Red Star Falling: The Trumbo Train Wreck

When it was announced two years ago that Bryan Cranston would play Dalton Trumbo in a new movie about the late blacklisted Communist screenwriter, I wrote an article for National Review that asked a simple question: would the film be honest and portray Trumbo accurately, or would it perpetuate the myth of innocent and victimized Hollywood Reds?

Indeed, because of this piece, the producers and/or the publicity people of Bleecker Street Cinema claimed that I had “trashed the film” in advance and barred me from the screening, thus preventing me from writing about it for a national publication. One could say that Bleecker Street Cinema blacklisted me -- but we all know they are against blacklists.

[This is not the first time I was prevented from writing about the blacklist. In 1991, I wrote about the film Guilty by Suspicion, which featured Robert De Niro playing a blacklisted director. The piece was accepted by the New York Times. It was set for publication in the Sunday Arts and Leisure section, so I was surprised  when I opened the paper and my article wasn’t there. Instead they ran one by Victor Navasky, then the editor of The Nation, praising the film and chastising me! Eventually, The American Spectator ran my review, under a headline reading “Scoundrel Times.”]

Now we have the latest incarnation in the film Trumbo, starring Cranston as Trumbo, Louis C.K. as one of the Hollywood Ten, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, Diane Lane as Trumbo’s wife Cleo, and John Goodman as a shlock film producer for whom Trumbo wrote lousy films under a pseudonym while blacklisted. The film is good at recreating Hollywood in that era, but does exactly as I feared.

Director Jay Roach has given us a small-screen film. Even Variety’s chief international film reviewer, Peter Debruge, notes why it falls flat when it comes to the truth:

Working from Bruce Cook’s hagiographic and oft-criticized bio, and augmented with details gleaned from his surviving family, McNamara’s script puts much of its focus on the burden that Hopper’s Hollywood witch hunts forced upon Trumbo’s marriage…without doing audiences the service of placing them in context, apart from a few historical details written out onscreen at the beginning. 

The film presents Trumbo as a hero and martyr for free speech, a principled rich Communist who nevertheless stands firm, sells his beautiful ranch for a “modest” new house in Los Angeles, and survives by writing film scripts -- most run of the mill but some major films (such as the Academy Award-winning Roman Holiday) -- using a “front” who pretended to be the writer. Trumbo brought in other blacklisted writers to do likewise, his theory being that if enough films were scripted in this way, when the truth came out, the blacklist would end. Trumbo was right. After it was revealed that he would write the movies Exodus and Spartacus, the blacklist was effectively over. At the same time, Trumbo is shown as having an extraordinary work ethic -- working day and night to support his family, while existing on alcohol, nicotine, and amphetamines.

While Trumbo was an interesting and colorful character, the film gives us the story of the Communists and the blacklist in the mold of the Ten’s own propaganda book published after their HUAC appearances. The book is Hollywood on Trial, which portrayed them as advocates of free speech who were defending the American Constitution, civil liberties, and American freedom itself.

They are all for goodness and light. When Trumbo’s young daughter hears her father being accused of being a Communist on TV, she asks him if it’s true. He responds the next day by asking her what she would do at school if a classmate could not afford lunch and she had a big sandwich. Of course, she answers that she would share it with him, to which Trumbo replies: “I guess you’re a little Commie after all.” Or as another of the Ten, Edward Dmytryk, wrote in the script for the popular film Tender Comrade, which is about three women sharing an apartment while their spouses are off at war, when one of the women acts selfishly and is reprimanded by her roommates: “Share and share alike; that’s democracy.”

In presenting this rosy picture, Trumbo avoids dealing with the actual nature of Communism and the role played by the CPUSA in Hollywood in the 1940s. It shows Trumbo and the others of the Ten who invoked the First Amendment as unadulterated heroes, and contrasts them with a group of nasty and brutish anti-Communist villains, including Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Roy Brewer, two conservative groups that supported a blacklist and opposed the Communists, and virtually all those in Hollywood who opposed Communism.

Speaking to writer John McNamara for an article in the Wall Street Journal, film critic Caryn James writes that McNamara said. “Hedda Hopper is the far, far right. John Wayne is center right. Trumbo is really center left.” Those words alone prove that McNamara consciously meant to portray Trumbo as a Communist who was as mainstream as anyone else, and certainly not the Stalinist he was in real life.

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, on the other hand, is portrayed as an anti-Semitic, self-righteous villain who wanted all Communists fired, and John Wayne as a false patriot who did not fight in WWII and yet dared to accuse the Communists of not being patriots. Trumbo, of course, is shown defending American citizens' rights, and he emerges as someone who understands America’s freedoms and believes the United States is a great country whose principles he seeks to honor.

Of course, this is not who Trumbo was. At one point in the movie, we see a copy of Trumbo’s 1939 pre-World War II novel, “Johnny Got His Gun,”  which is about a World War I veteran who lost his arms, legs and eyesight in the war, and who cannot talk. The gruesome novel was meant as an anti-war statement. The Communist newspaper The Daily Worker serialized it during the years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (Aug. 23, 1939 to June 22, 1941) when the Soviet line was for America to stay out of the war. When Nazi Germany broke the pact the Communist Party line changed, from calling FDR an “imperialist” and Churchill a warmonger, to demanding military intervention and an alliance with the Soviet Union. Trumbo immediately scurried to withdraw the book from circulation, and bookstores were ordered to send their copies back to the publisher.

Moreover, he approached the FBI and gave them the names of prospective readers who had written him asking where they could obtain the book. They might be opposing “the commander-in-chief,” he said to the agents, and should be investigated. He feared as well that they might be “acting politically.” So Trumbo named names to the Bureau, only later to condemn those who cooperated with HUAC’s investigation of Communism in Hollywood and did the same.

The Hollywood Reds were hardly political innocents acting like any American who participated in the political process. Indeed, the political infighting of the forties and fifties was often about the tenuous alliance of liberals with Communists. In the early thirties, the Communists had formed a broad anti-fascist coalition, which shared the support of liberals such as the actor Melvyn Douglas. It broke apart the moment the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939. Hollywood Reds insisted that their liberal allies support neutrality. It was too much for Douglas. He introduced a resolution denouncing both “Nazi aggression’’ and “Soviet perfidy.” The Communists refused to support it, and they allowed their coalition to fail rather than have it turn against Stalin. Douglas resigned in protest. It was episodes such as these that revealed to the liberal community the sordid face of Stalinism. Had episodes like this been portrayed in the film, a truer picture would have been shown of how the Stalinists operated in the movie community.

Trumbo was no defender of free speech. He was a serious Communist and a defender of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Trumbo used his power in the film community to prevent proposed anti-Communist films from being made. “Whenever a book or play or film is produced which is harmful to the best interests of the working class,” Trumbo wrote to another blacklisted writer, “that work and its author should and must be attacked in the sharpest possible terms.” Calling Stalin “one of the democratic leaders of the world,” Trumbo moved to prevent a film being made that was to be based on Leon Trotsky’s biography of the Soviet leader. He also claimed to have stopped movies being made by anti-Communist authors such as James T. Farrell, Victor Kravchenko and Arthur Koestler, whose works he called “untrue and reactionary.”

He could not have claimed innocence of Stalin’s crimes. In 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech about Stalin to a Party Congress, he told an old friend of his that he was not surprised, because he had read George Orwell, Koestler, James Burnham, Eugene Lyons and Isaac Don Levine, authors who told the truth about Soviet totalitarianism. In other words, Trumbo supported Stalin while knowing at the time that “Uncle Joe” was a monster and murderer.

In the movie, there are many scenes of the Hollywood Ten meeting and planning what to do when they received subpoenas to testify before HUAC. They decide that the only honest course was to invoke the First Amendment, which would allow them to hoodwink the liberal community about their actual beliefs, while appearing as defenders of America’s basic principle of free speech.

One of the ten, the director Edward Dmytryk, later broke with his comrades and appeared as a friendly witness before the Committee, and as he recounts in his book Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Blacklist, the Communist Party controlled the entire strategy employed before the Committee. Instead of a free speech defense, the Communist Party dictated that they should not answer the Committee’s questions, never reveal their true affiliations to anyone, and appear rowdy and contemptuous at their testimony.

Even the left-leaning historian Larry Ceplair, writing with Steven Englund in their book The Inquisition in Hollywood, could not help but acknowledge the truth. The Hollywood Communists, they wrote, “defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern’s policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with infuriating self-righteousness, superiority, and selective memory which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers.” It should not be a surprise that you don’t learn this from watching Trumbo.

The film ends with Trumbo’s famous 1970 speech to the Screen Writers Guild, in which he famously said that during the years of the blacklist, “it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.” Would director Roach have understood the meaning of his hero’s words?

Moreover, as the blacklist came to an end, Trumbo had time to reevaluate much of what he believed that led him to join the Communist Party. When my wife and I were doing research for our book Red Star Over Hollywood, we came across an article Trumbo had written but never published.

In this 1958 article, Trumbo told some frank truths about the Party -- truths which eventually led him to quit. You would never suspect this from Roach’s film. There is nothing about the Party accusing him of “white chauvinism” -- in today’s terms, racism. The CP, he told one old comrade, threw “a bucket of filth over me.” Moreover, he wrote that the Ten did not “perform historic deeds,” but took part “in a circus orchestrated by CP lawyers, all to save [ourselves] from punishment.”

He concluded that the blacklist took place not only because of the Committee, but because of the antics of the CP itself. In this article, he wrote that “the question of a secret Communist Party lies at the very heart of the Hollywood blacklist,” which is why Americans believed the Communists had something to hide. They lived in the United States, not Stalin’s U.S.S.R., and should have openly proclaimed their views and membership so that the American people could judge them for what they believed. Instead, they formed secret Leninist cells. The CPUSA should have been open and its members all known, he wrote, or the Communists in Hollywood should “not have been members at all.”

Moreover, Trumbo also wrote that his fellow Red screenwriters failed to get work not because they were blacklisted as Communists, but because they were “mediocrities,” who failed to show “competence, ability [and] craftsmanship.” And as for the informers shown as pitiful reactionaries in the movie, he acknowledged that many of them in fact testified against the Communists because the Party tried to “meddle with the ideological content” of their screenplays, which gave them good reason to oppose the Party.

Had they been truthful, Roach and McNamara would not have been able to make stick villains of the informers, and unadulterated heroes of the Communists who refused to cooperate.

I ended my 1991 article with these words:

Is it not time that Hollywood, which once gave us a comic opera portrayal of villainous Reds in long-forgotten anti-Communist films, not flip over to offering us films in which there are simply no Reds at all, or some who committed no moral wrongs? Is it not time for a more balanced and accurate picture of what really took place in the 1950s? such a film waits to be made.

It still does.