Dubious Battle Tactics

Film Review: “In Dubious Battle,” Directed by James Franco, 1917

Movie Review

“In Dubious Battle,” directed by James Franco, 1917

Prime video still has “In Dubious Battle” for a few more days. It’s an interesting and progressive film with a strong pro-worker attitude.

Jim and Mac are farm worker organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1933. Even though the fighting Wobblies were largely crushed in most industries by the red scare during and after World War I, their Agricultural Department outlasted all their other fine efforts. Pulitzer winner John Steinbeck wrote the book around 1937 based on strikes and labor battles in California. It isn’t as well known as his “Of Mice and Men,” nor “Grapes of Wrath,” but it’s about the same people: itinerant farm workers of the Great Depression.

Mac is the old hand. He’s rather cynical as he teaches the neophyte Jim how to focus on agitating a battle to the exclusion of any other considerations. They take jobs as apple pickers in order to encourage the downtrodden workers to rise up and fight their exploiting bosses. In that regard, the film is quite inspirational and really sounds close to what really happened.

Actually, I kind of hope it isn’t what really happened, because the bosses and their hired terrorists seem to get and keep the upper hand. I watched the film with a genuine union organizer with real experience, and she had severe criticisms of the way the strike was begun and handled.

As art, though, the film is pretty good. I don’t know how the producers were able to do it, but they assembled quite an assortment of headliners in the main speaking parts. We spotted Selena Gomez, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Duvall, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris and Bryan Cranston. James Franco directed himself in the main role.

The result is a film that is fine for inspiration, but not for learning organizing tactics. If there were real people like Mac and Jim, they should have learned this: it is not sufficient to fight. It is also necessary to win!

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON.org’s “Workers Beat” radio talk show every Saturday at 9 Central Time. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

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