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September 10, 1998: The Year in Review

Hollywood bets big on mining filmsmine_art.jpg (46649 bytes)

LOS ANGELES — After poor performance by the summer’s most heavily hyped films, like "Deep Impact," "Godzilla," and "Armageddon," the major studios are banking on a strong August to salvage profits for the season. Hollywood is betting that heavy industry, particularly mining, will provide an irresistible draw for the movie-going public.

Certainly the most anticipated of the films is the recently completed "The Mine." The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the dashing and overly idealistic Ralph Voorhees, a project manager fresh from the Colorado School of Mines, who attempts to bring jobs and hope to a dying Minnesota town with the opening of a 245,000-square-foot strip mine. John Malkovich stars opposite as the villainous "De Vrank," a cold-blooded environmental activist who is determined to stop the destruction of the bird sanctuary on which the mine is to be situated — by any means necessary.

In the past, studio executives have been reluctant to rely on heavy industry as a lead film genre. Skeptics point to the summer of 1983 which featured several films based on petroleum engineering and refining, particularly the conflict between fractional distillation and solvent extraction and crystallization. Martin Scorsese’s "The Refinery," while named Best Picture of 1983, was only a modest success at the box office. And that year’s other refinery-related films — "The Refiners," "Indiana Jones and the Refinery" and the Merchant-Ivory adaptation "A Room with a View of the Refinery" — were all considered disappointments.

Yet the stunning success of several independent mining films at this year’s Sundance and Cannes film festivals forced Hollywood to reconsider their position. Belgian filmmaker Jean-Luc Exelmans’s short film "Perspectives on the Frasch Process in Copper Leaching and Heavy Element Precipitator Extraction" won the prestigious Golden Palm at Cannes, and Thomas Ludbeck’s documentary "Ore," a scathing examination of the reliance on sublevel drift-caving in the Alsatian coal industry, was received with universal praise.

Another film slated for release this summer is Jane Campion’s "Far from the Madding Crowd of Metallurgical Engineers," a loose adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel. In the film Bathsheba, played by Kate Winslet, must choose between the affections of three suitors, a trio of Welsh mining engineers, each of whom has a different plan to revive the massive tin-extracting and smelting plant that the orphaned Yorkshire heroine relies on for subsistence. The film is widely viewed as an allegory comparing the rival longwall mining, room-and-pillar mining and cut-and-fill mining schools favored by Timothy Dalton, Alec Guinness and Robert Redford, repsectively, in the film.

Questions have been raised about the public’s interest in the fine details of ore extraction processes, but Paramount Vice-president Bernie Silverstam thinks the time for mining films is now. "Frankly there is a lot of support in the public for heavy industry at the moment," he told the Weekly Week in a recent interview. "Most Americans know all too well that 18 percent of all non-service sector employment in this country relies directly or indirectly on the extraction and smelting of metal compounds, sulfur and coal."

When asked whether The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers had influenced public opinion by its massive new ad campaign, "Mining — It Works," Silverstam declined to comment. "Let’s just say," he remarked with a grin, "that if mining doesn’t work out, hydroelectric engineering is a sure thing."

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