Reading Dalton Trumbo
It was Hollywood that got me. In particular the film Spartacus, produced and starring Kirk Douglas, directed by Stanley Kubrick and screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. The other main roles were played by Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov. The film was inspired by Howard Fast’s wonderful novel, also called Spartacus. The film was a Hollywood spectacular, with a “casts of thousands”, huge battle scenes between the rebel slave army and the Roman Legions. There was no CGI then, back in the 60s, just extras from the Spanish Army. I saw it first when I was quite young, so the spectacular romance and adventure would have been very appealing to a boy from the boring Western suburbs of Sydney.
But the story was also inspiring. Millions of so-called ordinary people, oppressed under a violent and anti-human slave system, led by their most militant section – gladiators – rise up and refuse to be slaves and keep the most powerful army in the world at bay for years. And they do it right in the heart of the Roman Empire – in Italy.
It is a beautiful film, both visually and its words; its dialogue. In today’s world, ridden with cynicism, in general, and on the intellectual Left, with cynicism over-layered with layers of artificially created “nuance”, some may react to this beauty as corny. But there is nothing corny about an idealistic desire to be free so that human beings can savour the beautiful things around them without the embitterment of being treated as an animal or a thing: the stars, knowledge of nature and the world, a kiss and embrace. “A tool with a voice”: that was a slave.
Fascinated by the film, I read Fast’s soul shaking novel: until today it remains for me a great novel capturing the social being of class, of slaves, of masters, and even for the early glimpse of the proletarian in the perfume factories. I read the other novels written about Spartacus: Koestler’s Gladiators and Lewis Gibbon’s Spartacus. But Fast’s, now doubt nourished by his socialist outlook and his love of history, is the greatest and should be recognised as one of the great novels of English literature.
As a young person, it was the stars and the director that attracted by attention: which ion this film, meant Kirk Douglas. But eventually I also read about McCarthyism in the United States, and the Hollywood Ten and Dalton Trumbo as a blacklisted screenplay writer because of his membership of the Communist Party of the USA and his role in some of the Hollywood strikes. More recently I read Kirk Douglas’s short and easy to read memoir: I am Spartacus, about the making of the film and the breaking of the blacklist when Trumbo’s name appeared credited for the screenplay, for the first time in several years.
Then this year, I saw the excellent film: Trumbo. The film was written by John McNamara based on a book by Bruce Cook and directed by Jay Roach. Bryan Cranston played Dalton Trumbo. I had never read much about Trumbo so the film was an eye opener to what he had to go through and, more crucially, how productive and brilliant he was. I only then realised that he had written the screenplay for some of my favourite movies, way beyond Spartacus: Roman Holiday, The Brave One, Hawaii, Executive Action and Papillion, among others. It is so embarrassing to think that I paid so little attention in my youth to who wrote the screenplays.
Being so impressed with the film and the person, I ordered a copy of his 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, which had won Trumbo the National Book Award. It was only the necessity of doing daily chores that made me put it down. I will never forget this novel. It describes an almost unspeakable state of suffering of a wounded soldier in World War One: a “Joe”, conscripted from his labours in a Los Angeles bakery, and sent to France to be maimed in a trench somewhere.
One can see where both his radical politics and his writing came from: that kind of empathetic imagination which allows somebody to put themselves truly in somebody else’s shoes.
“He awakened as a man awakens out of a drunk – hazy brained and foggy swimming slowly and painfully back toward reality. He awakened tapping with his head against his pillow. The tapping by now had become so much a part of awakening that the first glimmer of consciousness found him already tapping and later on when exhaustion overcame him and his mind began to grow dim and sleep crept over his body he was still tapping. He lay there not thinking of anything his brain aching and throbbing and his head tapping against the pillow. S.O.S. Help.”
At this point, all I want to say is: it is worth reading and I think you should do so.