Written by Films


I’m fascinated about the period of the Hollywood Blacklist – that post-war period, as the Cold War was getting under-way, when virulent anti-communists including Senator Joseph McCarthy started “investigating” perceived pro-Soviet beliefs and output in Hollywood.

Before I went to see Trumbo, I thought I’d watch Fellow Traveller, a 1990 film made by the BBC and HBO. Written by Michael Eaton and directed by Philip Saville, it received a short cinema release in the UK before showing up in the Sunday night Screen Two slot in early 1991. The film did get a VHS release, but as far as I’m aware, it had a single outing on BBC Two and that’s been it.

More to the point, aside from that VHS release, there’s no way to get hold of the film today. I resorted to digging out my old VHS off-air recording and digitising that to enable me to see it. None of my kit is in perfect order, so it’s not exactly a pristine transfer, but it’s watchable.

[For what it’s worth, this is the sort of thing that it would be good for BBC Store to stock. It’s a little off-beat, I grant you, but otherwise the tape is just gathering dust in an archive somewhere.]

As for the film? Well it’s an interesting story of a Hollywood writer Asa Kaufman (Ron Silver) running away from the McCarthy witch-hunt, escaping to London where he needs to take on a false name to get work. ITV is just getting off the ground, and new companies are being set-up, so he becomes scriptwriter on The Adventure of Robin Hood. Meanwhile in Hollywood, movie star Clifford Byrne (Hart Bochner) shoots himself.

The film flashes back to Kaufman’s time in Hollywood with his friend Byrne, and their friends and family, first during the war when they’re raising funds, and later as witch-hunt gets under way. Imogen Stubbs plays Sarah Atchison, once Byrne’s girlfriend, but now back in a deprived post-war London.

The structure of the film is a little off, with the multiple flashbacks meaning that the film jumps around a lot. We even get imagined sequences from the Robin Hood series, with some deliberately heavy-handed dialogue reflecting real-world events. And the music can be a little overbearing at times, with the same theme used repeatedly.

But overall, the film absolutely bore re-watching, and the story, while fictionalised, is true. The ATV version of Robin Hood was written by a number of blacklisted US screenwriters – there’s a good 2006 Guardian piece explaining this, and noting:

There was also another, more direct threat to the anonymity of potential scriptwriters: betrayal. After the blacklist collapsed in the mid-1960s, [Ring Lardner Jr, one of the Hollywood Ten] explained that a TV show about an outlaw who takes from the rich to give to the poor provided him “with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America”. But Steve Neale of Exeter University, who has uncovered the names of exactly who wrote which of the Robin Hood episodes, points out that within the scripts’ emphasis on redistribution of wealth there is “a theme that recurs in the first two series: the probability that Robin Hood or one of the outlaws will be betrayed”.

But what about Trumbo?

Trumbo tells the story of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston). Like many others in Hollywood, he had been left-leaning during the pre-war and war period, and had indeed joined the Communist Party of America. The coming of the cold war led to hysteria in the US and further afield – there might be “reds under the beds” everywhere. And so there’s the suspicion that Hollywood might be spreading sympathetic communist views via popular films.

As hard to believe as that might seem to be sitting here in the twenty-first century, that fear was stoked heavily by the likes of popular Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, headed by John Wayne (David James Elliot).

And so, Trumbo becomes one of ten screenwriters – the Hollywood 10 – subpoenaed to testify in congress about communist propaganda. Trumbo faces up to the challenge with equanimity and with the support of his family led by wife Cleo (Diane Lane), he goes and treats the committee with the disdain it deserves and in a humbled manner. Yet the death of a Supreme Court judge means that he ends up serving an eleven month prison term.

In the meantime, one some of his friends and colleagues are finding it difficult to support Trumbo and some of the other writers. Notably Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) ends up naming names to protect his career – he’d not worked for a year at that point. ]

The blacklisting is biting at this point. Trumbo’s friend Arlen Hird (Louis CK) is one of several people really feeling the financial pain. And so Trumbo starts to lead a group of writers who will produce scripts, anonymously, for Frank King (John Goodman) – the producer of cheap and lurid pictures. Trumbo would go on to win Oscars under pseudonyms for both Roman Holiday and The Brave One.

Only by 1960, when Trumbo was at first secretly writing Spartacus for Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Exodus for Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), did his name get made public, and despite the best efforts of protesters.

It’s a terrible period of America and Hollywood’s history, and this film tells the story really well. Trumbo isn’t painted as some kind of a saint. He was difficult to live with, often writing propped up in the bath, and at times having to churn out so many screenplays that he had time for nothing else. He was a champagne socialist, living in some luxury until the time of his prison sentence. And he wasn’t always a good friend. But he stayed true to his causes.

The film is really good, and the acting is excellent – particularly Cranston. This is clearly a superior film to Fellow Traveller, but they do make an interesting pair to see together.

Although the film details activities in Hollywood between the forties and sixties, it’s actually incredibly relevant today. Most overtly, the death of a Supreme Court judge having a substantive impact on his life. It’s incredible that US politics is so caught up in the judicial system that the highest court in the land is largely defined by the political beliefs of its members. Today we have a court with eight judges split evenly between Republican and Democrat, and a determination from Republicans to block any member nominated in the next 12 months while Obama is still president.

And then there’s the “reds under the beds” fear that means some call for anything to go. Today it’s not communism, but terrorism. I find some interesting parallels in the case Apple is fighting with the FBI over encryption and iPhones. Apple is suddenly the bad guy because Tim Cook believes in the right to privacy – something which strong encryption provides users with. Many governments, including our own, want some kind of “backdoor” into devices to allow law enforcement to get into these devices. If we don’t then the terrorists somehow win!

There’s more to write on encryption, but I think that there are definitely parallels to be drawn. In the fifties and sixties it was fear of communism. Early in the 21st century it’s fear of terrorism. There’s may be and have been legitimate threats from both. But do we give up our ideals and ways of life – our own liberties – to fight these threats? Or do we “win” by showing that we can be bigger and better?