Dalton Trumbo is an American Master

There’s a scene in the 1960 film Spartacus that captures the mindset of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – a man that had just suffered years of persecution after being listed as one of the Hollywood Ten. Defeated by the Romans Spartacus and his rebel army’s lives are threatened unless they give up their fearless leader.

With not a moment of hesitation the entire slave army leaps to their feet and bellows “I’m Spartacus.” Kirk Douglas’ character slowly bows his head, seemingly overwhelmed with emotion. His brotherhood would risk torture and ultimately death just so that Spartacus isn’t singled out. Sadly, such solidarity was a mere Hollywood construct. This ideal was something that Trumbo would never find in real life.

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In 1947 Trumbo was one of ten Hollywood writers and directors jailed for refusing to give information to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The government agency was on a mission to expose communists in America. Hollywood became a clear target. Rather than stand as one, some in the creative community decided to single their comrades out when asked to name names.

This is by no means an untold story, yet in the latest episode of Thirteen’s American Masters, airing this week on PBS affiliates, Dalton Trumbo is the center of attention. Directed by Peter Askin, Trumbo depicts the life of a prolific writer marred by Hollywood’s blacklist.

Theatergoers might recognize this premise, as the film is adapted from the 2003 play written by Christopher Trumbo – Dalton’s son. Much of the story is based on the writer’s own words and is told through readings of Trumbo’s letters and old interviews.

As author Richard Fried wrote in his book Nightmare In Red: “Some actors flirted with communism, but the screenwriters, Hollywood’s intelligentsia, were primarily the ones who joined the Party.” Fried writes that almost half of the communists in Hollywood were screenwriters. But, as Trumbo jokingly points out in one interview clip, communists in this country weren’t as dangerous as the Elks, and didn’t have as many guns. Trumbo was quick witted.

Much of this American Masters episode focuses on Trumbo’s life after the HUAC trial, but it also provides a look at Trumbo the family man. Old home movies and family photographs are used throughout the program, as are interviews with his son and daughter, Mitzi Trumbo.

One touching moment comes as a letter Trumbo wrote to his daughter’s schoolteacher is read aloud. Always the wordsmith, he eloquently lambasted the wretch for devastating his young girl. Presumably his daughter was scared after the school’s PTA held “secret” meetings about her father’s ties to communism. It was one thing for Hollywood to hurt his career, but he refused to let his family get sucked into the mess.

A top-notch group of actors take turns reading Trumbo’s letters throughout this episode including Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland and Joan Allen. Standing out from the pack is David Strathairn as he re-enacts Trumbo’s WGA Laurel Award acceptance speech. Shot against a black backdrop, he sets the tone for this engrossing production as he says, “The blacklist was a time of evil and that no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil.”

Some in Hollywood haven’t forgotten the treachery of those that gave up names to HUAC. Director Elia Kazan was one of Trumbo’s so-called “friends” that buckled under pressure. When Kazan received a lifetime achievement award at the 71st Annual Academy Awards some in the audience refused to applaud. Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and Richard Dreyfuss were among the ones that remained seated.

Trumbo is a reminder that logic does not always factor into the public consciousness. Fear and hatred often beat out such ideals as fairness and equality. One only need to turn on the nightly news and catch highlights from the latest health care town hall meetings to understand this situation. At one point Trumbo pictured a time when someone might be called to the stand and asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Democratic Party?”

Imagine if media vultures like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh had the airwaves during Trumbo’s travails. They would surely be preaching in favor of Senator Joseph McCarthy – the face of evil during America’s red scare.

Trumbo survived the blacklist, as did many other marked writers, mostly by writing screenplays under pseudonyms. Names like Ian Hunter (Roman Holiday), Millard Kaufman (Gun Crazy) and Robert Rich (The Brave One) allowed Trumbo to make a living. Then, in 1960 both Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas came to the rescue and put his real name on their films, Exodus and Spartacus. They proved to be his true rebel army, standing up to the Romans and shouting, “I’m Dalton Trumbo.”

Published by the Huffington Post on September 2, 2009.

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