HBO’S ‘ACT OF VENGEANCE’ : MOVIE SHORTCHANGES UMW REFORMS
Joseph (Jock) Yablonski didn’t die in vain when he was murdered 16 years ago by the corrupt leadership of his own United Mine Workers union.
But you’d never know that from watching HBO’s new movie, “Act of Vengeance.”
Starring Charles Bronson as the doomed reform candidate and Wilford Brimley as W.A. (Tony) Boyle, the union president who ordered Yablonski’s death, Hollywood’s version of Yablonski’s crusade gives the viewer virtually no hint of how his death effected sweeping changes within the UMW.
The movie ends with Jock, his wife, Margaret (Ellen Burstyn), and daughter, Charlotte (Caroline Kava), being slaughtered in their beds by a trio of small-time gunmen hired with UMW pension money.
The murders are followed by a printed explanation that the results of the Yablonski-Boyle election were overturned by the courts (for massive vote fraud and financial manipulations) and that Boyle was defeated in the new election.
The viewer is also informed that the three killers, two UMW officials and Boyle (who died in prison last year) were each convicted of first-degree murder charges but learns nothing about how Yablonski’s followers struggled throughout the 1970s to successfully democratize a union infamous for its autocracy.
The unsatisfactory ending is particularly galling to Kenneth Yablonski, Jock’s 52-year-old son. Understandably, he says he doesn’t know yet if he’ll be emotionally able to watch “Act of Vengeance” (which premieres on HBO Sunday and runs on other dates through May).
But Yablonski, who worked long and hard for his father’s election, and who discovered the bodies of his parents and sister in the family home six days after they were slain, has read some of the early scripts of the movie, he said in an interview from his law offices in Washington, Pa.
Neither he nor his brother Chip were “at all satisfied” with any of the scripts they saw, he said, and both refused to sign releases offered by Telepictures Productions, who made “Act of Vengeance” for HBO.
Though he chalked it up to the nature of movie making, Yablonski complained somewhat bitterly that “too much time was spent on the damn murderers” who committed a “dastardly rotten act.” For the same reason, he faulted Trevor Armbrister’s exhaustive 1975 book, “Act of Vengeance” (on which the movie is closely based).
Instead of a movie with substance--like “Norma Rae” or “Silkwood,” Yablonski said, the film makers chose to turn his father’s story into a “murder movie, that’s all.
“They cut it off with the murders, and the ending doesn’t reflect properly on what was done by (UMW reform president) Arnold Miller and (Jock Yablonski’s attorney) Joseph Rauh, who--at considerable risk to themselves--carried on my father’s work.”
The current UMW administration also is displeased with what it considers the abrupt way “Act of Vengeance” ends.
“We saw the original script,” said UMW spokesman Joe Corcoran from the union’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“What was missing is the evolution from that tragic set of events to a union that is the most democratic union in the United States, where the rank-and-file ratify their contracts and have access to power,” Corcoran said.
The last conversation he had with Telepictures, Yablonski said, “was when I objected to the murder scene--it was offensive to my family and myself.”
When asked about the reaction of the Yablonski family to the making of “Act of Vengeance,” executive producer Frank Konigsberg, president of Telepictures, acknowledged that the Yablonskis didn’t sign their releases. “They liked some aspects of the script,” he said, “but didn’t like others.”
There was a misinterpretation of what the movie was going to be about, Konigsberg said. “They thought it didn’t spend enough time on how the union changed as a result of their father’s death. It’s a touchy and delicate situation, and I hope we’ve done them proud. Yablonski was a very heroic man.”
Ken Yablonski said he hopes “Act of Vengeance” will “portray the bravery and idealism of my father.”
Though he likes Bronson as an actor, Yablonski’s not sure that Bronson--the former Casimir Buchinsky who himself worked underground in western Pennsylvania coal mines as a teen-ager in the 1930s--has the sophistication to play his politically savvy father.
“My father was not just a rough-tough guy--though he could be. He wasn’t a simple-minded guy from the coal mines. He was more sophisticated. He’d been dealing with governors and senators, with high-ranking officials in the coal industry.”
Still, Yablonski said, he’s always felt that Bronson was capable of doing better things than the “Death Wish"-type roles he’s been doing. “But who am I to say?” he said. “I don’t know anything about Hollywood or how it works.”