Dalton Trumbo: sorry, no hero

Yesterday we started in on Trumbo, the new movie, directed by Jay Roach, that makes a hero out of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76). As we’ve already said, Trumbo was no hero. Here, very briefly, is why.

johnnyIn the 1930s, Trumbo was a staunch anti-fascist who supported the Loyalist struggle in Spain and who hoped for a united Western front against Hitler. When the Soviets and Germans became allies in August 1939, Trumbo, in perfect accord with the Kremlin line, dropped his disdain for Nazis down the memory hole and transformed himself into an ardent pacifist – as reflected in his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which depicted war (for any cause) as the ultimate evil. Then, in June 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, Trumbo’s pacifism disappeared instantly; he called for the U.S. to enter the war on the Soviet side and, after Pearl Harbor, banged out rah-rah war films such as A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.

In short, what mattered to him throughout was not the well-being of his own country or the cause of freedom, but the survival of Stalinism – period.

Poster - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo_02His devotion to the Soviet Union continued after the war. He despised Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, which he described as a vile expression of fascism. In 1950, when the Communists in North Korea attacked the South, he took the side of the aggressors.

During the 1950s, because of the blacklist, he was obliged to write scripts under fake names or friends’ names; two of them, for Roman Holiday (1954) and The Brave One (1957), won Oscars. In 1960, when Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus and Otto Preminger’s Exodus were released, both carrying his screenwriting credit, the blacklist was finally broken.

Dalton_and_Cleo_Trumbo_(1947_HUAC_hearings)
Dalton Trumbo and his wife, Cleo, at the 1947 HUAC hearings

We’re not here to defend the blacklist. Some of those whose careers it damaged weren’t Communists at all. But what about the Communists, such as Trumbo? Was a House committee the proper venue in which to address their nefarious activity? Was an industry blacklist a defensible response to it? Tough questions; honorable people can disagree. But certain facts are beyond doubt. As Allan H. Ryskind’s book Hollywood Traitors makes clear, card-carrying Party members were, in a very real sense, active agents of an unfriendly and totalitarian foreign power. In the years prior to the institution of the blacklist, they’d done their best – both in the unions and in the studios themselves – to maximize their own power in the film industry, neutralize their ideological opponents, and use American motion pictures, to the greatest practicable extent, as vehicles for Communist propaganda. In other words, they tried to do to their non-Communist colleagues essentially what HUAC ended up doing to them.

More tomorrow.

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