By Eric Lee (first published on Eric’s blog)
“Trumbo” is a the latest in a series of Hollywood films that looks back nostalgically at the McCarthy era, a time when the good guys were blacklisted writers accused of membership in the Communist Party, and the bad guys were the US government, studio bosses, and right-wing media.
The first of those films was probably “The Way We Were” (1973) starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Made only a few years after blacklisting had ended, when the Cold War was still raging, it became a template for future films on the subject. The film takes place over several decades, as Streisand and Redford fall in and out of love. In the opening scenes, Streisand plays the very young Katie, a committed activist, and is initially shown as campus leader of the Young Communist League (YCL).
The writers could have chosen which years to use, as the film is deeply rooted in historical events. They could have chosen 1940, for example, when Katie would have been campaigning against US entry into the Second World War, denouncing British imperialism and supporting the Hitler-Stalin pact. But they did not – they set the first scene to the mid-1930s, so Katie is shown advocating for Republican Spain and against the fascists.
The next scene is during the war, but at a time when both the US and the Soviet Union are fighting on the same side, against the Nazis. Katie is no longer denouncing Roosevelt as a war-monger (as she would have done in 1940) and is instead working hard on the war effort, and an uncritical admirer of the beloved President. This was during a time when the Communist Party’s leader, Earl Browder, infamously declared that “Communism is twentieth-century Americanism”.
The remaining parts of the story are set in the late 1940s when the Communists faced the persecution of the Hollywood blacklist, and a final scene shows her crusading against nuclear weapons in the early 1960s.
In other words, the historical setting of every scene in “The Way We Were” is carefully calculated to show off American Communists in the best possible light. They are not shown defending Stalin’s show trials, harassing independent leftists (including Trotskyists), defending the pact with Hitler, and so on. Instead the lovely Katie is backing only the most noble causes.
Films like “The Front” (1976) starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel continued the tradition, highlighting just how awful the McCarthy era was for Hollywood, destroying the lives of innocent radicals who had done nothing wrong.
“Trumbo” is the latest version of the story. It stars the brilliant Bryan Cranston who was deservedly nominated for several Best Actor awards. But his acting aside, the film continues the portrayal of American Communists as decent people, innocent of any crime, who were victims of right-wing media and politicians.
An early scene shows Trumbo with his daughter, who asks her father if she too is a Communist.
In a cringe-worthy moment, Trumbo asks her what her favourite sandwich is. Ham and cheese, she replies. Well, he tells her, imagine if you came to school with your sandwich and one of her friends didn’t have lunch and was hungry. What would you do? Would you sell him half of your sandwich? Would you ignore him?
The little girl replies, no, of course not, I would share the sandwich. Well then, Trumbo explains, you’re pretty much a Communist.
The reality of Dalton Trumbo is a little bit more complex than that.
Trumbo, like a number of other successful Hollywood writers, was a member of the Communist Party and consistently supported the party line that was handed down from Moscow.
Trumbo admitted in an article that Stalinists in Hollywood succeeded in blocking some films from being made – films that had an anti-Soviet message. Among these was one based on Arthur Koestler’s book, Darkness at Noon.
Trumbo’s most famous book, Johnny Got His Gun, a masterpiece of anti-war writing, was allowed to go out of print following the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Trumbo’s view was that it was perfectly correct to write and publish an anti-war book when the Soviets were allied with the Nazis, but once Russia itself was under threat, such a book sent out the wrong message.
Some people encouraged Trumbo to keep the book in print during the war. But the author did more than suppress his own best work in the party interest. As he later admitted, he passed on the names of those who had encouraged him with the anti-war message … to the FBI.
Films like “Trumbo,” “The Front” or “The Way We Were” make much of how wrong it is to name names and inform on people. In “Trumbo” several characters are revealed as weak because they do so.
There’s no question that Dalton Trumbo was a great writer, and that the Hollywood blacklist was a dark period in American history. But the Stalinist victims were in many cases no heroes, and whitewashing them and rewriting history does no one any good.
This article was published in Solidarity.
The greatest scene from a great anti-fascist film:
Largely written by Comrade Matt C, edited by JD:
A number of prominent individuals from the British film and arts world have signed a letter, published in yesterday’s Guardian, calling on cinemas to boycott the London Israeli Film and Television Festival:
The festival is co-sponsored by the Israeli government via the Israeli embassy in London, creating a direct link between these cinemas, the festival screenings and Israeli policies. By benefiting from money from the Israeli state, the cinemas become silent accomplices to the violence inflicted on the Palestinian people. Such collaboration and cooperation is unacceptable. It normalises, even if unintentionally, the Israeli government’s violent, systematic and illegal oppression of the Palestinians.
The signatories – some of whom are Jewish – include Peter Kosminsky, Mike Leigh, John Pilger, Ken Loach and Miriam Margolyes.
The festival’s organisers reply:
“Our festival is a showcase for the many voices throughout Israel, including Arab Israelis and Palestinians, as well as religious and secular groups. These are highly talented film-makers and actors, working together successfully, to provide entertainment and insight for film and television lovers internationally.
“Freedom of expression in the arts is something that the British have worked so hard to defend. An attempt to block the sharing of creative pursuits and the genuine exchange of ideas and values is a disappointing reaction to a festival that sets out to open up lines of communication and understanding.”
There are, I would suggest, two problems with the boycott call. First, it is based on confusion between the Israeli government and the Israeli state. Clearly, the two are not entirely separate but a distinction can be made between the government (that is the policy making executive) and the state more generally. The state obviously includes some institutions that socialists would wholeheartedly oppose: the military (as we do that of any other state, including our own), Mossad and institutions that reflect religious particularlism.
The Israeli state prioritises the rights of Jewish Israelis over Arab Israelis (and many other states, including Britain, have racist biases), but there are many things that the Israeli state does that are not directly linked to this, such as arts funding. To a degree, arts funding reflects the character of the state which is often not good (and this includes the British state). Nonetheless, many of those on the list are happy to take funding from the British state. So looking down the list: Mike Leigh for many years made dramas for the state-funded and ultimately stated-controlled BBC, and currently has a production of The Pirates of the Penzance running of the English National Opera (state funded through the Art Council); John Brissenden works for the state (Bournemouth University) and presumably accepts its funding for his PhD; Gareth Evans works curates at the Whitechapel Gallery which receives state funding, again via the Arts Council. I am sure the similar points could be made about most of the signatories.
No doubt the boycotters would reply that they are not “silent accomplices” of the state (as those participating in the London Israeli Film and Television festival are styled in this letter), and their work is not a form of “collaboration” with it. They would argue, I guess, their work is not compromised by this funding, or at least that they fight against the states restrictions: is a reasonable defence. The arts and academic research frequently rely on a degree of support from the state, and this is in many ways preferable to the being reliant on the free market. But it would appear that the boycotters are not prepared to extend the same arguments to Israeli film makers whose work would be unlikely to be seen in this country without the sponsorship of the Israeli arts establishment (which means state support). The boycotters accept the sponsorship of their own (racist, militarist etc.) state but do not think that others (or uniquely, those in Israel) have the right to do the same.
The second question is: what are these people boycotting? The point is not whether anyone who opposes the policies of the Israeli state in Gaza and the West Bank would agree with all of the films being offered here. A socialist and consistent democrat should never be a left-wing censor allowing only views that they endorse to be aired. The only possible grounds for a supporter of free speech to oppose a cultural festival such as this is that it constitutes propaganda that is the cultural front of oppression (and even then, calling for it to be boycotted would be questionable approach). Looking at the brochure for the festival it is clearly not such a form of propaganda – even Fauda, a drama about Israeli undercover commandoes targeting a Hamas militant, runs with the current fashion of moral ambiguity rather than being a gung-ho adventure.
Other items on the programme more obviously address the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestine conflict (Dancing with Arabs, East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem) and the influence of religion on aspects of Israeli life, although many other offerings are more mainstream films and TV dramas.
It is certainly possible to criticise both the selection of material to be shown at the festival and the Israeli media industry behind it since there are no films, as far as I can see, made by Arab-Israeli film makers. But this is hardly the point. Rather, those who call for a boycott demand (it would seem, uniquely) that film makers from Israel should only be allowed to show their productions in Britain if they do so without any association with the state in which they live. Given the nature of cultural production and its reliance on state support, this is a call for a boycott of all but the most independent of film and TV producers and, in reality, amounts to a total boycott of all Israeli films and art. It is a ridiculous, reactionary stance that will do the Palestinian cause no practical good whatsoever, while alienating mainstream Jewish opinion in Britain and fuelling an insidious form of anti-Semitism that is becoming more and more “acceptable” in British liberal-left Guardianista circles. In truth, this boycott call (like the entire BDS campaign) only makes political sense if you wish for the ‘delegitimisation’ and, indeed, destruction, of the Israeli state: something that most of the signatories would, I’m pretty sure, deny they advocate.
They wouldn’t let nobody turn them around
From the US Socialist Worker (ISO) website (nothing to do with the UK SW):
tells the story of a landmark struggle of the civil rights movement that has been brought to life, fifty years on, in a new and justly celebrated movie.
THE STRUGGLE in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. A new film Selma takes up a three-month period from this battle, beginning with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. winning the Nobel Peace Prize and ending with the successful 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, which preceded the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of two main pieces of federal civil rights legislation that dismantled legal segregation.
Prior to 1965, activists in the South had been working hard for many years trying to register Blacks to vote. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that formed after the wave of lunch counter sit-ins in early 1960 had made voting rights a main aspect of its work. SNCC had been in Selma, working with Black activists, helping to develop leadership, holding meetings and helping to organize people to register.
Amelia Boynton, a prominent local activist was frustrated with the slow pace of progress in Selma. So she reached out to Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King answered the call, and SCLC brought its resources into the struggle in Selma.
Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, written by Paul Webb, starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo and Tim Roth.
The film focuses on three attempted marches from Selma to the capital of Montgomery, to confront racist Gov. George Wallace. The first time, marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and they were beaten, whipped and denied passage in an orgy of violence known as Bloody Sunday. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is named after a Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Klu Klux Klan.
In the film, this scene is intense. You feel as though you are on the bridge alongside the other activists, in a fog of thick tear gas. Then, all of a sudden, you see a horse coming forward and someone struck with a police billy club.
A few days later, with King at the head of it, activists attempt to cross the bridge again. This time, the troopers stood back to let the demonstrators pass. Whether King sensed a trap and was afraid of impending violence, or was concerned about violating a federal order not to cross before a coming hearing, King turned the march around. He lost respect among activists in SNCC and in the movement generally for this decision.
The third attempt happened several days later after a federal judge’s order cleared away all obstacles. Federal law enforcement agents were on hand for protection, and 300 marchers were allowed to march to Montgomery.
The movie is magnificent. It is filmed beautifully–many of the scenes are close-ups, with low lighting and actors speaking in soft voices, giving the filmgoer the sense of eavesdropping on conversations. The acting is superb, too.
But most importantly, the film captures the gut-wrenching sense of the human feeling of what it is like to be deprived of a basic human right just because you are Black, and what it takes to gather the courage and strength to challenge the oppressor. Director Ava DuVernay said people might understand the civil rights movement period intellectually, but she wanted people to feel it and make it “part of their DNA.” And she succeeds.
EXCLUSIVE: As it begins to dawn on everyone that Sony Pictures was the victim of a cyberterrorist act perpetrated by a hostile foreign nation on American soil, questions will be asked about how and why it happened, ending with Sony cancelling the theatrical release of the satirical comedy The Interview because of its depiction of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. One of the issues is this: Why didn’t anybody speak out while Sony Pictures chiefs Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton were embarrassed by emails served up by the media, bolstering the credibility of the hackers’ threat to blow up theaters if The Interview was released?
George Clooney has the answer. The most powerful people in Hollywood were so fearful to place themselves in the cross hairs of hackers that they all refused to sign a simple petition of support that Clooney and his agent, Bryan Lourd, circulated to the top people in film, TV, records and other areas. Not a single person would sign. Here, Clooney discusses the petition and how it is just part of many frightening ramifications that we are all just coming to grips with
DEADLINE: How could this have happened, that terrorists achieved their aim of cancelling a major studio film? We watched it unfold, but how many people realized that Sony legitimately was under attack?
GEORGE CLOONEY: A good portion of the press abdicated its real duty. They played the fiddle while Rome burned. There was a real story going on. With just a little bit of work, you could have found out that it wasn’t just probably North Korea; it was North Korea. The Guardians of Peace is a phrase that Nixon used when he visited China. When asked why he was helping South Korea, he said it was because we are the Guardians of Peace. Here, we’re talking about an actual country deciding what content we’re going to have. This affects not just movies, this affects every part of business that we have. That’s the truth. What happens if a newsroom decides to go with a story, and a country or an individual or corporation decides they don’t like it? Forget the hacking part of it. You have someone threaten to blow up buildings, and all of a sudden everybody has to bow down. Sony didn’t pull the movie because they were scared; they pulled the movie because all the theaters said they were not going to run it. And they said they were not going to run it because they talked to their lawyers and those lawyers said if somebody dies in one of these, then you’re going to be responsible.
On November 24 of this year, Sony Pictures was notified that it was the victim of a cyber attack, the effects of which is the most chilling and devastating of any cyber attack in the history of our country. Personal information including Social Security numbers, email addresses, home addresses, phone numbers and the full texts of emails of tens of thousands of Sony employees was leaked online in an effort to scare and terrorize these workers. The hackers have made both demands and threats. The demand that Sony halt the release of its upcoming comedy The Interview, a satirical film about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Their threats vary from personal—you better behave wisely—to threatening physical harm—not only you but your family is in danger. North Korea has not claimed credit for the attack but has praised the act, calling it a righteous deed and promising merciless measures if the film is released. Meanwhile the hackers insist in their statement that what they’ve done so far is only a small part of our further plan. This is not just an attack on Sony. It involves every studio, every network, every business and every individual in this country. That is why we fully support Sony’s decision not to submit to these hackers’ demands. We know that to give in to these criminals now will open the door for any group that would threaten freedom of expression, privacy and personal liberty. We hope these hackers are brought to justice but until they are, we will not stand in fear. We will stand together.
DEADLINE: That doesn’t sound like a hard paper to sign.
CLOONEY: All that it is basically saying is, we’re not going to give in to a ransom. As we watched one group be completely vilified, nobody stood up. Nobody took that stand. Now, I say this is a situation we are going to have to come to terms with, a new paradigm and a new way of handling our business. Because this could happen to an electric company, a car company, a newsroom. It could happen to anybody.
DEADLINE: You said everyone acts based on self interest. What’s yours?
CLOONEY: I wanted to have the conversation because I’m worried about content. Frankly, I’m at an age where I’m not doing action films or romantic comedies. The movies we make are the ones with challenging content, and I don’t want to see it all just be superhero movies. Nothing wrong with them, but it’s nice for people to have other films out there.
I learned from Radio 4’s Poetry Please that last Thursday, October 2nd, was National Poetry Day, on the theme of “Remember.”
Ever since I first heard it sung (on a 1938 record by Connee Boswell), I’ve thought that Irving Berlin’s 1925 song ‘(You Forgot To) Remember’ was sheer poetry. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find Connee’s version on Youtube, but I did stumble across a remarkably moving version by Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards, an extraordinary entertainer from the 1920’s and ’30’s, who is now only (if at all) remembered as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio:
Remember the night, the night you said, “I love you”
Remember you vowed by all the stars above you
Remember we found a lonely spot
And after I learned to care a lot
You promised that you’d forget me not
But you forgot to remember
Into my dreams you wandered it seems, and then there came a day
You loved me too, my dreams had come true, and all the world was May
But soon the Maytime turned to December
You had forgotten, do you remember?
PS: here’s Connee Boswell singing another lovely old tear-jerker, ‘In The Middle Of A Kiss’.
I ran into Comrade Clive Bradley over the weekend, and he was warm in his praise for the film Pride, which depicts (albeit in “feel-good” style à la The Full Monty and Made in Dagenham) the role of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the great 1984-5 strike.
Clive was a prominent member of LGSM at the time, although he’s not portrayed in the film.
Here’s an interview that Workers Liberty’s paper Solidarity did with Clive a couple of weeks ago, just after the film’s release. There is also a review of the film, which I haven’t republished, but which can be read here.
“The miners needed solidarity”
Solidarity: What was LGSM and what did it do?
Clive: It was a group that was set up of lesbians and gay men set up to support the miner’s strike. It has to be said it was initially mainly gay men, but more and more women got involved over the time. Practically it raised money for the miners who were on strike for a year. Mainly by standing outside lesbian and gay pubs rattling buckets, it raised quite a lot of money. This was sent to a particular mining community in south Wales, in the Dulais valley, with which connections had been made.
Solidarity: Why did this get started, and how did you get involved?
Clive: It was the idea of two people in particular, Mark Ashton and Mike Jackson. Both are dramatised in the movie. They put out a call at Pride in ‘84 and organised a meeting at “Gay Is the Word” bookshop in London. At that time I was just moving to London from Manchester and was a member of Socialist Organiser [forerunner of the AWL]. It’s not rocket science to see how I got involved.
I went to the second ever meeting of LGSM. I was active in supporting the miners and thought it was a brilliant initiative. It proved to have a very powerful effect on lesbian and gay men and on the miners. The NUM went on to lead the pride demonstration in August 1985. The NUM, a traditional union, not famous for its view on matters such as lesbian and gay rights, became quite prominent in the changing policy on gay rights in the Labour Party.
Solidarity: What impact did it have in the gay community, and what arguments did LGSM make about why gay people should support the miners?
Clive: The strike lasted for a whole year and divided the country, divided everybody. A lot of people supported the miners and didn’t need to be persuaded, but we argued that we needed the miners to win. If the miners lost then the Tory government would be going for everybody, and these lesbian and gay communities would be an easy target. People would put a lot of money into the bucket to show solidarity — presumably a lot of money they didn’t have in many cases. LGSM was the first really concrete example of how an “autonomous” movement of the “specially oppressed” (as we used to say) could struggle alongside the organised working class, and transform working-class consciousness in the process.
Solidarity: Were other left groups involved in LGSM? What was their attitude to it?
Clive: Some members of different left groups were personally involved, even members of Militant [forerunner of the Socialist Party] and the SWP, whose organisations were more hostile to the project. Militant , for example, generally argued that any kind of autonomous organisation was necessarily divisive. LGSM and Women Against Pit Closures, etc. showed that quite the reverse was true.
Solidarity: How was LGSM received in the mining communities?
Clive: The film does this quite cleverly. It is basically a rom com between two communities. The film shows you both acceptance and hostility, but a growing acceptance. That isn’t far off what actually happened.
I went to South Wales twice, the second time when the strike was actually finishing in March ‘85. That was very emotional for all of us. My own experience was that people couldn’t really have been more welcoming.
The first time we went down, there was a minibus load of us, we were being put up in people’s houses, that was the deal. We all went down to the miner’s welfare in the evening to sing songs and get drunk. It was completely fine, no hostility at all.
The reality was we were raising money for them. The miners needed solidarity, and I’m sure if people were at first dubious about where the solidarity came from, need overcame that. And, of course, as you make contact with people you realise that you have more in common than you initially thought. Why the suspicions broke down, as I’m sure there were some, is no mystery. It was the nature of people meeting each other and the power of solidarity.
Solidarity: What do you think members of LGSM learnt from the experience?
Clive: For many people it was their first time going to that sort of working-class community, though certainly not for everyone. We were a mixed group and certainly there were people from working-class backgrounds, it was not all middle class lefties. The vast majority were just people who wanted to do something.
When you have a big confrontation between a section of the working class and the government you have to take sides, more than just in your head.
There have been reunions [of LGSM] recently and many people still seem to hold broadly the same views that they used to. You can tell for many people in LGSM it was an absolutely formative experience in their lives, and very important to them.
Solidarity: Do you think there was rolling back after the defeat of the dispute, both in the gay community and in the mining community?
Clive: The miners were beaten and most of them lost their jobs. Generally speaking in the class struggle, the defeat of the miners had a hugely bad effect. We’re still living with the consequences of it.
I doubt miners’ attitudes rolled back too much with regards lesbian and gay rights. You started to get stories of miners coming out. At reunions we get visits from miners. We often hear “it turns out my son is gay”.
Ex-miners and their families came up from south Wales for the film premiere.
In the lesbian and gay community, struggle wasn’t rolled back. You got growth of the lesbian and gay movement after 1985. Not long after was “Section 28” [the Tory law which prevented the “promotion of homosexual lifestyles”] against which you had enormous demonstrations. The pride parades in the early ‘80s were relatively small, but by the late ‘80s and certainly the early ‘90s they were enormous.
Solidarity: What do you think about the film?
Clive: It gets an awful lot incredibly right. It’s in the broad ball park of something like The Full Monty, but much more political. Over the credits you have someone singing Solidarity Forever. It takes for granted that the strike was right. It’s absolutely about the importance of class struggle and solidarity between communities. The portrayals of the real people are very close and a good tribute.
Its good that for the anniversary of the strike, this particular act of solidarity will be remembered.
Despite his later reputation as a ‘luvvie’, Attenborough could do menacing, as in his role as Pinkie in John Boulting’s noirish/expressionist film adaption of Graham Green’s ‘Brighton Rock’ (1947):
Note also the presence of William Hartnell, who went on to become the first Doctor Who.
AT HIS PEAK
Attenborough established his first production company, Beaver Films, with friend and writer Bryan Forbes. Their first film, ‘The Angry Silence’ (1959), gets to the heart of Attenborough’s contradictions as a man. A long time socialist and union supporter, Attenborough not only made a sympathetic film about a man crossing a picket line, he made it by bypassing film union regulations with a system of deferred payments and profit sharing. For Attenborough there were no contradictions. He was a champion of the individual against oppression and exploitation, whether by socialists or anyone else, and the film reflects this. On the money front, ‘The Angry Silence’ went on to be a hit for the company and all involved. Beaver was wound up in 1964 but not before the company had produced the classic ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ (1961). Attenborough worked tirelessly for the muscular dystrophy campaign and many other charities.
The Guardian reports, here
The death of Lauren Bacall (pictured above with husband Humphrey Bogart leading a 1947 march against McCarthy’s witch hunt of leftists and liberals) robs us of the last great star from Hollwood’s ‘golden age’ and a brave liberal – in the best sense of the word. She described herself to TV host Larry King, in 2005, as “anti-Republican and a liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
I can’t resist the opportunity to show you a clip of Bacall in her first film, Howard Hawks’ 1944 ‘To Have And Have Not’, in which she sings the Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer number ‘How Little We Know’, accompanied by Hoagy himself at the piano. For many years it was thought that Bacall’s singing was dubbed by the young Andy Williams, but Hawks confirmed (in Joseph McBride’s book ‘Hawks on Hawks’) that although Williams’ voice was recorded, it was not used because he (Hawks) decided Bacall’s voice was good enough.
The late Robin Williams was, by all accounts, a good guy. He was certainly on our side: