JOHN SAYLES breaks big ground with "Matewan," a fictional story of coal mining and union busting in West Virginia. Swathed in the stylized trappings and pioneer themes of such "classic" models as "The Godfather" and "Once Upon a Time in America," it tells of a different American dream -- of the employed and exploited. Add uniformly good acting to Sayles' script of dark coal pits, West Virginia spirit and cowboyish melodrama and you have stirring cinema.

"Matewan," based on events preceding the 1920 West Virginia Mine War, paints the struggle among the Stone Mountain Coal Company, its miners and a union organizer as a kind of "The Good, the Bad and the Wobbly." Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) is a former Industrial Worker of the World (they were known as "wobblies") who pulls into Matewan town, a place where the company owns everything. "You ain't with the Company," Kennehan's new landlady Elma tells him, "there ain't no work." Stone Mountain has also infuriated the locals by recruiting southern blacks and immigrant Italians to keep labor cheap.

Kenehan has his work cut out for him. He must unite disparate groups into strikers and, when the company forces them into a tent camp in the mountains, keep some very desperate people calm. And this company has not only firepower but eyes and ears in unexpected places.

The characters along Kenehan's way are all part of a dime-store morality play: Fifteen-year-old Danny (Will Oldham), who preaches and narrates part of the story; local cop Sid Hatfield (David Strathairn), who chews 'bacca and is unimpressed by company threats; "Few Clothes" Johnson (James Earl Jones), the brave and bulky leader of the black contingent; and, of course, the company's goons, headed by hired dicks Hickey and Griggs (played with loathsome aplomb by Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp). Sayles' characters and their portrayal, particularly by Jones, Oldham and Cooper (the last as a cross between Sam Shepard and Harrison Ford), give "Matewan" a larger-than-life presence.

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler etches the characters in dark charcoal against a misty background. You get the feeling of dirt, sweat and -- despite the story's mythic intentions -- the grim grey struggle of it all. And Sayles, struggling for authority from "Return of the Secaucus Seven" through "The Brother From Another Planet," has finally tapped the vein. MATEWAN (PG-13) --

At the West End.