SPARTACUS and the End of the Blacklist

During the time of the blacklist, a group of screenwriters were forced into hiding because of the HUAC trials. Many of those writers, and some directors, were not able to work because of the outcome of those trials. This group, called the “Unfriendly Ten”, were pushed out of Hollywood almost entirely because of the trial outcome, many never recovering after being sent to prison or even being cleared of all charges. There were plenty of writers and directors that did name names, and even though this allowed them to continue working in Hollywood, they also did not recover from the complete betrayal of their peers. However, one notable screenwriter that was punished due to the blacklist, Dalton Trumbo, continued his writing career in secret, writing under pseudonyms “loaned” to him by other writers free of the plague of the blacklist. He wrote quite a few films, some of the most noteworthy ones being Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956). Some of his films, like The Brave One, took slight jabs at the blacklist and the members of HUAC, as well as the accused. One of the most important films of his career, and of the blacklist, was Spartacus, a film that not only ended the blacklist, but brought Trumbo’s name back into Hollywood. Spartacus was one of the first films that publicly named a blacklisted writer and from the beginning of the end.

Trumbo seemed to be one of the few that handled the blacklist with grace and ease, especially during his trial. He never lost control of his emotions, and, of course, wanted to make the members of HUAC look as foolish as possible. During the first part of his trial, J. Parnell Thomas told him exactly how he was to answer his questions, with a “yes” or a “no”. Trumbo responded instead with “Your job is to ask the questions and mine is to answer them. I shall answer yes or no if I please to answer. I shall answer in my own words.”[1] Trumbo’s reasoning behind such a response like this, especially during a trial that could have potentially decided his fate in Hollywood, was that of a man who would not let someone try to stifle his political beliefs just because they were differing from the “norm”. In Kirk Douglas’ book I Am Spartacus, he quotes a letter Trumbo had written to someone shortly after his release from prison, perfectly describing Trumbo and his beliefs. Douglas says, “Trumbo never made any apologies for himself or for his actions. After his release, he wrote this to a friend: ‘…show me the man who informs on friends who have harmed no one, and who thereafter earns money he could not have earned before, and I will show you not a decent citizen, not a patriot, but a miserable scoundrel who will, if new pressures arise and the price is right, betray not just his friends but his country itself.’”[2] However, the trial ended with him being sent to prison and, ten months later, fleeing to Mexico with his family. Even when in Mexico, Trumbo defied all odds and continued writing. A New York Times article describes Trumbo as “typing himself out of the pit,”[3] which was exactly what he had to do.

Out of his time in Mexico came the story, The Brave One, about a young boy who had a pet bull. This film was almost a direct reflection of the blacklist. It was a story of a young boy who takes care of a calf that grows up training to be a fighting bull. At the end of the film, the bull is supposed to be killed by the matadors, but the people are waving white flags and shouting for them to not kill the bull. This film, though it flew under the radar, was reflective of the blacklist and the HUAC trials. The bull was going to be put on trial in front of everyone to try and prove that it was tame, only to be put to death because it is seen as a “violent” creature. Trumbo’s writing proved to be important to one production company, The King Brothers. This production company was one of the many “black market” production companies that would use these blacklisted writers to their full advantage. During the time of the blacklist, these small, unknown production companies began creating films that seemed to pique the interest of the Academy, enough for The Brave One to win the award for best writing.

Around the time Spartacus was being made, the blacklist was essentially over. McCarthy, the congressman who was going on the “witch hunt” for communists in Hollywood had been publicly humiliated on trial. Joseph Welch said to McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”[4] (quote from I am Spartacus, pg 30). Even with the end of McCarthy, the blacklist had not ended yet. That being said, it was not going to stop Kirk Douglas from making his film Spartacus and having Trumbo be the writer for it.  Spartacus, the book that the film was based on, was also written by someone who was on the blacklist. Howard Fast, a novelist, was also indicted on contempt of congress charges, but did not spend as much time in prison as Trumbo. He decided to write Spartacus while in prison. He is quoted as saying “…there in prison I began to think of Spartacus, the slave, I read every scrap of information that I could find in that small prison library… I found the story of Spartacus – and became convinced that there was a way to tell it so that it could at least approximate the truth.”[5] From the start, Spartacus was going to be a story of the blacklist, of being enslaved and a prisoner to a system that was oppressive and unfair. Douglas, of course, jumped on the opportunity to make the film, having finally come into his own as a director, producer, and actor. During the time of the blacklist, Douglas made his opinion very known: he did not agree with the blacklist, as many of the people who were out of jobs were some of his friends, Trumbo being one of them. With that, he pulled Trumbo onto the project. That moment alone was the breakdown of the blacklist. Before, Trumbo had been working for the “black market” production companies, using pseudonyms and bringing in plenty of money. Douglas knew of course just how big of a risk this could be, but Trumbo, being an excellent screenwriter, was the only one he could work with. Even though Fast wanted to write the screenplay, Douglas still picked Trumbo. In I Am Spartacus, Douglas is quoted as saying “Good authors are bad screenwriters”[6] which was the main reason to go with Trumbo in the first place.

At the start of making the film, and during the entire process of production, this film proved to be a big challenge. For starters, the director of the film The Gladiators, Marty Ritt, was furious that they were making a film that was almost the same movie. The film still managed to get made, considering all the obstacles that Douglas and Trumbo were about to face. The film was going through constant rewrites, to the point that Trumbo threatened to quit the picture. Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton, who played Lentulus and Sempronius, were rewriting their lines almost every time they had scenes to film. As well, Douglas had to recast his leading lady from Sabine Bethmann to Jean Simmons. The weight of this production was beginning to wear everyone thin, especially Trumbo, Kubrick and most of all, Douglas. At was at this point in the process of production that Douglas went to Trumbo and told him he would put his real name in the credits, not Sam Jackson, as he had been using for Spartacus. Before this, there were cracks in the story of the unknown writer, Sam Jackson, was working on this film. The rumor was that Jackson was actually Trumbo. This rumor alone got the ball rolling on the blacklist coming to a screeching halt in Hollywood. As Douglas recalls, he went to Trumbo right after getting a letter that he was going to quit the picture. Once in front of him, he promised him he would put his name on the picture if he came back and continued writing for the film. Douglas told him, “But when it’s in the can, not only am I going to tell them that you’ve written it, but we’re putting your name on it. Not Sam Jackson’s name, your name – Dalton Trumbo – as the sole writer.”[7] This idea, though risky, was the thing that was going to end the blacklist. Though Kirk Douglas likes to take all of the glory on ending the blacklist, it was Dalton Trumbo consistently taking writing jobs, despite not technically being allowed to work in Hollywood. As soon as the blacklist started, he was one of the important writers that started to end it.

The story of Spartacus, a slave that is turned into a gladiator, forced to fight to the death, is a story of overcoming hardships and not allowing for certain labels to define him as a person. It was a story of self-sacrifice and never taking the easy way out of things. Many of those who were made to face Congress decided to take the easy way out, naming names and outing many of their friends and colleagues as communists. Elia Kazan and Eddie Dmytryck were two of the “friendly” witnesses called before Congress that named names almost as quickly as they had been called. This allowed them to keep working, but it ruined their careers as trustworthy people. The film Spartacus focuses on those who were only willing to save themselves, pointing out what the blacklist had actually done to people, making them desperate to hold onto their jobs, but willing to do selfish acts just to hold onto it. One of the most important examples from the film is the “I am Spartacus!” scene. Crassus’ army has overpowered the slaves, and he says that anyone who brings Spartacus forward would be saved. One by one, the slaves stand up and begin chanting “I am Spartacus!”, confusing Crassus and his army. This act alone is an act of humility, something that actually did take place during the trials of the blacklist. Many of the “unfriendly” witnesses were called forward and asked to name names. All of them had refused, Trumbo being one of them. This defiance was a way for them to break away from the hold the blacklist had on them, saying that they would not be a slave to McCarthy. This film coming at the end of the blacklist felt like a victory for those who were imprisoned, scarred, and died from the outcome of the HUAC trials. Many of the writers lost their livelihood as well as their lives, but the film Spartacus told their story. Though Kirk Douglas prefers taking full credit for the end of the blacklist, he was a big proponent for the end. Douglas was willing to take a risk, much like Trumbo had been doing for years. He stood by the side of those who had been wronged and worked with two very important writers that went to jail for defending their own honor. There is a quote from the book I Am Spartacus! from Dalton Trumbo thanking Douglas for finally allowing him to get his name back was something that made the entire stressful process of Spartacus worth it. Trumbo wrote Douglas with one of the only existing copies of his book Johnny Got His Gun, saying

Dear Kirk

Here, for what it is, and for what I hope I still am, is the only existing copy of this book that is signed with the name to which I was born, and that other name you enabled me to acquire under circumstances that blessedly permit me to respect and to cherish both the new name and the new friend who made it possible.

Affectionately,

Dalton Trumbo

Sam Jackson.[8]

 

The end of the blacklist was the end of a lot of hardship experienced by talented writers and directors that were not able to reach their fullest potential. Spartacus was a way for them to get their voices back and to finally do what they always wanted: being able to freely work in Hollywood. Dalton Trumbo was one of those people who were important in defying the blacklist and continuing to tell his stories.

[1] Doherty, Thomas. Show Trial. 230.

[2] Douglas, Kirk. (quote by Dalton Trumbo) I Am Spartacus! 19.

[3] Navasky, Victor S. “He Typed His Way out of the Pit.” New York Times.

[4] Douglas, Kirk (Quote from Joseph Welch). I Am Spartacus! 30

[5] Douglas, Kirk (Quote from Howard Fast). I Am Spartacus! 19.

[6] Douglas, Kirk. I Am Spartacus! 43.

[7] Douglas, Kirk. I Am Spartacus! 127.

[8] Douglas, Kirk. I Am Spartacus! 129.