Film the Legend

On publicity junkets for Trumbo, star Bryan Cranston has repeated the line, “Everyone has the right to be wrong.” Cranston claims this quote came from Dalton Trumbo himself, and shows that the blacklisted screenwriter supported and defended everyone’s right to free speech.

The real Trumbo didn’t. The movie is frank about his membership in the American Communist Party, but its makers (director Jay Roach, screenwriter John McNamara) give us not a hint of what that entailed, or how roundly contradicted is Trumbo-the-free-speech-avatar by Trumbo the actual person.

Trumbo celebrates the screenwriter’s battle against the blacklist. There is much to be said for his go-it-alone fight against the Hollywood producers, but the image of him as a New Deal liberal hero defending civil liberties against homegrown fascists crumbles when you look into what he said and did in the 1940s and 50s.

His daughter Nikola has said that being a communist in that period had “nothing to do with Russia” but was instead about the “rights of workers.” If so, Trumbo spent a great deal of “wasted” time defending Joseph Stalin. It is easy to confirm his zigs and zags in accord with the policy changes out of Moscow throughout much of his adult life.

When Stalin allied with Hitler in 1939, and announced that comrades should not support Great Britain’s military response to the Third Reich because it was an “imperialist war,” Trumbo followed suit. He wrote many vociferous attacks on the British during the nearly two years of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, despite that they were almost alone in fighting Hitler. His novel Johnny Got His Gun (1939) carried the same pacifist message, for the same reason—a fact that those who celebrate it rarely discuss.

To help the non-interventionist cause, Trumbo even defended the Third Reich. In response to Hitler’s crackdown on France, the famous civil libertarian disputed reports of Nazi brutality coming out of France, declaring that “To the vanquished all conquerors are inhuman.”

When the socialist motherland was invaded two years later, Trumbo suddenly and with equal passion switched to supporting the Allies’ war against Hitler. When asked how he could reconcile the pacifistic theme of Johnny Got His Gun with his newfound bellicosity, Trumbo explained that the quadriplegic, blind, and deaf character he created would have supported the Progressive nature of the war.

The convolutions are breathtaking. The sudden ex-pacifist now found it necessary to denounce pacifists as fascists because they wouldn’t get into the effort to defeat the fascists. And an entity he had just gotten done lambasting as an American Gestapo, the FBI, was now worth helping. The famous civil libertarian encouraged the Bureau to arrest those who spoke out against the war (which, to be fair, did include some homegrown fascists).

After the war’s end, Trumbo’s thinking took a not very surprising turn back to peace as promoted by the Russians. He portrayed the Soviet regime in the manner it presented to the world: as a Progressive country that liberals could easily support. As Stalin swallowed up Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia, and repressed countries such as Poland, Trumbo amazingly penned a 1946 article asserting that the Soviet Union “had no colonies.” In 1949, a year after being blacklisted, he doubled down, declaring the Soviet Union had no anti-Semitism because it was forbidden by the Soviet constitution.

Uncle Joe needed to be protected not only from the supposed fascists who ran the U.S. government but by rival revolutionaries: the Trotskyists. Trumbo, the famous civil libertarian, bragged of enforcing his own blacklist by keeping such “reactionary and untrue” works as Leon Trotsky’s “so-called biography of Stalin” from making it to the big screen.

The FBI, by the way, was bad again. He denounced it during the Cold War as a “hateful shadow preying on the citizenry.” Meanwhile, as late as 1956, he was still asserting Stalin to be “one of the democratic leaders of the world.”

If the arrogant Trumbo felt a sense of entitlement, so did many of his comrades, for the World War II period was the high tide of communist influence in the film industry. Not only were those like Trumbo highly paid for cranking out screenplays (into which they tried, with only limited success, to insert their pro-Soviet and pro-collectivist point of view), they had a power that reached beyond the industry. John Howard Lawson, the autocratic head of the Hollywood Communist Party, penned the 1942 California Democratic State platform. Trumbo himself wrote speeches for Secretary of State Edward Stettinius.

At the point when Soviet crimes became hardest to deny, the 1956 speech by Nikita Khrushchev admitting that Stalin had killed thousands of innocent people during the Purge Trials of the 1930s, Trumbo again had a characteristically arrogant response. He wrote to a communist friend that he was “not surprised,” having read all the notable anticommunist writers like Arthur Koestler and Ignacio Silone—even Leon Trotsky! So he knew about the murderous policies of Stalin all the while that he publicly defended the dictator? Yes, if that statement is to be believed. (Another possibility is that he just said that in order not to look like a dupe, which would have offended his dignity greatly.)

He enjoyed his position as editor of the prestigious movie-industry journal, The Screenwriter, and it cut no ice with him at all when one anticommunist writer pressed him to publish, in the interest of freedom of expression, an article that Trumbo didn’t agree with. Trumbo, as he rejected the man’s submission, informed him that freedom of expression wasn’t an inalienable right, in fact was downright fascistic and had led to the Holocaust.

Trumbo sidesteps such compromising matters. Clearly they would jeopardize the portrayal of Trumbo as civil libertarian extraordinare. The most criticism the movie allows in is that 1) Trumbo was a limousine communist who craved all the creature comforts of capitalism, and 2) he behaved autocratically toward his wife and children. The movie opts for a breezy, light approach at times (director Roach also made Meet the Parents in 2000 and the Austin Powers movies). But its “screwball comedy” tone halts when it comes to lauding Trumbo as a civil libertarian.

McNamara has said that he did “an enormous amount of research” to write the script, but that his chief source material was Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography of Dalton Trumbo. The Cook biography has been rereleased in conjunction with the film, and in fact Cook is listed as cowriter in the film credits. What is notable about this 1977 work is that it is a kind of time-capsule document of the attempted rehabilitation of Reds in the context of an anticommunism that was being blamed for the carnage of Vietnam.

In the era of the antiwar movement and Watergate, the countercultural Left was in the ascendant, and one sign that they were feeling their oats was their eagerness to promote the rehabilitation of the Hollywood communists of old. For Cook, and many other journalists, biographers, screenwriters, and novelists from E.L. Doctorow to Arthur Laurents (whose novel was the basis for the Robert Redford-Barbara Streisand pro-Popular Front movie, The Way We Were {1973}), the robotic Stalinoids among their elders were now airbrushed into heroic civil libertarians.

And now the time capsule has been removed from its cask and given the imprimatur of accuracy, with the movie following the biography in retaining in every detail Trumbo’s claims about himself as he sat before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Early in the biography, the reader is helpfully alerted to a certain bias. Cook calls himself an “advocate” for his subject. Indeed he bases his account on interviews only with Trumbo’s admirers, such as his wife, his comrades in the Party, and fellow travelers including Cary McWilliams, editor of the Nation. No adversaries are heard from.

Ronald Reagan, for example, would have been instructive. Reagan went head to head with Trumbo and the other leading Hollywood Reds during the fight for communist control of the Screen Actors Guild in 1946. He recalled Trumbo’s defending the Soviet constitution as more democratic than the American one.

Cook tiptoes so cautiously around these aspects of his subject that Trumbo himself has to bring up the question of his Party membership. The biographer swallows whole the screenwriter’s explanation for joining in 1943—that he had long been allied with the Reds ideologically but now foresaw trouble ahead for the Party from anticommunists. Supposedly he signed on as a way of supporting, in their time of need, those alongside whom he had fought the good fight.

It would be no defense to say the compromising material alluded to above was not available in 1977. Trumbo’s defenses of Stalin, and (as unearthed by writer Allan Ryskind) of North Korea during the Korean War—along with the chilling statements about who, in Trumbo’s judgment, deserved to have his civil liberties respected and who didn’t, have been available in Trumbo’s papers donated to the University of Wisconsin repository since the 1960s.

Indeed one gets a sense throughout the film that McNamara knows Trumbo’s politics were hardly democratic. Other characters do call him a “swimming pool Stalinist.” But most such comments come from the hardline Right, whose representatives in the film are presented as the destroyers of civil liberties. McNamara has Trumbo land comfortably (and falsely) in the sensible center by ranging horrible people to his right, while contrasting him, on the other end of the spectrum, with Arlen Hird, a more hardline comrade played by Louis C.K. In response to Hird’s wish that everyone earn the same salary, McNamara has Trumbo reply urbanely that that would make for “a dull world.”

McNamara does allow that Trumbo was one to dismiss political arguments with frothy spin. Criticized by Hird for “talking like a radical while living like a rich guy,” Trumbo hastily improvises by reasoning that “a radical can fight with the purity of Jesus, but a rich man wins with the subtlety of Satan.” “Please shut up,” replies his comrade.

It’s a pity that this is the only moment in the film when a bullshit detector is applied to Trumbo. For, if one accepts that he did know what was really going on in the Soviet Union, he peddled his own brand of it albeit in a witty manner. The rest of Trumbo lets its hero present to a credulous world, as if it were real, the hollow image of a supposed defender of everyone’s right to be wrong.

Reader Discussion

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on November 30, 2015 at 11:08:47 am

Bravo! So much historical revisionism from Hollywood. Another attempt to whitewash a leftie villain.

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Image of Mark Pulliam
Mark Pulliam
on November 30, 2015 at 16:11:02 pm

I wonder why anyone would be surprised about this?

The Left has been (knowingly) wrong about everything over the course of the last century starting with Sacc & Vanzetti, The Red Scare of the late teens / early 20's, the Stalinists, the Rosenbergs, the "Blacklist," vietnam, etc etc etc - but it sure helps when the organs of communication (such as they are) are in your hands.

What next Abe Lincoln was a member of some LBGT group -Oops, I forgot, they already tried that!!!!

As for me, I prefer Ancient Aliens - their lies are more straightforward!!!

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Image of gabe
on December 06, 2015 at 18:00:28 pm

We were assigned "Johnnie Got His Gun" in 1963 [government] high school English class by a teacher, who was also an actor member of the Screen Actor's Guild. A great teacher who "outed" to us that Geoge C. Scott was a compulsive gambler, he never disclosed Dalton Trumbo's reputation, Hollywood activities, or run in with SAG president Reagan.

As a huge fan of genius director Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando's extraordinary acting, it was only after at least 10 viewings of "On the Waterfront" over the years, that I learned that great film was done to convey a sense of what Kazan himself went through as he was castigated and excoriated for "naming names" during the Army-McCarthy Red-scare Hearings era.

"Test everything." --1 Thessalonians 5:21

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Image of terry seale
terry seale
on December 07, 2015 at 18:53:31 pm

Not to fault the overall premise, but Johnny Got His Gun was written in 1938, went to the printers in the spring of 1939 and was published on September third—ten days after the Nazi-Soviet pact, two days after the start of World War II. To posit that Trumbo was so in sync with Comrade Stalin that he anticipated Molotov–Ribbentrop by a year strains credibility.

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Image of Chris S
Chris S
on December 10, 2015 at 08:45:32 am

But Russia knew it was coming and they had their useful idiots lined up well before it was made public.

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Image of The Watcher
The Watcher
on December 11, 2015 at 10:27:14 am

I don't dispute that Trumbo was a useful idiot or that the Soviet Union was active in the U.S. in the prewar years with propaganda and other tools, but there is no evidence that Stalin or anyone else in the Soviet Union anticipated the Non-Aggression Pact that far in advance. To suggest otherwise detracts from the strength of the article's premise.

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Image of Chris S
Chris S
on December 12, 2015 at 17:29:37 pm

Of course, S.S.

It was mere coincidence that the entire CPA its subgroups and fronts were fiercely antiwar before the pact was signed and we all believe in coincidences....right?

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Image of Taylor
on December 12, 2015 at 19:04:00 pm

When are we ever going to get a film about the Crimes of Communism?

The Baltic Times informs us that most Central European nations are already on-board to conduct a Nuremberg-style trial of the Communist perps: to leave a testamentary warning about it.


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Image of Orson
on December 26, 2015 at 07:44:47 am

There is no evidence that Hitler ever gave an order to kill Jews and other people by the millions. Sometimes common sense has to take over.

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Image of Steven Burgess
Steven Burgess
on January 09, 2016 at 16:42:32 pm

As to Trumbo's daughter's beliefs, the Communists infiltrated the unions more for the purpose of destroying businesses than helping workers. Their goal was to subvert America & convert it to Communism ruled by & from the Kremlin.

The American government during Trumbo's time enacted all sorts of workers' rights & workers' protection laws. It did it because it was the right thing to do, not because of two-faced people like Trumbo.

Either Trumbo had no well-defined principles (because of all his political flip-flops), or he was just a paid Soviet whore.

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Image of Milton Morris
Milton Morris
on January 09, 2016 at 16:44:08 pm


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Image of Milton Morris
Milton Morris
on January 15, 2016 at 06:38:18 am

This is an excellent smack down against the film and historical apologetics for American Communists more generally. As a professor of History, I am constantly astonished to encounter students who have internalized all the distortions about this era and who know almost nothing about Stalinism. I would add only one thing: the author refers to Khrushchev's admission that Stalin killed "thousands." He did, of course--and then kept right on killing. During the prewar "Great Terror" alone, the NKVD murdered 681,692 people, more than those killed in the American Civil War on both sides. The killing did not stop there, of course.

It is very important that historical revisionism about this period be constantly and ferociously contested. This was an excellent, wonderfully argued, and calm refutation of one of the 20th century's great lies.

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Image of Steve
on January 31, 2016 at 10:46:31 am

Gabe, millions and millions remain in denial. they have NO DESIRE to view History objectively.

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Image of Jack E. Friedman
Jack E. Friedman
on January 31, 2016 at 10:52:17 am

Thank you for fine post. I'm also a published historian. Postmodernism has destroyed objectivity. There are no longer unitary visions of 'truth', only to be replaced by a multitude of competing discourses.

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Jack E. Friedman
on February 18, 2016 at 03:30:49 am

I don't understand, are you supporting the witch hunt of the black listing?

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Image of Blanca
on September 06, 2016 at 00:36:54 am

Trumbo is was even more remarkable man than I thought.

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Image of Russian
on September 06, 2016 at 00:40:00 am

The number of killed NKVD aware of the documents that could be forged in times of Gorbachev.

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Image of Russian
on September 06, 2018 at 00:09:29 am

Are you implying that all those who were blacklisted were innocent?

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.