The film projects a fictionalized version of the real history. Sources for Walter Bernstein's script are ambiguous, since there are many documents pertaining to the Molly Maguires. An absolute definite is Lament for the Molly Maguires, published just six years before the movie's premiere, with historical discrepancies ranging in many degrees. This text might have been a source, but certainly not the only source.
Walter Bernstein, coupled with director Martin Ritt, were both blacklisted from the movie business because of their political attribution (not nameable but certainly left-wing conflict theorists). They were so named for various petitions they had signed, movies they had made, and interviews they had given. Ritt is a self-ascribed working man with labor-sympathetic views. They were both on the side of the working class. The film reflects this, for it centers on the inexplicable working and living conditions, racial overtones, and motivations of the Mollies. In the end, many reviews drew an analogy between the African American movement and that of the Irish Americans in the 1870s. This analogy does not go without merit, but it is impossible to pinpoint the bridge.
The film makes up the relationship between the undercover detective James McParlan and John "Black Jack" Kehoe, King of the Molly Maguires. They were not close associates in historical reality. This fabrication is blatant. Some of the names of the fellow Mollies are drawn from history, although their characters are not. The film uses James Kerrigan, a Molly who turned states' evidence, as a fringe character, not even a Molly, whose goat ransacks the Kehoe vegetable garden, angering Jack Kehoe, but certainly not explaining his role in the organization's violent crimes, their prosecution, and eventual hangings.
The old adage in film, show me, don't tell me, is an accurate cliche. Unfortunately, the film is invalid in historical representation. It fails to show the depth and breadth of the organization's format, lengthy time frame (almost two decades), extreme acts of violence, and the reality of its downfall. The film does, rather basely, tell the traits of the organization through dialogue spoken in an often unrecognizable broken English. It also fails to correspond the amount of energy McParlan exerted into his undercover identity, giving him a new name for some forty-four months.
The motivations behind the organization are impossible to understand regardless of looking through the film or the history. It is here we see the film's attribution to the Mollies, naming them a labor movement. The motivations vary because of perception and the individual in the organization. They range from racially frustrated Irish redeeming their ethnicity's double standards, to a labor force upset that their only legal power (strikes) have failed continuously and now, as a final measure, have turned to violence as an answer, and also to vindictive miners who are getting even for receiving unfair treatment from authority. The only historical motivation the film ignores telling and shows behind the mask of body language is that the Mollies were maniacs letting their energy loose on innocents. The failure of vocalizing this last motivation without including a line about labor strife tells the film's attribution in a bright, communicative language, although not so to most who watch it, making the script genius.
Where historically the film fails to tell or show the tale, it still succeeds in some very important macro arenas. The difference is dramatically shown between conflict theory: Jack Kehoe's ideology that labor and capital will be in a continual state of disagreement and that of James McParlan's trust in capitalism -- that the American paradigm of meritocracy offers a fair market place where one is judged on one's skills and not on the status of birth. These characters' personal philosophies are drawn articulately with the exception of McParlan's slightly fickle emotional allegiance to the Mollies. The truth is, there was never any evidence that he tried to stop them because he cared for them emotionally. Indeed, the film is most accurate when it shows him voting to kill a man in order to pin it on his supposed associates, in so doing, promoting himself on the socioeconomic ladder. The position of ideology gives the audience, if not an accurate historical picture, certainly a lesson in the basic political science motivating these two men in their actions. Further still, the many historical references show Kehoe stressing the honor of his word, of his steadfast nature, as well as in the film. Kehoe is a man who believes in his word and his honor, almost like royalty as "The King of the Molly Maguires." The clash with McParlan as a man of fickle word, without honor, is shown in the film in a powerful last scene, culminating the voices of left and right as seen in these two men of these raucous times. Although the meeting never took place, the same issues are historically found in Kehoe's last interview before his hanging.
Perhaps the most pointed hint at the film's attribution to the working class is in the court room when the judge fails to say "May God have mercy on your souls" after reading the sentence of death. This also has historical bearings as Judge Cyrus L. Pershing, the man who lost a race for governorship to Republican John F. Hartranft. Hartranft was voted into office by a pressing Irish vote catalyzed by the Mollies. He was elected President Judge of Schuykill County in 1872, where he returned after the defeat against Hartranft in 1875. Pershing presided over the Molly Maguire trials and has been criticized by revisionist historians for his biased feelings siding with the prosecution.
Lewis, Arthur H. Lament for the Molly Maguires. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964.
The Life and Execution of Jack Kehoe, King of the Molly Maguires, Together with a Full Account
of the Crimes and Executions of the Other Principles in the Terrible Organization. Philadelphia:
Barclay and Company, 1878.