The Magazine

In Search of Trumbo

You won't find him in The Movie.

Jul 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 42 • By RONALD RADOSH
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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."