Even if you haven’t heard the name Dalton Trumbo, you’ve likely heard of the films he penned, Spartacus, The Brave One and Roman Holiday, the latter two winning Academy Awards for best original script, number among his screenwriting credits. Only, he didn’t get the credit.
In 1947, Trumbo was called before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, to explain his connections with communism. Trumbo refused, was charged with contempt of Congress, and was subsequently blacklisted from Hollywood, at the time subject to strenuous government regulation (such as the Hays Code which forced changes to the endings of classic films such as Casablanca – a tale for another time).
Despite being blacklisted, Trumbo remained fiercely prolific, writing under pen names or attributing credit to other scriptwriters. His strong stance against McCarthy and refusal to “out” communist sympathisers (unlike the very talented director, Elia Kazan, who lost many friends after his testimony), engendered respect from and strengthened his professional relationships with Hollywood’s significant left/liberal leaning contingent.
Trumbo endured, and after the blacklist was shrugged off by Hollywood and McCarthy’s actions fell increasingly under criticism in the early sixties, his legacy and the ordeal of the blacklist finally became public knowledge. Trumbo is a flawless, witty writer, and one wonders what more he could have created had he not been subject to the McCarthy witch-hunt.
For a sense of the man, his life and a taste of his pertinent wit, check out the documentary film, Trumbo. The film includes clips from the hearings, and some marvellous extracts from Trumbo’s letters, read by the inimitable voices of Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson and Paul Giamatti, as well as David Straithairn reading one of Trumbo’s speeches. It is certainly one of the best documentaries on a Hollywood personality that I’ve seen.
Also, his riveting, harrowing, powerful ode to pacifism (or protest against war), his novel Johnny Got His Gun, is a must-read. Composed entirely of the meandering thoughts of a soldier’s soul trapped in a limbless, lifeless, incommunicable body, Trumbo’s knack for narrative and command of realistic, honest dialogue is on perfect display.
I’ll leave you with a mere morsel.
“What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It’s just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it’s a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let’s fight for liberty and he can’t show you liberty. He can’t prove the thing he’s talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?” – Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo