Top 10 Films that Reflect the Impact of Mining

From There Will Be Blood in the past to Total Recall in the future and Avatar in space, mining has played a significant role in a number of great movies. Mark Fraser picks out the best…

American writer Mark Twain once famously said that a gold mine was nothing more than “a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it”. Since then, cinema has not only exposed some of these shysters, but has also repeatedly shown that minerals extraction can have some far-reaching implications. Mark Fraser looks at ten films in which mining plays a significant part in the narrative.

10. Total Recall (Len Wiseman, 2012)

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Although I can’t say I’m a big fan of either versions of this movie, the only reasons the 2012 incarnation gets the nod over Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 original are: (1) I much prefer watching Colin Farrell to Arnie; (2) The shoot-out while they are travelling through the centre of the Earth on the gravity elevator thingie could well be one of the most subversive observations of fly-in/fly-out thus far committed to digital celluloid, and; (3) Being an Australian, it’s good to know the world’s future resources are located in your home country rather than on Mars.

9. Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981)

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A few cases of extreme cabin fever amongst the workers at an outer space titanium mining venture on one of Jupiter’s moons raises the suspicions of federal marshal Sean Connery, who stumbles across a drug ring and eventually has to take on the company’s hitmen in what becomes a variation of Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 classic western High Noon. On-site accommodation – not to mention its effect on staff morale – doesn’t receive much of a rap in this film.

8. Matewan (John Sayles, 1987)

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Set in West Virginia’s coal fields during 1920, union lackey Chris Cooper takes on a mining company intent on overriding the interests of a local community by employing scab labour during an industrial dispute. This territory was previously visited by Barbara Kopple in her 1977 Academy Award™-winning documentary Harlan County, USA.

7. Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted, 1980)

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This biopic of US country singer Loretta Lynn (Sissy Spacek) starts in her coal mining home town of Butcher Hollow in Kentucky, where the workers and their families live in unrelenting Appalachian poverty. The film’s art and set directors (John Corso and John Dwyer) – as well as its cinematographer Ralf Bode – deservedly received Oscar™-nominations for their collective contribution towards the authentic look and feel of this period piece.

6. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

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While prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) eventually makes his fortune in oil, the film’s opening sees him doggedly hand digging his way through some silver workings in a wordless sequence that somehow matches the intensity of the first 15 disorientating minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).

5. Powaqqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1988)

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The opening of this visually-rich documentary couldn’t have been better – an incredible montage of workers slaving away in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mine set against a powerful minimalist score by Philip Glass. A sequence that is as good as any other moment in this film or its popular 1983 predecessor Koyaanisqatsi.

4. Gold (Peter Hunt, 1974)

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There’s no doubt that some of the international gold mining executives with operations in South Africa’s Witwatersrand back in the 1970s were as dastardly and ruthless as John Gielgud and Bradford Dillman who, in this film, attempt to manipulate their company’s share price by orchestrating a major fatal underground disaster. Luckily, the workers have a surprisingly-appealing Roger Moore on their side. While Gold is not exactly regarded as a classic, parts of it were shot on location, meaning the film can at least boast having some kind of bogus authenticity. In this regard, watch out for the distinctive concrete-clad headframes which are still prominent in South Africa’s minerals industry.

3. Blood Diamond (Ed Zwick, 2006)

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Alluvial mining in Africa circa 1999 results in Djimon Hounsou finding a massive diamond that eventually provides him and his family with a passage out of Sierra Leone’s civil war. A great movie – not only is it well made and highly exciting, but Leo DiCaprio delivers one of his best ever performances as an ex-mercenary who ends up helping save the day. Lost in all this action, however, is the true extent of the human suffering and savage brutality that occurred during the height of the blood diamond trade, which was running rife just 15 years ago.

2. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

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During the early 1970s, CRA – which eventually morphed into what is now the publicly-listed Rio Tinto – started mining its Panguna copper-gold project on the erstwhile Papua New Guinea island of Bougainville. Then, in 1989, a number of local land owners reverted to acts of terrorism against the company to protest both their lack of compensation and the fact a nearby river system (the Jaba) was being polluted by the operation. This eventually led to a protracted civil war and the death of thousands of Bougainville residents as they sought to secede from the PNG mainland. It also saw the country’s government (led by Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan) hire a private British military (read mercenary) outfit – Sandline International – to help quell the restless separatists. It’s hard to tell if writer-director Cameron meant it, but Avatar ends up being a reasonably accurate metaphoric interpretation of what happened in PNG. Pity he reverts to utter childishness by calling the mineral in question unobtanium.

1. The Treasure of Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

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One of the ultimate cinematic statements about greed, in which a trio of down-and-out gringos goes looking for gold in Mexico and unfortunately find it. Not only do these sad sacks succeed as prospectors, but they also prove to be both tireless diggers and handy amateur hydrometallurgists to boot, processing the high grade ore to gold dust on site via a makeshift combination of panning and screening.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser.

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Pete Turner (@ilovethatfilm) Reply

    I expected to see the Brit film Brassed Off on this list. Hadn’t considered how many blockbusters use mining in their stories though!

    • Dan Reply

      Brassed Off! Great choice Pete – I wouldn’t ordinarily think of it as a mining movie but considering the impact of mining (or the lack of) on the lives of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band it is definitely worthy of a place here. Great film.

  2. Chris Reply

    Interesting top 10. I’ve only seen 4 from the list, so I’ve got some catching up to do! Coal Miner’s Daughter is a film I could imagine myself giving a watch.

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