Class Struggle on TV

Posted on May 22, 2013 by

Most movies about unions miss the boat.

Even Norma Rae (made nearly 35 years ago), funneled class struggle through Hollywood’s favorite device: heroic character transformation.  Cinematic storytelling tends to distort the “collective” nature of labor struggle.

Titanic: Blood and Steel, an “Encore Original” series released last year during the centennial of the great disaster, would typically be assigned to my films to avoid list.  But clicking through a few segments of the 12-part production about the ship’s construction caught my attention.

Scenes depicting “industrial warfare” between the Irish Catholic proletariat and the Belfast Protestant manufacturing elite (aided by the British army) were provocative and seemed almost authentic.

Watching a bit more that week, I pieced together the backdrop – Irish “home rule” vs. the UK – and was seduced (I’ll admit) into the story’s central love theme between a “metallurgist” and an Italian immigrant “copyist.”

Twelve hours of TV time is a big commitment (after a few nights of out-of-order viewing on Encore, I watched the whole deal in-sequence on Netflix streaming) but there may be enough here to keep you involved.  Especially if you’re interested in film versions of labor history that don’t look completely stale and clichéd.

Comments (5)


  1. Gavin Koon says:

    Do not forget, Titanic labor issues still exist. I remember difficulties with James Cameron’s movie – we had labor issues in old with the production – myth continues….

  2. John Connolly says:

    Interesting that Lou would stumble upon “Titanic: Blood & Steel”; I thought I might be the only person in North America to have watched the entirety of this historically interesting, yet dramatically sluggish, soap-a-rama — OK, maybe 3 Class-Conscious Canadian Trotskyists watched it too.

    But — as Bill Maher says — I kid The Titan-iacs. AND my fellow Trotskyists.

    Sad to say, the show was torpid and dramatically stillborn, and its massive use of not-quite-right Computer-Generated-Imagery to create Ye Olde Belfast and The Great Ship was pretty creepy — a kind of “Your-Brain-on-Drugs” look.

    I enjoyed the work of most of the cast — lots of good authentic NI accents. And the divisions of the Irish working class along religious and nationalist lines was agonizingly believable. Indeed the stresses and strains in the employer class was fairly portrayed as well, led by the always exceptional Derek Jacoby as the Chairman of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, himself caught up in the cross fire between his own deeply felt Liberal Party principles (mildly pro-Home Rule) and the coarser, reactionary policies among the English Tories and Unionist Irish-Protestant Bosses. The episodes detailing how the Nationalist and Unionist (essentially Catholic & Protestant) workers came together despite prejudice, mistrust and ill-will to form a union and build power only to see it shatter under the hammer blows of sectarian and British connivance, echo even til today both in Ireland and the US, and hold hard lessons yet to be learned.

    There were lapses in the acting work — sadly mostly among the few US performers — appearing mainly to flow from under-rehearsal which is often imposed by very brief time commitments from star (and star-ish) level performers who command high salaries for just a few days of production. Producers are loath to go even a day over schedule with these performers because very high penalty payments generally kick-in. It is a bit of a shock to see how disjointed a cast can become when star-type performers essentially “parachute” into a show, burn through a maze of scenes and are gone in a flash — it’s as if there were two different productions entirely sharing the same screen.

    The script was heavy-handed with far too much melodramatic hand-wringing and contrived plotting. As is often the case a solid cast, seemingly determined to do the story and subject matter justice, compensated for the weak writing in significant measure. Of interest here too is the mixture of Italian, British and Irish actors — likely a result of the production being a cooperative collaboration between Italian TV, BBC/NI, and Bord Scannen Eirean – the Irish Film Board … not to mention it was partly shot in Croatia!

    The really redeeming quality the show brought to air was its subject matter: Class Struggle, Irish Independence and religious complications in the Belfast working class. The story so wanted to be more than mildly compelling — pity the scripts weren’t better to help it get there.

    One of the early heroes in the series was Jim Larkin, founder along with James Connolly of the Irish Transport & General Workers Union — the progenitor of Ireland’s largest labor federation today. Larkin also became a major US Labor Leader playing a role in the massive Patterson (NJ) silk workers strikes just before WWI. Connolly of course went on to recruit, train and lead a workers’ militia — the Irish Citizen Army — which with the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s Volunteers fought the 1916 Easter Rebellion against British Rule. Connolly along with the Gaelic Poet Padraic Pearse and 15 other nationalist leaders were shot by a British firing squad a month after the defeat of the Rising.

    But the fuse was well lit, and Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army arose from the ashes.
    And that, as they say, is another story.

    An interesting and superior take on the class issues in the Irish War for Independence and the horrid Civil War that followed is Ken Loach’s film “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”. And “Michael Collins” starring Liam Neeson in the title role is very good as well.

    I will pay tribute to “Titanic; Blood & Steel” insofar as it does portray some of the conflicts and contradictions — technical and political — that mightily impacted the actual construction of “Titanic” in time for her date with dread destiny. Most of the “Titanics” heretofore have focused on the misty-eyed tragedies of the upper-deck passengers on that maiden, and final voyage, especially the rich and pampered, with their grand gestures of self-sacrifice (“Women & Children First!) and stiff-upper-lips. The working class emigrants in steerage are usually given short shrift as hapless victims. “Blood & Steel” did show some of those very same people as conflicted, determined yet heroic in trying to take hold of their own destiny before the boarded the ship.

    So thanks to Lou for watching the 12-hour Encore marathon and being moved to comment on it. I never actually thought I’d have a chance to discuss it with anyone.

  3. Mark Gibney says:

    As well as the greatest hits of Victorian nursery rhymes about see-saws and the dangers to old women of eating a horse, my Dublin grandmother would lead me in choruses of ‘eight hours work, eight hours play, eight hours sleep and eight bob a day’. Big Jim’s spirit lives.

  4. rick chertoff says:

    You’ve touched on a very relevant aspect of labor and class struggle that proves very tricky for many, namely, “settler states”. That’s what Northern Ireland originally was, and the ramification are still at play. I believe settler states have certain characteristics which are observable here, since we were a settler state. Ditto for Australia, and more obviously in So. Africa, and Israel, a completely un-reformed settler state. The English knew by implanting foreigners with a different religion in N. Ireland, that they would never “go native” and therefore always have to fight the indigenous Irish to maintain the dominance that the Empire them with. Ah -religion Is most useful after all! Ring a bell? If you want to prevent unity implant a foreign “settler” class who will never fight for the equality of workers because they would either be killed or obsorbed. That’s why there were no “Arabs” allowed on the “Socialist” Kibbutzim – and that’s why “Arabs” have no rights in occupied Palestine: “Bloody Wogs” (dirty little savages, undeserving of rights- not “workers”) 300 year war, anyone? No unity with Arab workers as long as they sit on “our” soil (&our oil). So the U.S. Empire supports Israel as Brit Empire N. Irish Protestants. But maybe N. Ireland proves there can be a modus vivendi after all, albeit with no re-distribution of the wealth.

  5. Eamon Davern says:

    The man was all shot through that came to day into the Barrack Square And a soldier I, I am not proud to say that we killed him there They brought him from the prison hospital and to see him in that chair I swear his smile would, would far more quickly call a man to prayer. Maybe, maybe I don’t understand this thing that makes these rebels die Yet all men love freedom and the spring clear in the sky. I wouldn’t do this deed again for all that I hold by As I gazed down my rifle at his breast but then, then a soldier I. They say he was different, kindly too apart from all the rest. A lover of the poor-his wounds ill dressed. He faced us like a man who knew a greater pain than blows or bullets ere the world began: died he in vain. Ready, Present, and him just smiling, Christ I felt my rifle shake His wounds all open and around his chair a pool of blood And I swear his lips said, “fire” before my rifle shot that cursed lead And I, I was picked to kill a man like that, James Connolly

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