November 2, 2003


76 TRUMBOS PLAY THE BIG PARADE! (Mark Steyn, October 2003, The New Criterion)

Trumbo is written by his son, Christopher Trumbo, who presumably knew his dad in all his particulars. But he’s signed on to an arrangement in which his pop is an empty suit for whichever minor celebrity has a month to spare. [...]

Even taking Trumbo at his son’s estimation, a battle between a hero and a bunch of non-speaking parts is profoundly unsatisfying. Eventually, the play’s lack of drama becomes so conspicuous one assumes it must be intentional.

What’s missing from this picture? By way of comparison, let me offer the example of my old friend Diana Mosley, who died recently at the age of 93, a victim of the Paris heatwave. In the Thirties, Diana got the hots for Fascism and Nazism: Hitler came to her wedding, she thought he had exquisite table manners, etc. When war broke out, the Government in Britain had her jailed as a possible security threat. After the war, she began a lifelong exile in France. She didn’t kill anyone, she didn’t take up arms against her country, but she never quite sufficiently regretted her youthful support for a totalitarian philosophy that proved to be genocidal. Although she was witty, charming and a biographer of distinction, it would be impossible to imagine a play about Diana Mosley in which her enthusiasm for Nazism was not placed squarely at the centre.

Like Diana, Dalton Trumbo didn’t kill anyone or take up arms against his country. Like Diana, he went to jail and paid a price for being merely a youthful supporter of a totalitarian philosophy that proved to be genocidal. Though the play won’t tell you the answer to that famous question – “Are you now or have you ever…?” – the answer is: yes, he was. The more interesting question is: How do you feel about getting one of the great moral questions of the century wrong? I used to ask Diana Mosley that all the time and received a variety of answers which, however unsatisfactory, were never self-serving nor an attempt to stake a claim for victimhood. So how did Dalton Trumbo feel about appending his name to the sponsors’ plaque on the bloodiest killing field of all time? Here’s what he wrote to Albert Maltz in 1972:

Whatever else may be said of Communists and the goals they pursued. I think you and I can agree that those who joined the Party were animated by a sincere desire to change the world and make it better, even at the cost of affiliating with an organization that had, from its beginnings, been subject to constant federal harassment, popular hatred, and sometimes physical violence. The impulses which caused them to affiliate with the Communist Party were good impulses, and the men and women who acted on them were good people.

Mr. Steyn is entirely too generous. In order to fit the analogy with Mr. Trumbo--who is reputed to have joined the Communist Party in 1943, long after the Hitler-Stalin pact and revelations about the mass murder of their own people by the Soviets--Ms Mosley would have had to join the Nazi Party after the start of WWII and after the Holocaust became known. A youthful exuberance for Marxism can certainly be excused--the young are generally ignorant and idealistic fools--but a never-repented Stalinism is inexcusable. No person who deserves to be considered decent stayed a Communist or became one after Stalin helped Hitler start WWII and dismember Poland and no one who helped cover up the Soviet conspiracy to overthrow our government, which is what the CPUSA essentially was, deserves our sympathy. The reason folks refused to testify before HUAC is the same as it always is when folks plead the 5th: they were guilty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 2, 2003 7:04 AM

Trumbo was lionized by the Upper West Side crowd in 1971 when his anti-war film "Johnny Got His Gun" came out, but of course, with that group, Trumbo could have made anything so long as it maintained his past political beliefs and they would have lionized it because of his Hollywood 10 connection (heck, he could have made "Leave It To Beaver" with Gale Gordon, as Steyn implies, and it would have been lioninzed, though I'd still prefer Hugh Beaumont in the Ward Clever role).

"Johnny" also contains one of the earliest examples of overt Hollywood religion bashing, when the title character is rejected by Jesus in a dream sequence for being "a very unlucky man" who Christ does not want to be associated with. Micahel Medved spotlighted that line of dialogue in one of his early "Golden Turkey Award" books 20 years ago; given the nature of Hollywood films towards religion in the years since then, Trumbo obviously was a pacesetter in this aspect of modern script writing.

Posted by: John at November 2, 2003 11:09 AM