In Search of Trumbo
You won't find him in The Movie.
Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By RONALD RADOSH
The late director Billy Wilder, referring to the "Unfriendly Ten"-later called the Hollywood Ten, who refused to answer questions from the House Un-American Activities Committee in its 1950 investigation of Hollywood communism-joked that "only two were talented. The rest were just unfriendly."
One of those two was Dalton Trumbo, arguably the most talented, witty, and sharpest of the writers blacklisted by Hollywood in the 1950s and '60s. Any audience listening to Trumbo's words, read by such well-known actors as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson, and David Strathairn, among others, will find much evidence of Trumbo's brilliance.
But what they will not find in Trumbo:The Movie, directed by Peter Askin and based on a play by the writer's son Christopher, is an accurate depiction of the personal complexity, private doubts, and life of Dalton Trumbo, who was a devoted Hollywood Communist from the late 1930s through the early '50s. Instead, they will find a repetition of the all-too-familiar narrative about the Hollywood Reds: innocent victims persecuted for their ideas by reactionary, attention-grabbing congressmen. Devoted first and foremost to defense of the First Amendment and the nation's civil liberties, and under attack from McCarthyites, they and Trumbo fought the worst villains of all: the "friendly" ex-Communist writers and actors who did testify and sold their souls for the right to continue working by informing against their old comrades and exposing them as once having been Reds. Thus Trumbo, writes the New York Times, just might "finally put to rest the hunt for good guys and bad."
No, it won't.
The film's opening sequence, where David Strathairn reads excerpts from Trumbo's famous 1970 "only victims" speech before the Writers Guild in Hollywood, raises expectations that it might offer something more interesting than the usual narrative. At the time, Trumbo proclaimed that "it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none. There were only victims." Indeed, he came to the conclusion that there was "good and bad on both sides." All of them, Trumbo reflected, "without exception . . . felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things he did not want to do . . . none of us-right, left or center-emerged from that long nightmare without sin."
The speech, widely attacked at the time by the left, was the wisest public statement Trumbo ever made.
These generous sentiments, however, are quickly dispensed with, and the film returns to familiar ground. Such is the case with a 1956 letter, featured in the movie, where Trumbo wrote to fellow writer Guy Endore that one who informs "on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, . . . [is] not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will . . . if the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself." As for himself, he told Endore that he would only "re-enter motion pictures when it becomes possible for Communists to re-enter them."
Conveniently missing from the film is what Endore wrote back to Trumbo. So many years before Trumbo's own 1970 mea culpa, Endore answered that he, unlike Trumbo, did not hold an "implacable hatred" toward the friendly witnesses: He had even lunched publicly with a so-called informer because "if I held to the proposition that if I was against the blacklist . . . I should also be against all forms of blacklist." Moreover, he told Trumbo, he could not be proud of their political activity, such as when they undertook to defend Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atomic spies.
"World attention," he said, "concentrated on the Rosenberg trial [and] missed the horror of the Prague trials. . . . Was that the purpose of the Communist move into the Rosenberg case?" He was no longer willing to be used "as a decoy, a smoke-screen" by those who had secret motives. "And brother," he concluded to Trumbo, "we've been played."
As for defense of the First Amendment-which, we are repeatedly told, was Trumbo's great cause-the film ignores an example that proves this to be a lie. There is a lengthy sequence in which Donald Sutherland reads from Trumbo's 1939 antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun. Nowhere do we learn that Johnny, touted by the Communists during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and serialized in their newspaper, was withdrawn from circulation by Trumbo when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Literally overnight, the Communist party's peace campaign ended and was replaced by calls for intervention against Hitler.
Accordingly, Trumbo censored his own book, took the plates from the publisher, and let it go out of print. But the novel, which had gotten good reviews, was still popular, and readers wrote to Trumbo to find out where it could be found. Not satisfied that his book was no longer available, Trumbo-fearing, undoubtedly correctly, that many of those letter-writers were isolationists, and some even pro-fascist-invited the FBI to visit him at home in 1944, and turned the letters over to the agents. He informed on Americans who only wanted to read his own novel! It was the right wing, he explained, that was trying to make censorship of Johnny Got His Gun into "a civil liberties issue," so he had no compunction about informing on these people. After all, he told the agents, some of them were "organizing politically" and others had called Franklin Roosevelt a "criminal incendiary."
Trumbo also bragged about his role in keeping anti-Communist films from being made. He had defended Stalin as "one of the democratic leaders of the world," and was proud to have helped keep Hollywood from filming Trotsky's "so-called" biography of Stalin, as well as books by James T. Farrell, Victor Kravchenko, and Arthur Koestler-all of which he called "untrue" and "reactionary." In 1954 he wrote a fellow blacklisted writer of the Communist party's "fine tradition . . . that whenever a book or play or film is produced which is harmful to the best interests of the working class, that work and its author should and must be attacked in the sharpest possible terms."
And so he did.
Yet in 1956, when many Communists were shocked by Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin, Trumbo explained that his own library contained books he had read by Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, James Burnham, Eugene Lyons, Isaac Don Levine, and other anti-Communist writers.
"I was not surprised" by Khrushchev's revelations, he said. And yet somehow, Peter Askin and Christopher Trumbo felt that this revelation was not worth including. Perhaps it would have interfered with their hagiographic treatment of Trumbo since it showed that, while he regularly denounced anti-Communists and defended Stalin in public, he took a secret pride in knowing the real truth about the Communist reality.
Also missing is the fact that Trumbo did not consider himself, or the others who comprised the Hollywood Ten, heroic. They did not seek to "perform historic deeds," he wrote to screenwriter Albert Maltz; they appeared before HUAC unwillingly and took the advice of Communist lawyers to make their appearance a circus. All they sought was "to save [themselves] from punishment."
Some wondered later in the decade: Why did they not get work? It was not because they were Reds, Trumbo believed, but because many of his comrades were "mediocrities" who failed to show "competence, ability [and] craftsmanship."
As for the blacklist, Trumbo came to believe that it was not the fault of either cowardly studio bosses or the members of HUAC. It was as much their own fault, he concluded, because the Ten had belonged to a secret Leninist organization. "The question of a secret Communist Party," he wrote in an unpublished 1958 article, "lies at the very heart of the Hollywood blacklist," and it was that feature that caused most Americans to assume the Reds had something to hide. They were not living in Stalin's Soviet Union, Trumbo told his former comrades, but in democratic America, where it was possible to work for change openly in the political marketplace. In Hollywood, he and the others "should have all been open Communists, or . . . not have been members at all." Secrecy meant that they, as well as those who informed against them, had "no realistic moment of choice."
Dalton Trumbo, far more complicated and nuanced than this film which claims to honor him, condemned the Communist party for exploiting the Ten "for every left-wing cause that came down the pike." They had become adornments for the Communist party: "noble losers."
Of course, Trumbo: The Movie will have none of this, for it would have to acknowledge that, for much of his life in Hollywood, Trumbo was an active Communist who followed every twist and turn of the party line. It would have to be candid about his later doubts and disillusionment, and show that he was anything but a martyr for the First Amendment. It would have to show that Trumbo had come to feel that many of the "informers" had left the Communist party "to avoid constant attempts to meddle with the ideological content" of their writing. Therefore, as he put it, "I have no intent of fanning the embers of justifiable hatred which burned so brightly twenty-five years ago."
Fifty years later, Trumbo's son and Peter Askin want to do just that.
Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the coauthor, with Allis Radosh, of Red Star Over Hollywood.