Surviving the crucible

“This is the beginnings of American concentration camps for writers.” 

“This is the beginnings of American concentration camps for writers.” 

Dalton Trumbo, writer of Spartacus and Roman Holiday among many others, spoke these words into a microphone as he was being hauled from the floor of the House of Representatives. It was 1950 and the McCarthy Hearings were just getting started.

He wasn’t far from the truth either. The U.S. Senate had already ordered the refurbishment of the internment camps where they had very recently held Japanese Americans during and after WWII. Entire families had been held in these camps for the duration of the war because our government viewed anyone of Japanese descent to be a threat to national security. They seemed to feel the same about writers.

But it wasn’t just writers. Anyone in Hollywood who was participating in any film that was anti-war was considered a threat and brought before the senate for questioning. Dalton Trumbo, along with nine others, refused to answer any questions because they were unconstitutional. They didn’t plan to allow our government to circumvent the constitution just because they saw communist conspiracies everywhere they looked. 

The “Hollywood 10” as they were called, were jailed, ostracized and left unable to work because they refused to take part in a witch-hunt or rat out their friends. Trumbo, however, refused to take it lying down.  He wrote under assumed names or by using fronts in order to keep food on the table.

When his film, The Brave One, won the Academy Award for best original story, it emerged that Trumbo had written the script, although he wouldn’t confirm this rumor. His front, a nephew of a studio executive, refused to pick it up and Trumbo couldn’t, so it remained unclaimed until 1975.

Trumbo is a fascinating look at this period of history and is presented in a marvelously unique way.  Adapted from a play by his son Christopher Trumbo, this film is the documentary equivalent of creative non-fiction. Through Trumbo’s letters to family, friends and even the phone company, we learn what it was like to be persecuted for standing up to the government.

These letters are read by today’s most prominent actors, including Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson and Joan Allen. The most entertaining performance by far is Nathan Lane reading a letter to Trumbo’s son regarding masturbation. The readings are interspersed with documentary footage not only of the hearings but also of interviews with surviving family members and even home movies of the Trumbo family and their friends.

Dalton Trumbo saw friends go broke, commit suicide and turn on others, but he never wavered in his conviction that Congress had no right to know his political affiliation or anyone else’s. This film is about a real self-made hero that stood up for his beliefs in the most difficult of times.