The film Trumbo (2015) transforms the history of the Hollywood Blacklist into an American underdog tale of one maverick hero against the system, at the expense of the truth. The film very well made, with good actors, twists the story to benefit an agenda that does not want to look at the truth of the film industries blacklist. This was a hard film for me to watch. Growing up in a family deeply traumatized by the blacklist, I was raised on stories of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo, the blacklist, and what individuals did to survive those devastating years of cold war paranoia.
After years of deep trauma, and little apology, Hollywood itself continues to shape a new mythology about the blacklist that neglects to own the full ramifications of its actions. In this new mythology the men and women who were blacklisted are depicted as never having been actual members of the communist party. Often in these stories the issue is no longer about an intellectual difference of opinion, or political values that the government wished to suppress, or remove, from the larger cultural conversation. Rather, it has become a classic American tale of maverick stubbornness in the face of an inflexible system. In the new story of the blacklist these underdogs weren’t really communists, they just had an intense regard for freedom of speech, and were scapegoated by a few bad apples within the system.
The film Trumbo describes a story in which a few courageous white Americans, with a firm belief in freedom of expression, go head-to-head against a fascist woman (Heda Hopper), who leverages the fear of a greedy Jewish film mogul to manipulate all of the Hollywood industry. The goal of the maverick hero Trumbo, was to save the quality of the film industry, when it was threatened by mediocrity during a time of fear and censorship. While this is tinged in truth, the holes within the story are many, and wide.
In the film most of the characters on Dalton Trumbo’s side were depicted as Caucasian even though the majority of the Hollywood Ten, and the larger Hollywood blacklisted population, were Jews. HUAC targeted many specifically Jewish organizations, the percentages of blacklisted Jews was shockingly higher than any other ethnic group. In the film, the first and most dominant mention of anyone being specifically Jewish was a scene in which Heda Hopper threatens Louis B. Meier with exposure as a Jewish immigrant who has changed his name, if he does not cooperate and enforce the blacklist at his film studio.
The only other defined Jewish character in the film was also the only openly communist character, Arlen Hird. This character was presented as a lesser man than Trumbo throughout the film; he was weak and enfeebled, dying of cancer. He was a bad writer, his writing made poor as a result of his insistence on ideological themes. He was depressed, sarcastic and unsuccessful. Throughout the film I kept racking my brain, trying to remember this particular person. Who is Arlen Hird? I don’t remember his name. Where did he come from? I also was confused why several of the most prominent and overtly communist members of the Hollywood Ten remained unnamed throughout the entire film. It was only later, during my research that I discovered that Arlen Hird was an amalgam character based on five of the Ten, all intellectual Jewish screenwriters who were all brilliant writers, at the top of their careers when the blacklist occurred (See New York Times article). While Arlen was described as lonely and poor, needing handouts from Trumbo, with very few mourners at his funeral, the men Arlen was based on were very much fiscally and socially successful, even though they were ideological communists. Many of them were ruined by the blacklist, but had been the most sought out screenwriters of their time just prior to being brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Ironically Arlen consistently critiques Dalton Trumbo throughout the film, with the actual leftist critique that many of the more radical Hollywood Ten actually felt about Trumbo, the critique I was raised hearing. They saw him as an opportunist who was mostly upset about his inability to continue making money, and having his name on playbills. They described him as less committed to the larger critical social issues that complete censorship of a set of political views has on political dialogue. Arlen repeatedly presents these thoughts and critiques to Trumbo, but in the film they are framed as ineffectual, and Trumbo responds with an almost indulgent humor. In classic Hollywood style, Arlen is punished for his radical beliefs with death before the end of the film.
As the film follows Trumbo, we see him imprisoned, and then unable to write, until he discovers, and supposedly single handedly creates, the black market for film scripts. Never mind that this is a simplistic depiction of a much more complex development ¾ the real crime in this depiction is the lack of description of the complete ruin that many in the blacklist actually experienced. Arlen dies, true, but he dies of lung cancer that he already had at the beginning of the film. The film makes it seem like these blacklisted screenwriters weren’t allowed to write for a little bit, and didn’t get invited to the fancy parties. But it was much more intense than that. There were suicides, and real suffering, fear, and deep betrayal, and families that never recovered. As an example of the betrayal and fear many lived with daily; a large set of blacklisted people that would have been known to Trumbo, and likely were his friends, were all recommended to the same psychologist, who it turned out was using their sessions to add names to HUAC’s list for subpoena. That level of betrayal created life-long fear in most of the victims of the blacklist. That is a better explanation for Trumbo’s tears in his 1970 speech to the Writer’s Guild shown at the end of the film. In real life he was mourning the loss of very good friends, and brilliant artists. In the film, these tears are almost ineffectual, because the complete ruin of the people he is describing was not presented on screen.
Why change the story so drastically? Why change a story about American intellectuals ¾ many of them Jews, being scape-goated during the Cold War for the sake of fear mongering ¾ into a story about one scrappy white guy who just wanted to do his art, and was ostensibly sold out by “greedy Jews” trying to fit in?
The New York Times article about the film describes this choice as a simplification for the sake of story telling. However, this reinterpretation carries intense repercussions for both the populist view of Jews, the understanding about HUACs agenda, intellectualism in this country, and the real history of the Communist Blacklist. Trumbo is a very well made, and strategically written film. It rewrites the story of the Hollywood Blacklist for an audience that knows very little about the topic. It subtly shifts the conversation away from the meat of the issue, that an entire section of the conversation about human rights was demonized and then suppressed as a result of HUAC’s witch-hunt.
The obscuring of facts in this case, also distorts and obscures the message of what makes knowing the history of HUAC censorship so important, for informing this current generation about the censorship of ideas, and the target of particular ethnic groups within that censoring. The Blacklist was an American story. And it was very much a predominantly Jewish American story. The screenwriters, actors, producers, directors, and crew, were not the only Jews of note. The “meatheads” who are depicted in Trumbo as B movie producers, that didn’t really understand what they were doing, and were only in it for the “money and the pussy,” were actually the kind of guys who come out of the Jewish organized crime world, and were very clear what they were doing. They were also clear that they were helping out a lot of Jewish Hollywood.
The film rewrites this story to make it not a Jewish story at all. Certainly this can be explained as a way of making the topic more approachable to mainstream America. Yet, as a result it leaves out a whole element of the American dialogue around censor, and legal oppression, that is currently in need of historical artifacts to bring insight. A film about the Blacklist could educate how censorship, and pointed targeting of a specific subset of citizens plays out. Targeting an ethnicity within the United States as “suspicious and dangerous,” has drastic and far-reaching ramifications for the entire culture.
What the film Trumbo does, instead, is shore up the old familiar heroic story of the maverick underdog against a rigid evil. The hero, in classic Hollywood style, eventually wins out through hard work and a little wit. A good story, a fine story, an American story, and not the truth of this story. Not the truth at all.
New York Times Article: “’Trumbo’ Recalls the Hunters and the Hunted of Hollywood.” Nicolas Rapold. November 4, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/movies/trumbo-recalls-the-hunters-and-the-hunted-of-hollywood.html?_r=1