The book that inspired the 2015 film starring Bryan Cranston, this biography of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was written in 1977 shortly after his death, and republished recently to include photos from the recent film. The topic of blacklisting, McCarthy and the culture of the US at the time is potentially fascinating, but unfortunately I find this book to only sporadically show that off.
The majority of the book is about his pre-blacklist career. It’s not uninteresting – growing up in a religious family, working in an industrial bakery to pay the bills while pursuing his writing career, finally breaking into Hollywood through reviews, short stories and novels. Unfortunately I haven’t read them myself, but his novels seem to have been well received satire, hinting at an alternative career in the mould of Sinclair Lewis. Scriptwriting paid the bills, however, and that was to be the main focus of Dalton Trumbo’s work.
Throughout this early career, we see Trumbo’s political views develop through his experience at the bakery, union activity, and his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo would eventually join the Communist Party – with solidarity to colleagues being a major factor. This was radical at the time, but not as unusual as it would become – the Soviet Union were war time allies and it had over 100,000 members at its peak.
After the war the clampdown on communism began, and after being named as a party member pressure was put on Trumbo to reveal other members and testify on communist propaganda in Hollywood. Trumbo (and others) stayed silent and fought this pressure on the grounds of the first amendment, but were convicted of Contempt of Congress. After a year in jail, Trumbo moved to Mexico and resumed writing under pseudonyms and through proxies. During this time, he won an Oscar for writing The Brave One under the name Robert Rich, and also wrote the award winning film Roman Holiday.
Finally in 1960, he was openly credited on the films Spartacus and Exodus – breaking the blacklist and showing the threats of reprisals to be hollow. He went on to write many more films, including Executive Action and Papillon, as well as directing an adaption of his novel Johnny Got His Gun. His health decline and he died in 1976.
The book covers this later period with plenty of interviews, both with Trumbo and with his contemporaries, and discussion on Trumbo’s role and reaction to the blacklist. As with the book as a whole, there is definitely enough there to interest the reader and spark further reading; but at times it feels a bit shallow. A wider discussion of Hollywood practice or US politics is hinted at, but absent.
At times too, the character of Dalton Trumbo feels flat – for instance, he was apparently a witty (but occasionally caustic) man but, a few anecdotes aside, this doesn’t come across. He was a family man, but this is told to us rather than shown. A longer book may have had room for something more in depth, but this is a good introduction on a character that could have been forgotten.