The Hollywood Ten, a group of screenwriters and directors who briefly went to prison in 1950 for contempt of Congress when they refused to answer questions about Communist party affiliations from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), have, in the past few decades, become cultural heroes. The movie industry, consumed by guilt for its blacklisting of uncooperative Communists and ex-Communists, has produced a slew of apologias. Blacklistees have received honors and awards and been hailed for their courage and unflinching dedication to free speech, while cooperative witnesses, most notably the late director Elia Kazan, have been excoriated for their supposed moral lapses in truthfully testifying about communism in Hollywood.
The most interesting and controversial member of the Hollywood Ten was screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976). The highest-paid writer in Hollywood when he ran afoul of HUAC, Trumbo has been widely credited with breaking the blacklist in 1960, when he received screen credits for writing both Spartacus and Exodus. With his acerbic wit, pugnacious personality, and withering insults, he managed to enrage, at different times, not only Hollywood conservatives but his own comrades as well.
This massive new biography, begun by Trumbo’s son and completed, after his death, by historian Larry Ceplair (coauthor of an earlier history of communism in Hollywood), is, at turns, fascinating, enlightening, and contradictory. While it succeeds in portraying a man who was hardly a Stalinist automaton, it does suggest, against the authors’ intentions, a talented screenwriter who was a political idiot.
Of Swiss and Scottish ancestry, Dalton Trumbo was born in 1905 and grew up in Grand Junction, Colorado, in a Christian Scientist household. He dropped out of college after one year, when his family’s financial situation deteriorated, and moved to Los Angeles, where he worked in a bakery on the night shift for eight years, supporting his mother and two younger sisters. Obsessed with making a career and money as a writer, he suffered rejection after rejection before latching onto a part-time job writing movie reviews. His breakthrough came in 1934, when he was hired as a reader at Warner Brothers, published a novel, and had several short stories in the Saturday Evening Post. Ambitious and self-promoting, he soon got a screenwriting contract and became active in the fledgling Screen Writers Guild. His ascent was rapid: In 1938, he received eight screen credits, wrote a play that was briefly staged in New York, wrote his only successful novel, Johnny Got His Gun, and got married.
Although hailed as a powerful antiwar statement, Johnny was morally simplistic and politically incoherent. Even Trumbo wound up repudiating its message before readopting it when it suited his politics. The main character, a horribly disfigured World War I soldier, delivers an affecting but unrealistic message: If little people refuse to fight, wars will not occur. Trumbo later denied that he was a pacifist, telling the FBI in 1944 that he only opposed “jingoistic wars” and that the current conflict was a “people’s war.” By the time he directed a film version of Johnny in 1970, it was intended as an attack on American involvement in Vietnam.
When Trumbo wrote the novel, he was not yet a Communist; at the time, the party opposed pacifism. But when it was published, just after the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in September 1939, it was serialized in the Daily Worker and hailed for its antiwar stance. Trumbo remained opposed to World War II, he later told the FBI, until June 22, 1941, the day Germany attacked the Soviet Union (although he also later insisted that he did not support American involvement until Pearl Harbor). Prior to the Nazi German invasion of Soviet Russia, he had argued that the conflict was not between “evil and righteousness” and that there was little to choose from between Churchill’s England and Hitler’s Germany. In fact, he argued, the blood of a German soldier was just as precious as that of an Englishman or a Pole.
Those disfigured in a people’s war were, presumably, part of the price to be paid for defeating tyranny, while those Jews turned over to Hitler in 1939 were a small price to pay for avoiding battlefield casualties. Trumbo’s moral compass was clearly revealed in a 1943 meeting with the FBI, when he offered to provide agents with information about pacifists and other war opponents who had written him admiringly about Johnny and discussed ways to spread its message more widely. When the interests of the Soviet Union were at stake, Trumbo believed that informing on political dissidents was a necessity.