It's really no surprise when John Sayles shows up as a preacher in "Matewan," a mine-workers drama that becomes the filmmaker's Sermon on the Mount. Riddled with labor rhetoric, this coal-dusted tragedy wavers between well-acted propaganda and historical burlesque. Rambo's reactionism seems almost subtle by contrast.

Sayles bases his script on a 1920 shootout between oppressed West Virginia miners and company goons. He structures his story like an old-fashioned western, depicting his characters in the simplest of terms. They might as well be wearing white or black hats.

Sayles came across the story while researching his 1977 novel "Union Dues." The records, he says, were long on lurid metaphor from the left and rabid rhetoric from the company-controlled papers, but short on eyewitness testimony. Perhaps that's the reason the movie lacks humanity and its characters are so empty.

Shot in bleak, bituminous blues and set to the ballads of the hills, "Matewan" captures the countryside and the ancient, echoing spell of the worn-down Appalachians. It serves as a portrait of the people, with their ruined faces and their odd, isolated English. But it doesn't conjure the dark danger of digging for dirty ore, the hell of a life bent double and buried alive. Instead, it dramatizes a strike, the making of a local union and the miners as incipient union men.

The miners have walked out of the Stone Mountain Coal Co. mine as a trainload of Alabama blacks arrives in the town of Matewan to take up the picks and sticks of dynamite. They, along with a group of Italian immigrants -- all ignorant of the situation -- have been imported to replace the strikers. On the same ominous train rides union organizer Joe Kenehan. Despite prejudice and pain, Kenehan successfully unites the diverse groups to stand against the company.

"They {the bosses} don't care what color you are or where you come from," he says, gesturing from Appalachian to Italian to Alabamian. "You think this man is your enemy. This man is a worker. Any union that keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a club."

It's a fine speech and Kenehan is a fine speaker, but his dialogue is too often simply ideology. Sayles drives the point further as the camera moves from a black playing a harmonica to an Italian strumming a mandolin to a mountain man fiddling around. They're all playing different tunes, and then suddenly they are a harmonious trio playing the solidarity song.

These good people are soon evicted from their company-owned homes by a pair of odious strikebreakers, sucking their teeth, insulting the widows and mocking the hard-shell Baptist parishioners. True, these were hard times. But these varlets, as blatant as Jackie Gleason's Smokey in "Cannonball Run," rob it of the truth.

But they do get us riled up, just like the miners, in time for the shootout -- a massacre that began the West Virginia Mine Wars and brought a union to these impoverished people. Though many have fallen, the youngest of the miners, a 15-year-old, survives to spread the gospel: "There ain't but two sides in the world -- them that work and them that don't. That's all you got to know about the enemy."

"Matewan" is not trying to be "Norma Rae," but Sayles might have learned a lesson from that glossy look at trade unionism, which had its multidimensional heroine as the focus of the fight and the misery of her fellows as a persuasive background. Here the background is intrusive, and the cast is a mob.

James Earl Jones, however, can never be ignored, with his booming voice like timbers shivering in the mines. He plays Few Clothes, the ragged, immensely practical, hugely dignified leader of the black miners. "I been called nigger, but I ain't never been called no scab," he rumbles. "I expect the same dollar for the same work." His presence lends the moving, populist tone that Sayles had in mind.

Chris Cooper gives a sweet-faced saintliness to the union organizer Kenehan, a patient, pensive fellow who is his brothers' keeper. David Strathairn, as the sheriff, and Josh Mostel, as the town mayor, also stand out, as does Nancy Mette in an eye-catching performance as the town flirt.

You can't accuse Sayles of shilly-shallying when it comes to his labor politics. And "Matewan," as humorless and bleating as "Silkwood," is likely to appeal only to those who've paid their dues.

Matewan, at the West End Circle, is rated PG-13 for adult content.