TV eye

Published in Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

RTÉ One, 8 June
Directed by Desmond Bell for Asylum Pictures & Poolbeg Productions
by Eamon O’Flaherty


The Anaconda copper mine, Butte, Montana, USA. (Asylum Pictures)

The Anaconda copper mine, Butte, Montana, USA. (Asylum Pictures)

The United States was becoming the greatest industrial power in the world on the eve of the First World War. Much of its phenomenal growth was due to the fact that waves of immigration from Europe and Asia supplied armies of workers to serve the new Colossus. Butte, Montana, was, in the early twentieth century, a booming copper town dominated by the Anaconda Copper Company, the largest in the US. As the mines expanded, up to 100,000 people, mainly immigrants from Ireland and Finland, were sucked into Butte at a critical time in history. Rebel Frontier is primarily an account of the explosive tensions generated by labour unrest in Butte in 1916 and 1917. It is an interesting case-study of the tense and often violent history of American industrialisation in the early twentieth century.

The role of Irish immigrants in the industrial history of the US is substantial. High concentrations of Irish immigrants in American cities, combined with traditions of political and social organisation that were imported from Ireland, made the Irish comparatively well organised and poised to play an important role in the development of American trade unions. By 1900, however, the Irish wave of immigration had been succeeded by substantial immigration from Central and Eastern Europe. By the time large-scale immigration from Finland started before 1914, there was an established Irish presence in Butte. Fourteen Catholic churches and entire districts of the city, such as Corktown, reflected the scale of the Irish presence. Historians and survivors such as John ‘The Yank’ Harrington, born in Ireland in 1903, interviewed for the film, suggested that the newly arrived Finns had political as well as ethnic differences from the existing Irish community. The Finns were seen as more radical—or red—than the Irish, who dominated town politics and the police force and also the Butte Miners’ Union.

In common with many American companies, the Anaconda company ruthlessly sought to suppress union militancy among the miners, especially among the Finnish workers, who had a reputation for militancy. Inter-ethnic tensions were present in the company’s sacking of 200 Finnish miners in 1914 for labour militancy. The Miners’ Union did nothing to resist the sackings and communal tension flared in June 1914, with riots and attacks by militants on the union hall. A series of events in Butte and the wider world changed this situation in 1917 and produced an overwhelming solidarity among the miners and a showdown which ranged the miners and radical trade unionists against the company and the state.



Surviving workers pay their respects at the grave of IWW organiser Frank Little, murdered by Pinkerton agents at the height of the strike. (Asylum Pictures)

Surviving workers pay their respects at the grave of IWW organiser Frank Little, murdered by Pinkerton agents at the height of the strike. (Asylum Pictures)

World War I enhanced the strategic importance of the copper mines, especially as America joined the war in 1917. As the film makes clear, both the Irish and the Finns were unsympathetic to American entry into the war as an ally of the British and Russian empires. This translated into opposition to the war and especially to the conscription of immigrants into the US army. Finns and Irish alike were opposed to the Alien Registration Order of 1917 and thus confronted a virulent patriotic reaction across the US in the course of 1917. The Finns were also sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, as it offered the prospect of ensuring Finnish independence from Russia. In an atmosphere of patriotic war fever, ethnic groups were open to the charge of being un-American. Worse, the European immigrant population could be portrayed as a hotbed of red revolutionaries and anarchists. A mixture of ethnic tension, labour unrest and class politics combined to make Butte a battlefield in the summer of 1917.

Butte was a capitalist frontier town worthy of the pen of Berthold Brecht. The spread of militant union agitation, notably through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a nationally organised syndicalist organisation, confronted a company which, in common with many others in the US, was prepared to use organised violence to eradicate union militancy and break strikes. Anaconda employed Pinkerton agents as a private detective force, collecting information on potential troublemakers. One of these was the great detective writer Dashiell Hammett, who is made part-narrator in the film. State and municipal intelligence agencies were also present in the hunt for socialists and anarchists. One witness described the company’s use of searchlights to help observe the city streets in 1917. The political agitation against the Alien Registration Order in mid-1917 led to riots in Butte and the presence of the National Guard. The tense situation was inflamed by a disastrous fire in one of the mines on 7 June in which perhaps 200 miners died, partly because the company had sealed escape bulkheads with concrete as a security measure. The result was a spontaneous strike that lasted for six months until broken by a combination of company and military violence. The film focuses closely on the murder of Frank Little, an IWW organiser, by a group of armed Pinkerton agents. The murder was a lynching that intimidated other union militants and helped to defeat the strike. There is a suggestion that Hammett may have been involved and that his revulsion at the episode may account for his later support for radical causes.


The Butte strike created solidarities between the workers that transcended their ethnic differences. Irish and Finns found a sort of melting-pot in trade union organisation. These trends in industrial America were vigorously resisted by employers and by the state. The government’s tacit and open support for union-busting and strike-breaking during the war continued through the red scare of the post-war period, and became quite intense in the red scare of the early 1920s. The execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 typified the rough justice meted out to foreign radicals. Socialism and labour militancy were denounced as foreign and un-American, with lasting consequences for the development of the United States in the twentieth century.

Desmond Bell’s film was a sympathetic account of the events in Butte from the perspective of the miners. Less successful, perhaps, was the use of Hammett as the fictional source. This added drama to the story but left some confusion as to where history ended and imaginative reconstruction began. The use of archive footage, interspersed with extracts from contemporary films, helped to recreate the scene, though one was often left to guess as to which images were actually of Butte, Montana, as opposed to, for example, the Passaic strike of 1926. The vividness of the survivors’ accounts of the period was remarkable.


Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in history at University College Dublin.


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