Friday, March 04, 2016


After continual urging by a friend I went to see the film Trumbo, a biopic of the experiences of the Hollywood screen writer, Dalton Trumbo, under McCarthyism. It's a fine film. It does what others rarely do and portrays writing as hard, solitary and neurotic work. Superbly written, it has humour without comedy, tragedy without pathos, and sentiment without schmaltz. It's a very intelligent film.

Trumbo had been a member of the Communist Party and was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned for contempt of Congress and subsequently blacklisted. He and his colleagues continued writing under assumed names. Trumbo even won two Oscars that way.

There are two historical points that the film highlighted for me. The first is that though the American Communist Party was a thoroughly grisly Stalinist party, the people who joined were mainly decent in intention. They were egalitarian and humanitarian. Some were doctrinaire, though many others were anything but. The ones who weren't ideologues were instinctive socialists, not intellectually convinced Stalinists. That said, I have much stronger sympathies with the anti-Stalinist left than I do with people who became fellow travellers. Emma Goldman, George Orwell, Max Shachtman, Dwight MacDonald and others should have done enough to enlighten anyone harbouring illusions, as should the fate of the great, great Russian writers who disappeared into the Gulag. But even so, it was naivety and the human capacity for self-delusion that brought them into a movement that promised nirvana even as it delivered terror.

However, the main point is that Stalinism and the onset of the Cold War posed a challenge to American liberalism. Faced with a choice between liberalism and authoritarian nationalism, they chose the latter. McCarthyism was utterly illiberal, even borrowing it's own version of the show trial. It was ugly, paranoid and sinister. Lives were wrecked and people died - not in the way that they did under Stalin, but it was miserable enough and a stain on American history. Faced with a test, liberalism failed.

And so it fell to these Communists and socialists, whose own efforts would have landed them in the gulags in the Soviet Union, to defend the right to free speech and the First Amendment. They became the liberals and the symbol of American democratic values.

The Hollywood of Trumbo's era produced the great liberal film, like, for example, the exploration of small-town racism in Bad Day at Black Rock. This one is an admirable addition to the genre about one of its finest exponents.

1 comment:

roybaintonwrites said...

O Stour One, I also urge you to see the documentary TRUMBO made in the last decade, in which actors David Strathairn, Michael Douglas, Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson and others speak Trumbos words and read his letters. It's available at Amazon for £9, and as moving and inspirational a piece of work as you'll ever see - and when they read Trumbo's letter to his phone company, you'll split your sides laughing - and there's lots of Trumbo himself in the film.Terrific stuff from a man I call the Shakespeare of Tinseltown.