Library of Congress, I have learned much more about the first Hollywood style feature film ever made in West Virginia, “The Key to Power” (or “The Romance of Coal.” They e-mailed me 15 pages of reviews of the film that were published after it was released in 1920. The film was actually filmed in 1918, but because of the world influenza pandemic that killed millions, it was only shown in theaters in 1920. A book in the West Virginia Library Commission called “Southern Mountaineers in Silent Films” by J.W. Williamson lists 10 films connected to plots set in
West Virginia including “Key to Power.” The introduction of the book states that films about coal miners were one of the main sub-genres of silent films of the silent era, starting with “Molly McGuires, or “Labor Wars in the Coal Mines”(1908).”The Key to Power” was based on a story by Caroline Gentry, a native of West Virginia who worked in
Hollywood. She eventually became the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Film Archive, and created the first compilation film biography ever made on anyone. (The collection was given to the Library of Congress and there is a posted essay on the collection and online clips of the films used to create the compilation film that was shown around the country.) I am continuing my research on this film. Unfortunately, like 99 % of all silent films, it no longer exists. However, the many reviews reveal that “The Key to Power” was well received by audiences and would have interest for our current age given that it focuses on the importance of coal in winning WWI. A melodramatic romance is included of course but in a world where energy is of key “strategic importance,” a new version of this film might be well received.