We all remember the famous scene from the 1960 movie Spartacus. Kirk Douglas plays the famous slave leader. A Roman general announces to a group of former slaves that unless they identify Spartacus they will all be crucified. Spartacus prepares to speak up but then all around him others stand to declare: “I am Spartacus!”
It is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of human solidarity and heroism. The scene was written by Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted and sent to jail for refusing to name his fellow Hollywood scriptwriters, actors and directors as members or supporters of the Communist Party. Once out of prison he wrote under false names for the film industry, but it wasn’t until 1960 that director Stanley Kubrick and actor Kirk Douglas had the courage to publically credit Trumbo as the writer of Spartacus.
That brave act was the beginning of the end of the blacklist. Trumbo was reinstated in the Writers Guild of America. Over the next few years it would slowly be revealed just how many scripts Trumbo had written under other names while blacklisted. Shamefully it took until 2011 — three dozen years after his death and less than five years ago — that Trumbo was finally credited for all his blacklisted period scripts, including for the script of the 1953 award-winning film Roman Holiday, a romantic comedy was directed and produced by William Wyler. It stars Gregory Peck as a reporter and Audrey Hepburn as a royal princess who sets out to see Rome on her own. Hepburn won an Academy Award for best actress for her performance.
The costume design also won an Oscar and another Oscar went to the screenplay. On the original credits the screenplay was attributed to John Dighton and Ian McLellan Hunter. In fact the film was written by Dalton Trumbo. It would be 40 years until 1993 before he actually collected his Oscar.
James Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado, on December 9 1905, the first son of shoe store clerk Orus and his wife, Maud. His family moved to nearby Grand Junction, where he attended high school and became a cub reporter for a local paper. Trumbo continued his writing while attending the University of Colorado.
His family moved to Los Angeles. When his father died young, Trumbo took a job in a bakery to help support his mother and younger sisters, working as a baker for 10 years while learning his writing skills producing short stories and novels, none of which he could get published.
He worked his way through the University of California, paying his way by doing odd jobs, and by the early 1930s, Trumbo began selling his writings to magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair and the Hollywood Spectator.
He became the managing editor of the Spectator in 1934, a year that also saw him publish his first novel, Eclipse, as well as land a job as a script reader in the Warner Brothers studio. Then in 1935 Trumbo signed a contract with the studio as a junior writer, launching what would prove to be a long and amazingly dramatic career.
In 1936 Trumbo received his first screenwriting credit, specifically for the crime drama Road Gang. Over the next 10 years he became one of the most successful and sought-after writers in Hollywood. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum, won Trumbo his first Academy nomination. In 1939 he married Cleo Fincher, with whom he would have three children, and in September of that year his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun received a National Book Award.
Like many intellectuals and artists at the time, Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party with left-leaning political positions. US nazis read into the anti-war message of his novel an opposition to going to war with nazi Germany. Nothing could have been further from the truth — he was a enthusiastic anti-fascist.
When the Nazis wrote to Trumbo he passed their letters to the FBI. Rather than pursue the letter-writers, however, the bureau opened a file on Trumbo. In October 1947, as post-war paranoia about communism was building up in the US, Trumbo was among a group of 10 Hollywood directors and writers called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Trumbo and the other nine all refused to testify. They refused to betray other communists and as a consequence, the Hollywood Ten were found guilty of contempt of Congress. They were subsequently blacklisted by the heads of the major studios, and in 1950 Trumbo served almost a year in prison for contempt.
Following his release, Trumbo was unable to find work in California and moved his family to Mexico City. From there, he continued to write screenplays, which he was able to sell by using either pseudonyms or other writers to act as fronts for his work. Finally, in 1957 Trumbo returned to Hollywood. He had written the screenplay for The Brave One under the pseudonym Robert Rich. The screenplay received an Academy Award.
When journalists were subsequently unable to find the mysterious Robert Rich for comment, it emerged that the film had in fact been written by Trumbo, revealing the blacklist as a fiasco. The year after Robert Rich won the Oscar for The Brave One, Trumbo was hired to write the script for Exodus, the story of the fondatio of Israel, and in 1959 he was chosen by Kirk Douglas to write Spartacus.
Trumbo’s authorship of these two highly successful pictures was revealed shortly before their release in 1960, along with the announcement that Trumbo would receive on-screen credits for his work.He returned to work in earnest and for the remainder of his life continued his prolific and successful output. In 1971, he wrote and directed a film of his own novel Johnny Got His Gun, for which he received two awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
Now Hollywood is at last recognising the talent and the torment of one of its finest screenwriters. A new film, Trumbo, stars Bryan Cranston as the blacklisted writer and also features Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Diane Lane. It will be released in Britain early next year.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star.