How Bryan Cranston’s ‘Trumbo’ Whitewashes Stalinism

Blacklisting was and is a terrible thing—but we do a disservice to history when we unthinkingly celebrate Stalinists as heroes.

11.05.15 5:01 AM ET

One of the weaknesses of Trumbo, the hagiographic new film starring Bryan Cranston as blacklisted communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, is that it never grapples with what it meant to belong to a political party funded by an unfriendly foreign power committing atrocities on an unimaginably horrifying scale. While we can agree that blacklisting was a dark period in our history, it’s also worth looking at the people and policies Trumbo and his fellow American communists supported before we hold them up as heroes—and before we condemn those who named names as spineless, craven cowards.

The film’s explication of Trumbo’s own commitment to communism is literally childish. After his daughter asks whether or not he’s a commie, Trumbo sagely launches into a spiel about how communism is just like sharing one’s lunch with a hungry classmate at school. Taken solely as a piece of writing, the speech is cringe-inducing, pedantic. However, the deployment of such a metaphor on behalf of communism is amusingly and darkly ironic given what we know of the engineered starvations presided over by his party’s leaders.

“The use of famine as a weapon of the state against the populace is generally considered to be a Stalinist innovation,” Martin Amis notes in Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. “But Lenin’s famine of 1921-22 had its terroristic aspects. Both famines had the same cause: punitive food-requisitioning.” The Bolsheviks had little interest in providing food to the hungry; indeed, they deployed hunger as a weapon. That being said, Trumbo’s ignorance of the Soviet policy of starving the peasantry to death is understandable, given Stalin’s predilection for executing those who bought it up—or those census takers who found that Russia’s population figures were suffering as a result of collectivization.

It’s hard to say how closely tied Trumbo was to the Communist Party. “When he marched alongside Communists, it was never as an apparatchik, an automaton, or a robotic follower of dogma,” Larry Ceplair writes in the introduction to Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. His critics “fail to understand that the ‘redness’ of Trumbo’s ideas, at any particular time, must be carefully analyzed and that Trumbo’s Communist Party membership was only a small part of a much larger life.”

Allan H. Ryskind, the author of Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters—Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler would vehemently disagree with this assessment. In his book he highlighted the pro-Soviet messages inserted into the Writer’s Guild’s magazine, The Screen Writer, under Trumbo’s watch and noted his long service to the cause.

“So far as Moscow was concerned, Trumbo, though he sold the Party line with zest, wit, and imagination, was for years a stolid Communist conformist,” Ryskind writes. “There appeared to be no corkscrew twist in the Soviet line he wouldn’t embrace.”

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle; I doubt Dalton was getting telegrams from Uncle Joe. But it is interesting to look at Trumbo’s actions, rather than his words, to see just how closely he was hewing to the Communist line at any given time. And one item that jumps out is the publication history of Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo’s antiwar novel.

As Thomas Patrick Doherty notes in Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, support for Communist front groups began drying up after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact required them to lay off the Nazis. The Germans and Soviets were now allies who would soon carve up Poland together, and that meant Trumbo and his fellow travelers had to embrace an anti-war and tacitly pro-fascist party line.

“Only party discipline and an eye for the big picture kept the true believers in line,” Doherty writes of the book that was also serialized in The Daily Worker. “The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a dutiful party liner, published an antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a young American doughboy from the Great War, his face, arms, and legs blown off, who pleads in Morse code to be put on exhibit as a warning to future generations.”

But a funny thing happened after Hitler turned on Stalin a few years later and the Communists desperately sought American entry into the war: Trumbo suddenly become much less committed to pacifism. And, after receiving letters from non-interventionists who thought the book was needed now more than ever, Trumbo let it go out of print.

“Nothing could have convinced me so quickly that Johnny was exactly the sort of book that shouldn’t be reprinted until the war was at an end,” he wrote in an introduction to the novel dated March 25, 1959. “The publishers agreed.”

More fascinating than Trumbo’s willingness to sacrifice royalties for the good of the Party, though, is the little tidbit that follows: “At the insistence of friends who felt my correspondents’ efforts could adversely affect the war effort, I foolishly reported their activities to the F.B.I.” Dalton Trumbo, it turns out, was himself a namer of names.

Or maybe Trumbo was a patriot stirred to action after Pearl Harbor. These things are complicated. The point is, when one knows about Trumbo’s own history of playing stool pigeon for the feds, one can’t help but laugh at the scene in Trumbo in which Dalton huffily denounces Edward G. Robinson (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) for naming names, including Trumbo’s own, to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Robinson’s story is a sad one—a liberal but not a Communist, he was still made to suffer—and a reminder that things aren’t quite as black and white as Trumbo would have us believe. HUAC and the Hollywood Ten have been reduced to figures in a morality play, one where naming names is bad and clamming up about Communists good.

One shudders to think of how Hollywood would handle the story of Elia Kazan, the brilliant director who earned the enmity of a generation of leftists for testifying in front of HUAC. As Richard Schickel notes in his biography of Kazan, the director did so not because he was a coward worried about finding work but because he did not care for the Soviet-funded Communist Party’s interference in the work of his theater company.

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“Eventually Kazan was offered a stark choice: between his loyalty to the Group at large or to its Communist faction,” Schickel writes. The feisty Kazan was unimpressed. “Like many another artist and intellectual in this period, he simply would not tolerate this failing god’s interference with his work.” Trumbo, it’s safe to say, had a different set of concerns.

Yes, there’s no excuse for the blacklisting of communists by Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Just as Scott Eckern, Orson Scott Card, and Brendan Eich should not be deprived of their livelihood for their political views—and those on the right should think twice before launching a boycott of Quentin Tarantino for his recent comments about police—the Hollywood Ten and other Communists should not have been shut out of the studio system for arguing in favor of an unpopular ideology.

But it wasn’t just an unpopular ideology that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow blacklistees were supporting with their membership in the Communist Party: They were backing Stalin and a murderous, totalitarian regime dedicated to bringing America into the Communist fold. And to overlook this fact, as Trumbo does, is to do a real disservice to history.