Leonidas Vardaros, writer and director. 2016. Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War.
Produced by Apostolis Berdebes, Non Profit Company. 70 minutes.
by Thomas G. Andrews
Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War (2016), a documentary film written and directed by Leonidas Vardaros, explores a seminal event in U.S. labor history—the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which eighteen strikers perished at the hands of Colorado National Guardsmen—from the perspective of Greek immigrants and their Greek American descendants. Instead of employing the usual practice of having an omniscient narrator provide the spine of their tale, Vardaros and his colleagues weave together an impressive array of video and audio—excerpts from contemporary primary sources (sometimes read in Greek by a narrator); historic photographs; interviews conducted in the mid-2010s with scholars from several fields, local residents, and people whose families participated in the massive strike against the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I) and its competitors; oral histories filmed in the 1970s; B-reel footage of present-day scenes in southern Colorado; and excerpts from films dating back to the early twentieth century—into a more or less seamless story. The result is a documentary that attempts—and largely succeeds—at spotlighting the Greek American role in one of the landmark labor struggles in the entire sweep of U.S. history.
The film’s narrative structure begins with the underlying causes of labor discontent in Colorado’s coalfields, proceeds to outline the broader factors at play in the Colorado coalfield war of 1913-14, then zeroes in on the central roles that Greek Americans played in the Ludlow Massacre and the mass uprising that followed. Rather surprisingly, the filmmakers rarely look beyond the United States to tell their story; outside of a few mentions of Ottoman oppression and the Turkomachia, and its occasional use of the Greek language, the film treats its migrant subjects in a manner more consistent with Oscar Handlin’sThe Uprooted (1951) than with John Bodmar’s The Transplanted (1985). This choice by Vardaros and his team was likely strategic; Palikari—Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, released by another collective of Greek filmmakers in 2014, had already taken a more transnational approach to the Colorado coal miners’ struggle. And while Palikari ponders what lessons the Colorado Coalfield War might hold for Greek nationals today in the face of financial crisis and neoliberal advance, Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War seems more intent on weighing the 1913-14 struggle’s implications for present-day Greek Americans on this side of the Atlantic.
The decision to keep Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War so squarely focused on the American dimensions of the diaspora, though understandable, nonetheless leaves many important lines of analysis—and many stories worth telling—unexamined. The relationship of Greek mine workers in Colorado to family members and fellow villagers back in their homelands receives only passing mention; this, in turn, leads the filmmakers to ignore Greek women and their roles in male labor migrations and militancy. The afterlives of the many hundreds of Greek and Greek American mine workers who rose up so heroically (and, as the tragedy at Ludlow and the ultimate defeat of the strike suggests, so naively) against CF&I, the Rockefellers, and their formidable allies receive similarly short shrift. Dan Georgakas, the prominent labor educator, organizer, and authority on Greek American radicalism, does get the last word in Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coal War, invoking Colorado’s exceptionally violent and divisive strike to question the centrality of the immigrant success myth in present-day Greek American communities. Alas, the filmmakers stop short of pursuing Georgakas’s closing point to its logical conclusions by tracing the life stories of the strike veterans who either returned to their homelands from the United States disillusioned, or who struggled even to find new livelihoods after CF&I and Colorado’s other mine operators blacklisted them.
To their credit, the filmmakers did yeomen’s work in assembling a veritable who’s-who of experts on the Colorado coalfields. The academics featured as talking heads include Georgakas, several historians, the archaeologist Dean Saitta, and the novelist and literary scholar Zeese Papanikolas. The documentarians also give camera time to descendants of Greek mine workers and Ludlow victims, to local United Mine Workers official Bob Butero, and even to a local schoolteacher. Such inclusiveness, while laudable in principle, does not always work in practice; how are viewers who lack prior knowledge of the history and historiography of the coalfield war supposed to recognize that some of those interviewed (Butero comes to mind) have devoted years or even their entire professional careers to making sense of these complex events, while others possess a much more casual and less reliable grasp of the histories the film examines?
Fortunately, the filmmakers seem to have anticipated and partially addressed this criticism. As Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coalfield War moves into the strike itself, they increasingly draw upon archival film footage of interviews conducted during the 1970s by Eric Margolis and his colleagues with the Colorado Coalfield Project. The pathos of the film and the palpability of the histories it narrates subsequently intensifies, lending the film’s second half more immediacy and urgency than is palpable during the contextual preliminaries that precede it.
This brings me to an even more serious flaw with the film’s first half: the filmmakers’ regrettable tendency to “illustrate” the story of Colorado coal-mining with archival photographs that often originated either in the silver and gold mines of the U.S. West, or in more easterly coalfields within the United States. I’m especially troubled by the images that unfurl before the viewer as interviews with authorities describe the travails of miners’ dangerous work. These photos (one of them clearly labeled as having been taken in Wallace, in the heart of Idaho’s silver-mining districts) show scenes of men at work that would have been utterly unfamiliar to the vast majority of Greek American mine workers in southern Colorado. Coal mines differed from hardrock mines in several essential respects; these segments of the film thus risk misleading viewers about the character of the rock in which miners labored, the degree of control that bosses and superintendents wielded over workers, the dangers mine workers in Colorado’s coalfields faced, and a number of other important historical questions. The distortions involved in using scenes that seem to have been captured in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other eastern states, meanwhile, strike me as somewhat less serious—though even so, such photographs potentially inculcate a mistaken view of environmental and social conditions in Colorado’s southern coalfields, which were significantly more arid and more ethnically diverse than their eastern counterparts.
A similar critique could also be made of the archival film footage on which the filmmakers occasionally draw. In this case, though, the rewards probably outweigh the risks. To my knowledge, only fragments of the various moving pictures made of the southern Colorado coalfields in the years leading up to 1914 have survived. Another salutary piece of ahistoricity—a rousing rendition of “The Union Forever” (known to the inhabitants of Ludlow and other tent colonies as “The Colorado Strike Song”) by the Greek vocal ensemble Romiosyni—constitutes one of the most affecting and memorable features of the entire film.
In the final reckoning, Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coalfield War offers a generally compelling, mostly accurate overview of the miners’ strike of 1913-14. The attention the film devotes to Greek and Greek American voices, experiences, contributions, and legacies, meanwhile, distinguishes it from the half-dozen or more other documentaries devoted to this epochal chapter in labor struggle. One of the most important achievements of Ludlow: Greek Americans in the Colorado Coalfield War, however, might well elude the notice of most viewers: Vardaros’s film is one of those rare documentaries that seems destined to become a significant historical document in its own right. Vardaros and his team, after all, clearly captured much of their interview footage during the year-and-a-half long slate of events organized by the Ludlow Centennial Commission (which was appointed by Governor John Hickenlooper, and including this reviewer) to commemorate and reconsider the meanings of the epic 1913-14 strike. Especially notable in this regard are several clips that seem to have been taken at a scholarly workshop held at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Readers of the Labor and Working-Class History Association blog might remember this event as one that prompted an unusually heated set of exchanges between the journalist Scott Martelle and the academic historian Rosemary Feurer, prompted by Martelle’s apparent dismissal of the validity of the family stories passed down by the surviving descendants of the Costas, all of whom perished at Ludlow, to a northern California woman named Linda Linville. Ludlow offers no hint of this dispute; instead, the film, like most filmic and written interpretations of the Colorado Coalfield War (my own included)—and, indeed, much as the Ludlow Centennial Commission mostly managed to do—mostly endeavors to tame the sometimes discordant strands of myth and history into a harmonious if not entirely unitary account. I would count Ludlow a success to the extent that it entices viewers to delve more deeply into the underlying complexities that continue to make the Colorado Coalfield War so compelling, but also so continually contentious.
Thomas G. Andrews is professor and director of graduate studies in history at the University of Colorado Boulder. The author of Killing for Coal: America's Deadliest Labor War (Harvard University Press, 2008) and Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies (Harvard University Press, 2015), he specializes in the social and environmental history of the Rocky Mountain West. He is currently working on a book tentatively entitled An Animals’ History of the United States, a project that has been supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholars Award.