trumbo, hollywood rebel
Dalton Trumbo fought the good fight. A gifted artist, a fervent activist, and a true American, Trumbo used his position as one of Hollywood's most prominent screenwriters of the 1940s to portray idealistic characters who stood fast to their beliefs. And when standing fast to one of his own beliefs lost Trumbo his place in the limelight, he reinvented himself and shouted his messages about free speech and independent thought louder than ever until his death in 1976.
In a singular movie career that spanned over four decades, Trumbo crafted stories that ranged from intimate character studies to sweeping myths, yet one common thread connects the best of Trumbo's screenplays: honor. In the dozens of movies he wrote and the one he directed, Trumbo exemplified honor as he saw it. Consider the two aspects of his life with which Trumbo is still most closely identified, three decades after his death: the Hollywood blacklist and "Johnny Got His Gun."
Now regarded as one of the darkest chapters in America's history, the blacklist represented institutionalized ignorance and paranoia, and it was the inclusion of Trumbo's name in the credits of "Spartacus" and "Exodus," following 13 years during which political persecution prevented him from taking screen credit for his work, that broke the blacklist in 1960. Similarly, "Johnny Got His Gun" -- both Trumbo's 1939 novel and his 1971 film -- have earned venerable reputations among the canons of antiwar literature and cinema.
But what made Trumbo an exemplary talent among Hollywood screenwriters -- and what makes him relevant for study years after his heyday -- is how deeply his ideals permeated his work. Nearly all of Trumbo's scripts have aspects of social consciousness, because Trumbo never stopped observing the world around him. Trumbo didn't just make honor a theme in epics such as "Spartacus" and "Exodus"; he also made it a theme in light romances and dark dramas. Trumbo saw honor as a way to view the human condition.
By discovering what meant the most to each character he created or adapted, Trumbo found a way to reveal that character to audiences. Whether he was trying to make viewers sympathize with the rampaging crooks in "Gun Crazy," revealing why a jaded American reporter fell for a privileged European princess in "Roman Holiday," or taking us inside the minds of debauched Roman noblemen in "Spartacus," Trumbo treated nearly all of his characters fairly. By understanding characters as people instead of archetypes, Trumbo fashioned dialogue and action that made the people in his scripts vibrant, real, and sometimes unforgettable.
Consider the manner in which Trumbo introduced Jack W. Burns, played by Kirk Douglas in "Lonely Are the Brave." The picture opens with a steady tracking shot of a cowboy's campsite -- steaming embers, a saddle, chapped boots -- then reveals Jack resting against a rock in a barren field in the American West. As Jack nurses a cigarette under the shade of his cowboy hat, a strange noise encroaches on the bucolic scene -- that of airplane engines roaring overhead. Jack looks up and sees them, three jets zipping across the sky and leaving white smoke trails behind them. With this simple juxtaposition, Trumbo shows viewers how odd a fit Jack's cowboy lifestyle is with modern existence.
Trumbo continues establishing Jack's world as the cowboy trots his horse, Whiskey, through rural Duke City, New Mexico. Jack and Whiskey encounter a barbed-wire fence, so Jack discreetly unsheathes a pair of wire cutters, scans the horizon, and cuts his way through the fence. In just two scenes, Trumbo and director David Miller establish that Jack will find his way in this world that is not his own with the force of a square peg entering a round hole.
In the film's third scene, Jack reaches a busy rural highway and coaxes Whiskey into crossing through traffic. In addition to foreshadowing a significant run-in that Jack will have later in the movie, Trumbo makes us feel for Jack's losing battle to keep the western lifestyle alive. These cars, like the Industrial Age, aren't stopping for anybody, least of all a lone cowpoke on horseback. Finally, Jack reaches the other side of the road, and Miller frames the cowboy and his horse against a junkyard where hundreds of compacted cars are stacked. This easy, poetic image tells us the movie's viewpoint -- Jack's lifestyle is something real, whereas rushed modern life, epitomized by cars, is junk.
Expressive sequences such as the opening of "Lonely Are the Brave" appear throughout Trumbo's scripts. The rugged, unforgiving landscapes of the American West told viewers what kind of man Jack W. Burns was, just as the twinkling fountains and welcoming piazzas in "Roman Holiday" made viewers believe Rome existed only to stimulate romance. As a master craftsman, Trumbo had myriad tools with which he communicated motivations, emotions, and conflicts. And like any craftsman, Trumbo had specialties.
In the first half of his career, Trumbo distinguished himself as a master of story structure, often providing detailed frameworks upon which other writers layered dialogue and visual details. In his later years, Trumbo asserted his gift for language by crafting eloquent interplay between characters. Some of the sharpest moments in Trumbo's scripts are quiet scenes in which characters dance around the issues connecting them. A vivid example of the dry wit Trumbo brought to his latter-day pictures is found in "Exodus," producer-director Otto Preminger's colossal drama about the formation of Israel.
In the picture, Paul Newman plays Ari Ben Canaan, a Jewish freedom fighter who travels to the island of Cyprus because 30,000 European Jews are interred there. Partially to extricate a large number of them at once and partially to send a message to the world, Ari decides to free 611 Jews who just arrived on a steamship. To do so, he must move them past the British army, which occupies Cyprus and polices the camps. So, in a brazen scheme straight out of a pulp novel, Ari acquires a British uniform and falsified orders. Affecting a British accent and an officer's intimidating manners, Ari convinces the British to release the prisoners, provide trucks, and even supply a military escort.
Once the refugees reach the dock where they're to board a ship bound for Palestine, Ari crosses paths with Major Fred Caldwell (played by Peter Lawford), a fatuous underling of the British commanding officer. Fred quickly reveals his racist attitude by telling Ari that he can spot a Jew a mile away. Ari responds by leaning close to Fred and asking, "Would you mind looking in my eye, sir? It feels like a cinder." The British officer politely obliges.
"You know," Fred says, "A lot of them try to hide under Gentile names, but one look in their face, and you just know."
"With a little experience, you can even smell them out," Ari retorts, barely hiding a grin.
"Sorry . . . I can't find a thing," Fred says, pulling his hands away from Ari's face.
Trumbo fills this scene with anger, then turns it comical and even subversive. In the space of a few short lines of dialogue and a simple action between two people, Trumbo reveals and ridicules Fred's anti-Semitism without letting him in on the joke. But the scene has a deeper meaning -- it slaps prejudice in the face. This may be the undercurrent of the scene that mattered most to Trumbo, because he was a victim of prejudice.
In 1947, Trumbo became one of the Hollywood Ten, a group of movie writers and directors whose refusal to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- also known as HUAC -- won them jail sentences. Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, and seven others all stood on their First Amendment rights, thumbing their noses at the committee's witch hunt. Trumbo, whose name would later be inextricably linked with the Hollywood blacklist that resulted from the committee's hearings, was sent to prison for nearly a year. He went from being one of the industry's highest-paid writers to an unemployed convict.
But prison wasn't enough to prevent Trumbo from earning a living -- or practicing his own brand of civil disobedience. He spent 13 years writing screenplays for the Hollywood black market, during which time other writers' names appeared on the credits of his screenplays. Sometimes Trumbo used "fronts," writers who risked their reputations for idealistic or financial reasons, and sometimes the names on Trumbo's blacklist-era screenplays were pseudonyms.
The climax of this period came on March 27, 1957, when a man named Robert L. Rich won an Oscar for writing the story of the offbeat family drama "The Brave One." Much to the embarrassment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- which had gone to great lengths to disqualify blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, nominated the same year for the adapted screenplay of "Friendly Persuasion" -- "Robert L. Rich" turned out to be a pen name for Trumbo. This revelation splashed the open secret that blacklisted writers were working underground onto front pages across the country. Four years later, Trumbo emerged from the underground when his credits appeared on "Spartacus" and "Exodus."
Producer-star Kirk Douglas had planned for nearly two years to reveal that "Sam Jackson," the screenwriter of "Spartacus," was actually Trumbo. But Otto Preminger stole Douglas's thunder by announcing in January 1960 that Trumbo was writing "Exodus" for him. Preminger's announcement gave Douglas the momentum to get Trumbo credited on "Spartacus." The producers' willingness to defy the paranoid status quo of the day effectively broke the blacklist, but the spirit of the blacklist lived on for many years afterward.
One place the blacklist haunted was Trumbo's writing. Always an independent thinker unafraid to buck convention for the sake of a story, Trumbo became a genuine rebel in the years following the blacklist. The characters about whom he wrote battled everything from the Establishment to fate itself, and they often did it with a smile and, most damning, a lack of remorse. Just as Trumbo got sent to jail by refusing to cave to HUAC, so too did many of his latter-day characters seal their fates by refusing to abide by laws other men wrote.
And he usually didn't let his politics get in the way of a good yarn. More than dialogue, character, and nuance, Trumbo crafted compelling stories, whether they were for the page or the screen. He gravitated toward underdog protagonists, from grand martyrs like Spartacus to average Joes like the reporter in "Roman Holiday," who discovers that he possesses more dignity than he ever suspected. These underdogs rebelled against their constraints and often roused the audience through their actions. By establishing a bond between viewers and his freethinking heroes, Trumbo spread the gospel of civil disobedience and gave eloquent voice to people who, like himself, fought the good fight. Intentionally or not, Trumbo created a cinema of rebellion.
Interestingly, the emotion his rebel characters expressed most often wasn't anger, but sadness. There was a weariness hanging over some of Trumbo's most enduring protagonists, and it wasn't coincidental that Kirk Douglas, with his blazing eyes and raging angst, employed Trumbo as his interpreter on "Spartacus," "The Last Sunset," and "Lonely Are the Brave." In these films, Douglas played a mythic hero, a brazen villain, and a rugged antihero. What connects all three characters is a deep sadness about the price they pay for their individualism.
The mix of anger and sadness that distinguished the Trumbo-Douglas films can also be found in "Johnny Got His Gun," the defining work of Trumbo's career. Published in 1939, when Trumbo was still flitting between the highbrow world of magazine short stories and the populist craft of screenwriting, "Johnny" used the fictional story of a World War I soldier to deliver a searing antiwar message on the eve of World War II, although the timing was more coincidental than prescient.
"Johnny Got His Gun" -- the story of an innocent who suffers unimaginable torment because of his participation in war -- is filled with both anger and pain. That mixture of emotions surfaced again when Trumbo made his lone directorial effort, the 1971 adaptation of "Johnny Got His Gun." A brutal, often depressing movie, "Johnny" never panders or condescends; instead, it delivers its theme with almost childlike simplicity. As Trumbo did throughout his career, he wore his heart on his sleeve while directing the film.
Yet it isn't his emotions for which most people remember Trumbo, if they remember him at all in these days of disposable heroes and short attention spans. When Trumbo is mentioned, it's usually in the context of the Hollywood Ten. Yes, Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party. Yes, he defied a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, he was an unabashed lefty at a time when America loomed large after the victories of World War II and a handful of right-wing politicians tried to raise their profiles by demonizing those "filthy reds."
Yes, Dalton Trumbo was a red. But he was also a humanist, and a gifted technician whose craft often rose to the level of poetry.
These two parts of Trumbo's soul, his politics and his art, can never be severed, and that's another reason why he's more relevant than ever. Today, artists -- and politicians -- tread so softly as to not be heard for fear of offending special-interest groups, niche demographics, and the fickle public. But for the four decades during which he worked in the movie industry, Trumbo stood his ground and spoke his mind. We need artists like Trumbo today, and that's why we need to look back and appreciate what he accomplished. By infusing popular entertainment with idealism and radical politics, Trumbo listened to his conscience instead of the prevailing opinions of the day. His cinema of rebellion is a quintessentially American body of work.
Excerpted from "Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel" by Peter Hanson (McFarland & Co., 2001)
© 2001 Peter Hanson