THE HISTORY of the American labor movement is a murky area in the country's collective consciousness. It's not exactly a prime topic in high school classes and it is virtually ignored by most other cultural outlets.
NBC's movie tonight, "Long Road Home," tries to do its part to correct that, but in the way it treads on this relatively unexplored territory, the film breaks no new ground, instead taking the safe way home. Still, it deserves some credit for its good intentions.
"Long Road Home," which will be on Channel 2 (WMAR) at 9 o'clock, is a trip to John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" country except that the hero of this one keeps reminding people that he's no Okie, he's from Texas.
That would be Ertie Robertson, one-time rodeo star who seems to have fallen on hard times about the time he fell off a horse and came up lame. Ertie's played by Mark Harmon with a kind of dogged, determined, I'm-gonna-change-my-pretty-boy-image competence, but without much inspiration or real emotion.
It's 1937 and Ertie's on the road to California with a long-suffering wife Bessie, nicely portrayed by Lee Purcell, and a passel of kids, even a son-in-law and grandchild. When we meet them, they're nearly at the end of their wits and gasoline. They stop in various labor camps to pick fruit and vegetables in order to keep food on their rickety table.
Along the way we meet the designated villain of the piece, a big-time landowner who sees anything other than docility from his labor force as a sign of insurrection. As if to show that not all rich people are bad -- otherwise what would that make everyone in Hollywood who turn out films like this? -- he's surrounded by a wide variety of people, from politicians to policemen, advising a more moderate approach, but eventually money talks and they do his bidding.
"Long Road Home" tries to take Ertie on an arc from rugged individualist who thinks that union types don't sound like good Christians to him to a person who understands that only by collective action can individual rights be protected.
The tactics of repression are familiar. There's the labor camp that pays only in the coin of its realm that can be used at the company store. There's the importation of Mexican laborers to take the place of the Americans who threaten a strike. There's the take-it-or-leave-it reduction in the rate paid for picking the crops. To enforce it all, there's physical violence -- arrests, beatings, deaths.
Along the way there are plenty of side journeys, from a beautiful remembrance of things past as Bessie recalls the first time she met Ertie, to a ridiculous bet on a shooting match between a drunken Ertie and the one-legged owner of the camp where they are staying, to an irresponsible depiction of teen sex between 15-year-old Jake Robertson (played by Morgan Weisser) and a 13-year-old girl.
There are also some all-too-Freudian subplots involving Jake's coming of age and Bessie's desire for stability and safety threatening to emasculate Ertie as he tries to stand up for himself.
But, overall, John Korty's direction and a fine attention to detail in costumes and settings help to create a fairly powerful evocation of what it was like to struggle to maintain dignity in Depression America, though Craig Safan's score is a bit over-elegiac.
What is significant is that in order to do a TV movie about the labor movement you have to go back more than 50 years. It's analogous to the way race is usually treated on television, never as an issue in the present, but always in the past, during the civil rights era, when the heroes and villains were easier to identify.
But at least there are movies about the civil rights struggle. This is about it for the union struggle and, in the story of the labor movement in this country, the vegetable fields of California are really just a footnote. The real fights took place in the mines and factories and industries.
Certainly America has an ambiguous feeling toward organized labor as its tenets do seem to go against the ingrained individualism that is depicted in Ertie Robertson. But just as certain, a lot of the dramatic and compelling story of the labor movement remains untold in TV movie or miniseries form because many of the villains of the piece would be the names of companies who are still around and buy millions of dollars of advertising on the networks each year.
It's one thing to make a bigoted Southern sheriff or a fictional California landowner a villain, but to put Ford and General Motors in that role probably strikes a little too close to the pocket book.
Long Way Home" *** It's 1937 and a lame former Texas rodeo star has his large extended family on the road in California, stumbling across the union movement as he tries make a living picking crops in the famished fields of Depression America.
CAST: Mark Harmon, Lee Purcell
TIME: Tonight at 9 o'clock
-! CHANNEL: NBC Channel 2 (WMAR)