New Hollywood Movie ‘Trumbo’ Glorifies a Stalinist Screenwriter

Allan H. Ryskind | November 10, 2015 | 3:05pm EST
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This photo provided by Bleecker Street shows Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo in iJay Roach's "Trumbo," a Bleecker Street release. The movie opened in U.S. theaters on Friday, Nov. 6, 2015. (AP Photo/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Bleecker Street)

The just released movie, Trumbo, is not only a major tribute to Communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo but is Hollywood’s latest effort to exalt those hardcore Party members who made a serious attempt—and almost succeeded—in capturing the movie industry.  The following are the author’s answers to questions put to him by those interested in the historic battle between the Communists and the anti-Communists in the 1930s and 1940s.

Q: Do you view the newly released movie, Trumbo, a major tribute to the blacklisted screenwriter, as fundamentally accurate?    

A: It bears little relation to the truth, really.  Trumbo’s heavy labors on behalf of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin and a Communist America are essentially erased, down George Orwell’s famous memory hole.  So is his support of Lenin, Adolph Hitler (during the Hitler-Stalin pact) and North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung after his aggressive attack against South Korea in 1950.  Trumbo’s support of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and military threats against Western Europe are also unnoticed. Trumbo, in fact, is treated as something of a saintly Socialist, more Pope Francis than Karl Marx.  The anti-Communist community, meaning those who fought  the considerable Red conspiracy in Hollywood, are slammed pretty hard, with columnist Hedda Hopper, actor John Wayne and the House Un-American Activities Committee absorbing some of the biggest licks.

Virtually all the anti-Communists are made to look mean, petty and hypocritical, so audiences fresh to the controversy might easily dismiss their opinions.  Trumbo, however, is elevated to hero status a brave, talented American—he was brave and talented, I think I’ll concede that point—who not only defied the blacklist, but defeated it, while striking  a major blow on behalf of the First Amendment, supposedly Dalton’s North Star when it came to politics.  It’s all nonsense, of course, for he was a deadly serious Stalinist who deployed a dozen strategies to do in his country.

Q: How did this movie come about?

A: The film’s screenwriter is John McNamara, who did such TV shows as Lois and Clark and Acquarius and was inspired by Bruce Cook’s 1977 friendly biography. McNamara, a big admirer of Trumbo, worked on the script for years.  Jay Roach, the director, is another Trumbo fan.  He’s directed such successful hits as Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery and Meet the Parents . The star who plays Dalton is Bryan Cranston, who was a meth dealer in the hit TV series Breaking Bad and has been giving major interviews singing Trumbo’s praises.

Q: Conservative critics say that Hollywood is making a hero out of a dedicated Stalinist who fought long and hard to bring about a Sovietized America. Was he, in fact, a member of the Communist party?

A: There is no question about his CP membership.  In those famous 1947 hearings, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) submitted material proving beyond a quibble that he was a party member, though Trumbo and nine other screenwriters and directors refused to respond to questions about party membership, accusing HUAC of violating their First Amendment rights.  Trumbo and the other nine, soon to be dubbed The Hollywood Ten, served time in prison for contempt of Congress and were blacklisted because the Hollywood studios laid down the rule that no one could work in Hollywood if he or she belonged to the Soviet-controlled Communist party or refused to tell Congress whether or not they belonged.  Years later, however, Trumbo finally admitted to his biographer, Bruce Cook, that he joined the party in 1943 and that “I might as well have been a Communist ten years earlier.  But I’ve never regretted it.  As a matter of fact, it’s possible to say I would have regretted not having done it …” (Bruce Cook’s Dalton Trumbo, pp. 146-148.)

In an unpublished memo among his papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison (a copy of which is in my possession), Trumbo writes, after his prison term and a lengthy sojourn to Mexico, that he “reaffiliated with the party in 1954” and that “in the spring of 1956, I left the party for good.”  His papers in Madison also revealed he remained a Stalin apologist until his death, insisting that whatever his defects, the Kremlin dictator’s most important historical contribution was to have advanced the cause of Socialism worldwide.

Q: But is it really fair to call him a Stalinist, meaning a long-time servant of the Soviet dictator?

A: Though he says he joined the party in 1943, Trumbo never publicly deviated from the Stalinist line since the late 1930s and never publicly criticized any of his infamous deeds.  In a sympathetic portrayal of the Hollywood Communists in their classic, The Inquisition in Hollywood, authors Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund ask: “Were the Hollywood Communists ‘Stalinist’? The initial answer must be ‘yes.’  Communist screenwriters defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern’s policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with an infuriating self-righteousness, superiority and selective memory, which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers.” (p. 239)

“As defenders of the Soviet regime,” they added, “the screen artist Reds became known apologists for crimes of monstrous dimensions, though they claimed to have known nothing about such crimes, and, indeed, shouted down, or ignored those who did.”  Ceplair and Englund also stress that they “defended that regime unflinchingly, uncritically, inflexibly—and therefore left themselves open to the justifiable suspicion that they not only approved of everything they were defending but would themselves act in the same way if they were in the same position.” (p. 241)

Q: But why did the House Un-American Activities Committee feel it should open up an investigation of the Communist influence in Hollywood?

A: By 1944, a number of important Hollywood writers, directors, labor union officials and studio executives, alarmed by the Communist infiltration of the industry, formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals MPA).  Among the founders and members were Morrie Ryskind, Walt Disney, Russian émigré Ayn Rand, labor union officials and executives from various studios.  Actors Robert Taylor and John Wayne were leaders in the group.

The group was formed because in 1944 it looked as if committed Stalinists had gotten control of the movie industry.  Party members had major influence in the powerful guilds and unions, with the very influential Screen Writers Guild having tapped Red screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Gordon Kahn to run the guild’s flag-ship publication, The Screen Writer.  Under Trumbo and Kahn, The Screen Writer became an arm of the Red movement in Hollywood.  Virtually everything Red was saluted.  The Communists even appeared to have control of screen content, as numerous films, written by party members, were being shown in theaters across the country celebrating the Soviet way of life and Stalin himself. 

Q: What accounts for a Hollywood film showering Dalton Trumbo with such genuine acclaim?

A: Ever since the House Un-American Activities Committee began investigating the Communist influence in the movie industry, the Hollywood Left has been eager to discredit the committee and the anti-Communist witnesses and make heroes of those who were blacklisted. The Left has concocted a myth, however, by pretending that the studios, instead of blacklisting real subversives, blacklisted scores of radical innocents, those with views as non-violent as a Bernie Sanders Socialist. But the myth is a provable falsehood.

For instance, Hollywood continues to pour out propaganda on behalf of The Hollywood Ten, the first from the movie colony to be officially blacklisted by the studios.  Scores of articles, books and movies have been written embracing the Ten as victims of a witch hunt.  But each and every one of them, as HUAC proved, was a party member in 1947 and only one, Edward Dmytryk, ever turned his back on Stalin and the Soviet Union.  By the way, the studios rehired him after he renounced the Stalinist regime in Moscow. Indeed, the studios unblacklisted, if there is such a word, everyone who repudiated the USSR and the American Communist party.

By 1947, you also have to remember, the Cold War, instigated by Stalin , was already under way and most of America realized that Stalin had become a deadly enemy of this country and, in fact, the entire non-Communist world.  The cream of the liberal community, such as FDR’s widow, Eleanor Roosevelt,  liberal lawyer Joseph Rauh, union leaders Walter Reuther and David Dubinsky had deliberately split with the American Communists, forming in January 1947 the American for Democratic Action, which banned, or should I say blacklisted, anyone who was a Communist.

Yet half a century later, I attended a gathering of swells at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, where Hollywood was honoring long-time Stalinists, including Hollywood Ten celebrity Ring Lardner, Jr., and the former head of the Communist party in Hollywood, Paul Jarrico.  From the Writers Guild of America, West, a successor organization to the powerful Screen Writers Guild, they received First Amendment awards, no less, for refusing to tell HUAC whether they were party members and thus, in effect, working for Moscow.  Whatever one might think of the blacklist, why in the world would Hollywood bestow a First Amendment award on anyone who was a proven CP member, since Communists the world over have never believed in free speech for those opposed to this dreadful form of government? It’s mind-boggling, really, but such Hollywood liberals like Billy Crystal, Kevin Spacey and John Lithgow were on stage honoring these long-time Stalinists.

The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey, runs regularly on TV and the authors name a wonderful patriotic town, filled with Middle-American virtues, after John Howard Lawson, an excellent screenwriter, but Hollywood’s veteran CP boss, who died still yearning to see a Stalinist America.  He was the long-time enforcer of the party line in Hollywood.  Trumbo himself has been honored before in a 2008 documentary by his son Christopher, which received a ton of praise from Hollywood actors and reviewers.  That “documentary” transformed Dalton into a modern-day Dreyfus, stuffed with Old Testament wisdom and profound thoughts on liberty.  More than a dozen Trumbo idolaters were featured in the documentary, including Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, Donald Sutherland and Liam Neeson.  Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss and F. Murray Abraham starred in an earlier two-man skit honoring Dalton. He’s been a Hollywood favorite for a long time.

Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters -- Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler by Allan H. Ryskind

Q: But what, specifically, did Trumbo do to support communism?

A: Trumbo was not a passive Marxist, but a Red activist who used his seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy to advance the Soviet cause. He joined the Kremlin-controlled Communist party, participated in dozens of important Communist front groups and wrote well publicized essays, speeches, pamphlets and skits pushing the Soviet point of view.  He was a stout defender of American and foreign Communists and a conspicuous backer of the notorious Civil Rights Congress, a group that unleashed vicious and provable falsehoods against the American government and publicly embraced such men as Gerhart Eisler, a prominent German member of the Stalin-controlled Communist International, who gave instructions to Communist chieftains in America.

From mid-1945 until the winter of 1947, he was the editor of The Screen Writer, the official publication of the powerful Screen Writers Guild transforming that publication into a virtual Red propaganda organ, with the aid of CP members Gordon Kahn (managing editor), and Harold J. Samuelson (editorial secretary).  The Screen Writer championed Moscow’s war aims, hailed Red screenwriters and their movies celebrating Stalin, lavished praise on Hollywood’s Red guilds and unions and launched scathing attacks against the anti-Communist community.  The publication was also filled with little notes and asides advertising lectures on history, economics and foreign policy from a Marxist and Soviet point of view.  Even Trumbo’s favorable biographer, Bruce Cook, concedes: “Under his editorship, The Screen Writer was strongly weighed to the left. . .” Hard to miss, really. (Bruce Cook’s Dalton Trumbo, p. 169)

Q: But wasn’t Trumbo, as well as many of his comrades in the party, a foe of fascism and Adolph Hitler?

A: Yes, but that was before Hitler and Stalin concluded the Hitler-Stalin pact on Augus 23, 1939.  For the next 22 months, the Communist screenwriters in the United States were, like the Soviet Union and the American Communist party, clearly on the side of the Nazi warlord.  They supported him when he invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939—the inevitable result of the pact—and they backed him the next year as he conquered Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and then planted the Nazi flag in France.  And these same Red Screenwriters were supporting Hitler when he began raining bombs on London, softening up England for a cross-channel invasion.

Trumbo himself led the fight in America to ease Hitler’s burden of conquest.  He did this by demonizing Hitler’s enemies, assailing Great Britain as deceptive and dishonorable, and suggesting it was unworthy of assistance because it was a monarchy not a democracy.  England, he also noted, had declared war against Hitler, not the other way around, and he accused President Roosevelt, previously a Communist party favorite, of “treason” and “black treason” for sending the British military assistance.  Trumbo vigorously presented his view in his speeches and in writing and laid out the case most explicitly in his 1941 novel, The Remarkable Andrew.

Trumbo also engaged in a whirlwind of activity to enable the Nazi leader to challenge the West.  He publicly backed the Communist-instigated strikes designed to shut down our defense industry, put on skits resuming his “treason” charge against FDR and enthusiastically backed the Communist-led pickets around the White House demanding the emasculation of our military.  He worked around the clock to make certain that America would be weakened militarily and rendered wholly incapable of helping any nation, group or individual facing the Nazi totalitarian.

All this was in complete accord with Soviet foreign policy as laid down by the Stalin-controlled Comintern and delivered to the American CP via the Comintern’s chieftain, Georgi Dimitrov.

Q: Why, then, did the American Communists turn against Hitler?

A: The American Communist party, including its Hollywood sector, turned against Hitler only after the Fuehrer betrayed Stalin in June of 1941, launching a massive invasion of the Soviet Union.  Then, and only then, did the radical screenwriters switch sides again.  In a somersault worthy of The Flying Wallendas, they now enthusiastically supported FDR’s anti-Hitler policy and demanded that America give immediate assistance to England, the Soviet Union and, in fact, virtually all who could help in the effort to crush Nazi Germany.

Q: Is it true that Trumbo supported Communist North Korea when it launched its attack against South Korea in 1950?

A: Trumbo was a stalwart friend of Kim Il-Sung’s totalitarian Communist regime and thoroughly welcomed the invasion, blaming the aggressive assault on the United States.  The UN labeled the North as the aggressor and American soldiers sustained thousands of casualties in rescuing the South from Communist conquest, but Dalton was on the other side and even wrote a snarky little poem titled “Korean Christmas,”  which condemned America and the “Christian ethic” for the war and the human suffering.  It goes like this:

“Have we hurt you, little boy/Ah, … we have/We hurt you terribly/We’ve killed you/Hear, then, little corpse … It had to be/Poor consolation, yet it had to be/The Christian ethic was at stake/And western culture and the American way/and so, in the midst of pure and holy strife/We had to take your little eastern life.”

Channeling his inner Stalin, he also wrote a screenplay—paid for by some of his Hollywood Ten friend and discovered in his papers in Madison—in which the major character, Catherine Bonham, reveals her strong attachment to the “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea.”  Mrs. Bonham, voicing Trumbo’s views, insists Kim’s country is a model Asian nation that is fighting for its freedom “just as we had to fight for our own independence in 1776.”  She is hopeful, nay predicts, that “people all over the world” will rise up and create other North Koreas. “Many will suffer and die fighting for this goal,” she tells her children, “but we will win.  Never doubt it.”

Q: Did Trumbo say positive things about the Soviet Union?

A:  He normally supported the Soviet Union by refusing to publicly criticize any of its ruthless policies at home or abroad, 2) backing its strenuous efforts to Sovietize the world through military threats and subversion, and 3) arguing that Soviet policy was infinitely preferable to American policy.  Here is what Larry Ceplair and Dalton’s late son, Christopher Trumbo, say in Dalton Trumbo, their recent book on the radical screenwriter, on Trumbo’s attitude toward Moscow.  Trumbo, they point out, defended the Soviet Union’s conquest of Eastern Europe and portions of Central Europe and refused to condemn its “gross violations” of civil liberties in those Soviet occupied and dominated countries.  Indeed, Trumbo suggested the Soviets were in many ways more democratic than America.

“Trumbo,” they concede, “viewed Soviet activity in Central and Eastern Europe in the most benevolent, one might even say purblind, manner possible. … In one of his critiques of U.S. foreign policy, he stated: ‘It is notable that the Russians, in Russian-occupied countries, have in no instance set up Soviet Socialist Republics.’ Rather they had established governments that were more democratic than the one in Mississippi, and a larger percentage of the people in Soviet-occupied countries voted regularly than did those living in the Philippines.” (p. 162)

Q: The movie portrays Trumbo as a champion of black rights, but he was not a fan of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Why was that?

A: Trumbo, it seems, was always attracted to totalitarian and revolutionary political leaders and King didn’t fit into that mold.  Trumbo’s a guy who backed Lenin, Stalin and Kim Il-Sung and, at the very least, was a Hitler Enabler, who clearly preferred the Nazi warlord over the Western democracies until the Fuerher invaded Russia. In their new biography of Trumbo (see above), Ceplair and Englund write that Dalton, a supporter of the Black Panthers, “had come to believe that non-violent resistance had its limitations.  When David L. Wolper contacted Trumbo about adapting William Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (about the leader of a bloody slave revolt in Virginia in 1831), Trumbo expressed interest and described Turner as ‘a far more contemporary figure than Martin Luther King. . . .In his resort to violence, Nat Turner is truly a man of the Twentieth Century, which Martin Luther King, unhappily, is not.’”(p. 473) What’s also of some interest is that Trumbo brushed off King’s non-violent tactics after the country had passed the historic 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation largely because of the movement led by King.


Allan Ryskind is the author of the recently published “Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters—Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler,” He had a ringside seat growing up in Beverly Hills watching the furious fight between the Hollywood Reds and those, like his dad, who battled them.

A long-time editor at Human Events, he is the son of Morrie Ryskind, who wrote or co-wrote nearly 50 films during his lifetime, including numerous Marx Brothers comedies. Ryskind’s dad also testified against the Communist effort to take over the Screen Writers Guild in those famous 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, which resulted in Trumbo and nine other screenwriters and directors being blacklisted for refusing to tell the committee whether they were members of the Communist party.

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