Sunday, August 08, 2010

Dalton Trumbo


We each wage battles we consider worthy, smug in the belief that our sacrifices are significant and tangible. We sacrifice nothing. We're put out if we can't have 3 cars. Modern Americans don't know the meaning of sacrifice. Would you go to jail for your beliefs? Would you give up the 10 most productive years of your career for your beliefs?

Dalton Trumbo did. Trumbo is a great documentary that I just watched that tells his story. Dalton Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of Hollywood directors, writers, and actors who were, real or imagined, communist sympathizers. Because they refused to snitch, they were jailed, blacklisted, or both. Unable to work in the only fields they knew, they suffered greatly both financially and personally.

Dalton Trumbo wrote "the" anti-war novel of our times and one of my favorite books, Johnny Got His Gun. Hard to read, void of any punctuation (Cormac MacCarthy's The Road is similar), and of a subject matter inherently depressing, the book is simply brilliant.


Trumbo was also an extremely talented and recognized film screenwriter: Spartacus, The Brave One, Papillon. Dalton Trumbo directed one film, the adaptation of his book Johnny Got His Gun. If you have ever seen the Metallica video One, that song is about Johnny Got His Gun and includes clips from the movie.

His post-blacklist movie scripts, particularly Papillon and Spartacus, draw from his experiences during the blacklist. When each of the slaves exclaim "I am Spartacus" rather than subjecting the true Spartacus to punishment, you see its parallels in the Hollywood Ten standing on principle and not "naming names". In Papillon, when Steve McQueen's character refuses to relent, you can imagine Dalton Trumbo defiance to the Congressmen at the House Un-American Activities hearings.

Kirk Douglas has led a full life with much success, yet the thing he is most proud of is the fact that he had the guts to break the Hollywood blacklist by openly crediting Dalton Trumbo as the writer of the movie Spartacus.

Is a life of comfort obtained through keeping others down or by persecuting your innocent fellow citizens worth it? It's a half-life really. Those that stand for themselves at the expense of others stand for nothing. They stand alone. We still see it now. Proponents of SB 1070 in Arizona and Prop 8 in California believe they are elevating principle and morality. They are doing neither. In Dalton's time, you could be shunned and even jailed for thoughts or beliefs out of the mainstream. Today, you are less if your skin is brown or if you love the "wrong" person. Freedom and liberty are bumper sticker punchlines, nothing more. We forget the lessons of our past.

Trumbo was based on the play of the same name by Dalton Trumbo's son, Christopher. The words are Dalton's from correspondence to friends and foes alike and from interviews. They are effectively spoken by actors who have been inspired by Trumbo including: Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson, David Straithairn, Joan Allen, etc.

If you want to know the story of the Hollywood Blacklist, watch this documentary. If you want to see who really gets hurt by red-baiting self-righteous demagogues like Joseph McCarthy, watch this movie. You should be able to rent this DVD. I watched it on Netflix Instant. Grade: A-

3 comments:

wunelle said...

Very interesting. Though his name has a bit of familiarity, I knew nothing about him.

What a travesty of "freedom." Even if he WAS a Communist, in a free country he has the right to believe what he believes.

I hear there is a move afoot on the right to "rehabilitate" Joseph McCarthy. This from the same folks who call their opponents un-American but wish to throw out the Establishment Clause.

dbackdad said...

Wunelle said, " ... Even if he WAS a Communist, in a free country he has the right to believe what he believes." - Exactly! Have we gotten to the level of thoughtcrime? Trumbo even kidded about it in an interview - Would the time come where they would haul you in front of a Congressional committee and they would ask, "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Democratic Party?"

In the 50's and even now, there are basically witch hunts if your views don't match those in power. Arthur Miller's The Crucible took that to its logical end ... pairing the Salem witch trials with blacklisting.

You are seeing it in NY with the hubbub about the mosque near Ground Zero.

Honestly, people like Newt Gingrich and Glenn Beck have no more idea of what it means to be "American" than Joseph McCarthy did. In my book, people like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Pete Seeger, and Dalton Trumbo do.

wunelle said...

I've never accepted (except in the idiot Sarah Palin's case) that these polemicists actually believe what they claim. I think they're smarter than that, but know that these ideas play well to an anger base. Glenn Beck surely knows that freedom requires protection of minority views; but that doesn't play well to an angry audience (and doesn't pay the lavish bills).

(I think what Sarah Palin actually believes has no rational coherence.)