Since the San Jose copper-gold mine collapsed way back on the 5th of August, the story of the 33 miners trapped half a mile underground in northern Chile has become an international media sensation. One classic, seldom seen film has proven to be all too prophetic during this disaster – Billy Wilder’s ‘Ace in the Hole’.
Prolonged, and as yet unsuccessful, rescue efforts to drill escape tunnels at the San Jose site has served up daily doses of dramatic and heartwrenching news articles. In a time when newspaper circulations are nose-diving and journalists struggle to justify spending time and money working in the field, this continuing real life saga is a reporter’s dream.
Some take the frantic struggle angle as three different drills obliterate harsh rock nearing ever closer to the trapped workers only to drift into a support beam and become stuck, while other media outlets focus on the day-to-day human interest angle of how these prisoners of fate cope away from their loved ones receiving their news and food via a small tube. A few highlight the legal argument about the site’s history of instability and predict its grim future. No stone is left unturned, except (unfortunately) for the ones which have enclosed 33 ordinary people in a harsh observation room viewed by millions thanks to a fibre optic video cable.
In Wilder’s often overlooked and brutally cynical film, which failed at the box office in 1951, reporters vie for exclusive glimpses of trapped miner Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict). News vans perch outside like vultures, the surrounding community receives a regrettable economic boost, donations fly in, a spooky connection between the Indian mine and its ‘ancient curse’ is established, do-gooders write songs and the media circus is complete – all neatly contained in one out-of-the-way town.
And nothing sells papers more than tragedy; especially ongoing tragedies that could go either way. One man knows this better than anyone else: Charles Tatum (a snarling, fervent Kirk Douglas), a washed up big city reporter relegated to a small town, stuck covering mundane lifestyle stories for the local rag. He needs a hot story like a junkie needs a fix.
When the local mine collapses and Leo becomes stuck, Tatum seizes his ticket back into the big time. Immediately he notes the chief dilemma: “It's a good story today. Tomorrow, they'll wrap a fish in it.” Getting the poor guy out of the pit is actually a straightforward operation that could take a day or two, but Tatum conspires with the town’s crooked sheriff (who has re-elections to think about) to prolong the rescue for a week so that his local exclusive has the time to gain extra drama and evolve into a national headline grabber.
It’d be better for everybody, Tatum snarls, including the miner’s wife who was about to leave him and their failing shop and the rescue team’s lead engineer who could always benefit from being the man who helped save American hero Leo Minosa (not to be confused with a small town ordinary man of the same name). Now everything and everyone is prospering and there’s even an admission fee to park outside the site, but in all the haze no one seems to care that the miner’s health is deteriorating and the circus is out of control.
I’m not suggesting that what’s happening in Chile is anyway inspired by the acid-tongued events of Wilder’s film. However, it is interesting to note how the film’s alarmingly accurate depiction of the general public’s yearning for human catastrophes and their ongoing cliffhangers has found such a resonant echo. Watch ‘Ace in the Hole’ again (or experience it for the first time if you’re lucky enough) and you’ll be witnessing a film that’s pushing 60 years old but still has the scoop.
Note: ‘Ace in the Hole’ is somewhat hard to come by on DVD/Blu-ray, unless you fork out for the expensive but highly recommended Criterion (Region 1) DVD from the States. However, it is available online as a free stream on Blinkbox.
Dave Lancaster is a graduate of Film and Writing for Stage, Screen and Radio from the University of Bolton and has been writing professionally across a range of formats since 2004. To share your opinion of his blog entry, please use the form below:
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