One of the lessons the Left has yet to learn from the 20th century is that the unedited past keeps existing, and what may seem unnecessary to edit or spin may turn it to be damning.
The blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is of supreme importance to the Left both as a victim (jailed for Contempt of Congress) and a hero. The heroic aspect comes into play with his return to screen credit with the film Spartacus (1960), which effectively ended the blacklist.
But Trumbo, aware of his image to the Left, was not content to rest on mere advertised participation with Spartacus. He could not be simply a writer being granted his rightful screen credit; he had to be a free-thinking writer. No taint of Stalinist association could remain.
To accomplish this, Trumbo supplied details of his participation with the project that bolstered this image—details that have been repeated by biographers since.
According to Trumbo, he had been drifting from the Party since the 1940s because of its rigid Marxism. When he was presented with adapting the novel Spartacus, written by one of the Party’s rigid proponents, he wrote of refusing to apply a blacklist mentality toward the writer and instead accepted the assignment.
The edited collection of letters from Trumbo in this period, the late 1950s, merely bolster this image of a writer who had mentally severed himself from Party practices. Trumbo the letter-writer records his “lack of sympathy or loyalty” toward the Party and argues against banning any writer, “no matter how crazy or wicked his ideas.”
But left out of this portrait is Trumbo’s behind-the-scenes battles on the set that had to do with the film's ideoligical content. His behavior is more revealing of whether he truly left the mindset of the American Communist Party.
At one stage in the production, director Stanley Kubrick wanted to explore the corrupting nature of power on revolutionaries and suggest it was this desire that caused the revolution to fail:
In Spartacus I tried with only limited success to make the film as [historically] real as possible but I was up against a pretty dumb script which was rarely faithful to what is known about Spartacus. History tells us that he twice led his victorious slave army to the northern borders of Italy, and could quite easily have gotten out of the country. But he didn't, and instead he led his army back to pillage Roman cities. What the reasons were for this might have been the most interesting question the film might have pondered. Did the intentions of the rebellion change? Did Spartacus lose control of his leaders who by now may have been more interested in the spoils of war than in freedom?To deal with this issue in a general and specific manner, Kubrick wanted to use an author who made the corrupting nature of revolution on revolutionaries his theme: Arthur Koestler. This activated Trumbo, who wrote a series of detailed memos to Kubrick, objected vehemently to allowing any of Koestler’s ideas into the script.
It is on this matter of Koestler that Trumbo failed the litmus test of Communist Party abandonment. Both the American Communist Party and Dalton Trumbo himself throughout the 1940s instituted a ban against comrades reading Arthur Koestler (although, Trumbo cited him as part of his library that prepared him beforehand for Kruschev’s Secret Speech revelations about Stalin). Director Edward Dymtryk, a Party member in the '40s and fellow Hollywood Ten member, was threatened with expulsion when the leadership found out he had read Darkness At Noon. Trumbo extended this ban on Koestler to the cinematic public at large. In a 1945 letter to a Party publication, he bragged of keeping “such untrue and reactionary” authors as Leon Trotsky and Arthur Koestler from making it to the big screen.
During the filming of Spartacus, Trumbo retained this priority of keeping Koestler off the screen. He also retained his view of Koestler as “reactionary”:
Koestler is a man who was for years bewitched by the idea that he was going to make a revolution, that he was going to lead the dear people in a vast freedom movement. But the revolution didn't come off because the people, in their immense stupidity, didn't see fit to follow Mr. Koestler. Koestler has spent all the years of his life since that fatal moment of rejection by the people in denouncing the common herd which had so little comprehension of his excellence as a leader. His thesis is simple: the people are stupid, corrupt and altogether responsible for their own miseries. Leaders, on the other hand, are the elite of mankind. tragically frustrated, tragically pulled down and destroyed by the decadence and vulgarity of the very rabble they sought to lead to freedom.
In explicating his rejection of Koestler, he referred to the Russian Revolution, and revealed a mindset that still adhered to the “broken eggs=omelette” analogy:
Let us remember that the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky was more dramatic than the conflict between, let us say, Lenin and the Tsar. Why, because Stalin and Trotsky had the same objective, while Lenin and the Tsar had different objectives. Because war between brothers is more dramatic and more tragic than any other kind.
And what was dramatic about this conflict was that both Trotsky and Stalin were “brothers” after the same thing, “freedom.”
Trumbo also revealed that, despite knowledge of revolution’s bodycounts, political murders were still defensible, as in the case of Spartacus executing a rebellious comrade. Unable to sidestep it as a historical issue, Trumbo instead reverted to the language of the Party member: “Spartacus [ultimately] is compelled to execute Crixus for the good of the whole."
Thus, despite his ideological self-description and the assertions of biographers, Trumbo had not left the mentality of the American Communist Party in 1959. Old habits died hard for him, and reasserted themselves with a vengeance even after experiencing firsthand government repression. Today, biographers and the Left have overlooked this revealing episode (no mention of it in Bruce Cook's 1977 biography or the off-Broadway production of his letters in 2005), either out of shoddy research or perhaps a desire to keep the edited image of Trumbo intact. But the memos to director Stanley Kubrick have maintained a stubborn existence.