Show Me Cinema #29: Joe Hill

“You will eat, bye and bye,

In that glorious land above the sky;

Work and pray, live on hay,

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”

From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, over a million Swedes emigrated to America in pursuit of a better and more promising life. The reasons were numerous but the primary reasons were religious oppression due to a conservative church and government, poverty and a rapidly growing population size leading to greater competition for work in the changing and industrial landscape of 1800s Sweden. Keep in mind that by the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, 80% of the Swedish population were still farmers. These forces combined in waves of immigrants that saw many Swedes leave the homeland, most never to return. One familiar with Jan Troell’s epic film saga The Emigrants and The New Land (and Vilhem Moberg’s entire four-book epic) will undoubtedly be familiar with this epic journey that many undertook, often traveling to the at-the-time still unexplored midwestern region of the US. But a very different and unglamorous view of the immigrant lifestyle, from virtually the same time period, is to be found in Bo Widerberg’s semi-forgotten and semi-buried little epic, Joe Hill from 1971.

Just like Widerberg’s previous three films, Elvira Madigan and Ådalen 31, Joe Hill is based on real events. Joe Hill was born Joel Hägglund in 1879 in Gävle, northern Sweden. His name subsequently changed to Joseph Hillström, and later again to the even shorter and more American Joe Hill. Hill was born in a working class family that was both very religious and musical, and learned quickly to play various instruments such as banjo and guitar and developed a talent for writing songs with a considerable wit and irony. In 1902, Hill and his older brother Paul travelled across the Atlantic to New York to start a new life in America. The brothers quickly went their separate ways and for the next few years he travelled the entirety of America, sending letters home from Chicago and Cincinnati. He was also present at the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and wrote about it. Eventually he became politically active in the far-left organization IWW and became a passionate activist in favor of the poor working man in their struggle against the well-being capitalist bosses. One of Hill’s greatest contributions to IWW was his knack for writing catchy and subversive songs. The man himself argued that whilst a political pamphlet would only be read once, a song could travel and be sung anywhere, with the message intact. In 1914 his luck turned however as he was arrested and charged with a murder in Salt Lake City. Hill claimed to have been innocent, but he refused to produce an alibi who could’ve proven his innocence. Why he refused remains a mystery to this day, with numerous theories floating around (including one being that he was protecting a male lover), and he was subsequently executed on November 15, 1915, aged 36.

Personally, I think this is one heck of a story and one that is ripe to be told on screen. And for the socialist Widerberg it might’ve seemed like an obvious story he’d seek out, but that’s actually far from the truth, for truth be told, he actually stole the whole project. If you remember my column for Ådalen 31, I mentioned that one of the assistant directors on that film was a young Roy Andersson. Andersson had read about Joe Hill and was thinking of making a film of him, but unfortunately he made the mistake of mentioning this to Widerberg and his frequent collaborator Thommy Berggren. Both had more or less constant dreams of America and it had become a major fixation in their lives. Berggren had been in New York in 1951 and met Charlie Parker, whereas Widerberg had been hugely influenced by among others John Cassavetes and in particular Elia Kazan with his landmark films On the Waterfront and East of Eden. And with both Widerberg and Berggren being very left-wing they both felt a movie about a Swede immigrating to America and organizing labour unions was the project of a lifetime, and they both agreed to steal the project from Andersson by lying and saying they’d plan a film about Hill for years, to which Andersson humbly agreed to let them go ahead. With Widerberg’s international success from Elvira Madigan, getting US financing wasn’t difficult with Paramount stepping in, with shooting commencing in 1969.

What followed was a production as chaotic as just about any Widerberg production, and I could frankly spend the entirety of this week’s column simply describing all the events that happened behind camera but I won’t. But it involved everything from Widerberg and Berggren literally stealing wardrobe from the Paramount lot before the project being greenlit, going home after a day of shooting only to discover a dead hobo on their doorsteps, all their technical gear getting stolen by the mafia, AD Peter Schildt being forced to hunt down sleeping pills around New York for Widerberg’s sleeping problems, Widerberg deciding to stop filming until getting motivated by seeing Kazan’s The Arrangement and declaring “this is shit, we can do better than Kazan.” Eventually Paramount pulled out of the project mid-shoot because of Widerberg’s eccentricity, which included a disastrous dinner with Paramount executives which involved a rather awkward moment where Berggren realized he’d slept with one of he executives’ wives in Rome, which wasn’t helped by Widerberg constantly going “you sure you don’t know this guy?” to her. The film was temporarily shut down and it wasn’t until whiskey company Seagram stepped in and agreed to finance the rest of the film, with the film resuming filming in 1970 with Sweden standing in for many US locations, including San Diego and the prison towards the end of the film. Finding Americans to appear in the film didn’t prove too difficult as many Americans had left for Sweden to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. The film eventually premiered at Cannes in 1971 where it was warmly received and became a big hit in France. Fans of the film include Francois Truffaut, Olivier Assayas and Francis Ford Coppola, who looked at the New York-section of Joe Hill as an influence on the Vito Corleone-section of The Godfather: Part II in terms of the period detail and the look of Vito’s character resembles Joe’s outfit in this section.

One of the things I enjoy about Joe Hill is that despite sometimes deals with harsh subject matters such as poverty and the struggle between the classes, it remains a jovial experience watching the film. I can picture Widerberg all giddy over finally getting to make a film in America about America, and to pay his respect to the filmmakers that had the biggest influence on him when he was young. He even made sure to shoot one scene in Salinas, California because that’s where Kazan had shot East of Eden. The joy he feels is infectious, and affects the overall experience in my opinion. This never becomes as somber as Raven’s End, but instead becomes, like a lot of Widerberg’s films, a celebration of life and the joys of living despite its struggles. The film is fun, and Widerberg is clearly having fun making it.

The film is also downright funny sometimes. There’s a very funny depiction of how Hill came to write one of his most famous songs, The Preacher and the Slave, with him singing his own lyrics over a church group singing In the Sweet By-and-By after being told by a policeman that if he wants to speak in public he has to sing. There are also scenes early in New York when he walks around with a kid character called “The Fox”, a thief who shows Joe around New York City. There’s a wonderful shot with their backs facing the camera as The Fox is explaining the Brooklyn Bridge to Joe. As The Fox is talking, we can see his hand reaching for a fish from a box of fishes behind them and tucking it into his shirt. It’s a very brief but funny moment that shows ingenuity and effectiveness in the characters, because they are still poor and have to struggle to survive. But one of the funniest scenes in the film though must be a scene where Joe goes to a fancy restaurant, eating all of their dinners until finally revealing himself to be a socialist activist, walking over to the kitchen and convincing the staff to go on strike for better labour laws. With its use of classical music and almost silent-film feeling it feels like a mix between Chaplin and Kubrick.

It also helps of course when you have an actor as charismatic as Thommy Berggren play your lead. He gives off a sense of conviction and idealism to the character, but also an enthusiasm for his beliefs and the struggles he’s fighting for. The film gradually shows his involvement in political activism which might throw some viewers off, as it happens fairly late in the film. The rest of the film simply wants to show how life was like and how they led life at the turn of the century. But I do get the sneaking suspicion that Hill less resembles the historical Joe Hill and much more becomes something of a Widerberg surrogate because he might as well have been a character of Widerberg’s own creation, the romantic yet political artist. Widerberg always had an appreciation for the finer things in life and reflected that in virtually all of his films and characters. Joe goes to eavesdrop to an opera not because he feels an obligation to do it, but because he loves music and its art so much. I really think therefore that Widerberg was one of the finer chroniclers of the human spirit and validators of fine art.

Joe Hill is a fascinating film that I would recommend people seek out. It’s also a film that rewards multiple viewings in my opinion, with each viewing bringing something new to it. It’s a film that celebrates the working class, shows the slightly darker side of the immigrant experience, but nevertheless has a rather romantic notion of life. The film begins with the quote that perfectly sums up not only this film but Widerberg’s career as a whole: “yes we fight for bread, but for roses too.”


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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