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.

Trumpeting Trumbo

truth3Just 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.

trumboNow 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.

daltontrumbo
The real-life Dalton Trumbo

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.

htThe 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.

Details tomorrow.