Just a few weeks ago, we discussed the new movie Truth, which turned the truth about the 2004 Rathergate scandal on its head. In real life, CBS anchorman Dan Rather and news producer Mary Mapes were so eager to damage George W. Bush’s re-election prospects with a damaging story about his National Guard service that they were prepared to use obviously fake documents to try to support their otherwise unsupported case; in the film, Rather (Robert Redford) and Mapes (Cate Blanchett) are presented as heroic truth-tellers brought down by craven CBS executives fearful of antagonizing the Bush White House.
Now Tinseltown has brought us yet another mammoth distortion of history. Directed by Jay Roach from a script by John McNamara, and starring Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston in the title role, Trumbo purports to tell the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), who in 1947 was named one of the “Hollywood Ten” – a group of directors and screenwriters who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether or not they were Communists. The Hollywood Ten were blacklisted – i.e., denied work in the film industry – as were dozens of their colleagues.
In recent decades, Hollywood has churned out innumerable films about the blacklist. The premise is always the same: the men and women of the blacklist were free-speech martyrs and victims of tyranny. There are several things that are rarely if ever mentioned in these films. For example, all of the Hollywood Ten were members of the American Communist Party. That party, in turn, was a willing, devoted instrument of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The man at the top of that Party was Josef Stalin, a totalitarian dictator who was responsible for even more deaths than Hitler.
It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone who Stalin was and what he did. But the fact is that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow members of the Hollywood Ten were Stalin’s devoted acolytes. No matter what he did, they refused to criticize him. Whatever shifts in policy he made, they went along with him blindly. This hasn’t kept them from being lionized as champions of liberty.
Take Trumbo. The new Jay Roach movie is far from the first work to celebrate him. Trumbo’s son Christopher wrote a play, Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, which was staged with such actors as Paul Newman, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. Christopher Trumbo also directed a 2008 documentary, Trumbo, in which Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, and other Hollywood luminaries agreed that Trumbo was both a victim and a hero.
The facts tell otherwise. In an illuminating new book, Hollywood Traitors, Allan H. Ryskind spells them out. Far from being the fun, quirky “independent spirit” depicted by his apologists – and, we gather, by Roach’s movie – Trumbo was a slavish disciple of the tyrant in the Kremlin.
“[F]ew of the Hollywood writers served Stalin so faithfully,” says Ryskind, who, in addition to studying FBI and HUAC documents, has pored over Trumbo’s private papers. They reveal an unwavering pattern of absolute loyalty to Stalin and to Communism, and an utter indifference to the fate of his own country or of human freedom.