Ideological terror flourished in America long before the advent of social media.
In the midst of the ideological purges unfolding on social media ahead of Biden’s inauguration, I reread Howard Fast’s novel, the most famous novel that chronicles McCarthy’s persecution of dissidents in Good Old America in the 1950s.
Fast was the son of Barney Fastovsky, who emigrated to America from Ukraine, and belonged to a brilliant galaxy of Western novelists who genuinely shared the ideas of socialism. In 1944, while working as a war correspondent, Howard joined the United States Communist Party, and in 1950 he was imprisoned because he refused to name his party comrades before the Commission on Anti-American Activities. The writer and his relatives fell victim to violent persecution. Fast was left unemployed and deprived of the opportunity to publish under his own name. This is what the book «Silas Timberman» tells about — it conveys an atmosphere of paranoid fear, denunciations, militaristic hysteria and pogrom violence of the ultra-right, which is strikingly similar to the realities of our days.
“You are scared. I am also afraid. But what are we afraid of? What are we afraid of, Silas? After all, one has only to whisper the word «communism» to someone — and we lose all the skills of civilization, culture, intelligence and at once turn into savages enveloped in panic… Nowadays, it is profitable to invest money in only one enterprise: the crusade against communism.”
However, in real life, the writer did not allow himself to be intimidated and contributed to the collapse of McCarthyism. Once in prison, Fast began writing the novel «Spartacus», which was filmed thanks to the best Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who also served time in prison for membership in the Communist Party.
The topic of communists in Hollywood will surely surprise many post-Soviet readers. However, in the American cinema of the interwar years, many people with leftist views worked. American directors have experienced the influence of Soviet cinema: in the person of Dziga Vertov, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko, and especially Eisenstein, who, together with Grigory Alexandrov and Eduard Tisse, tried to stage «American Tragedy» at Paramount Pictures, and then filmed material for the «¡Que viva México!» recreated years later. Fast was not alone. American scriptwriters were inspired by brilliant social literature — Upton Sinclair, who collaborated with Eisenstein, denounced corporate politics in his books, Theodore Dreiser ridiculed the «American dream» and personally supported the miners’ strikes. Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis warned America about the threat of fascism, Hemingway wrote about it from the fronts of the Spanish Civil War, and John Steinbeck nurtured his «Grapes of Wrath» — a novel about the plight of migrant workers, which received a Pulitzer Prize, and a year later was brilliantly filmed by John Ford.
To get an idea of this era, just open the Hollywood novel «The Last Tycoon» by Scott Fitzgerald, in which the communist organizer Brimmer — a representative of the influential Writers Guild — wages a psychological battle with the producer Star, demanding higher salaries for studio workers. At the same time, film mogul Monroe Star also shows an interest in leftist ideology. “He was struck by Russian films back in the twenties and told the script department to write a two-page synopsis of the Communist Manifesto,” writes Fitzgerald, who also worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood studios and wrote his book on factual material.
Among the prominent figures of this era was the Ukrainian Edward Dmytryk, one of the founders of the noir genre. He was born into a family of peasants from the Ternopil village of Buryakivka and from the age of fourteen he worked at Paramount, having made a career from a boy-messenger to a director. During the war, Dmytryk films the psychological drama «Hitler’s Children», showing how the Nazis instilled their views in German teenagers. His next film, «Crossfire», exposed anti-Semitism for the first time in the history of American cinema and was nominated for an Oscar in several nominations. “I make films, good or bad, much more for the people than for the elite. Although I hope that I have never offended the taste of intellectuals,” said Dmytryk about himself, who soon after his comrade Trumbo also became a member of the US Communist Party.
Frightened by the growing influence of the communists, Washington decided to cleanse the cinema of the left. The American bourgeoisie, following Lenin, considered cinematography “the most important of the arts,” perfectly understanding its importance as a propaganda tool that allows it to influence the mass consciousness through the images of movie characters and film plots. Producers wanted to rein in leftist trade unions that championed the rights of film studio workers: from directors, artists and actors to technical staff. “I wish you would listen to my companions when they are assembled. They will give twenty reasons why you communists should be driven out of Los Angeles,” producer Star warned in Scott Fitzgerald’s novel back in 1940. The political elites of America entering the Cold War were in dire need of the image of an internal enemy who, acting on Moscow’s orders, “is insidiously trying to undermine the «Great Country» from within.” And for this role, cultural figures associated with the art of cinema were chosen.
Supporters of Senator McCarthy prepared a conspiracy report, «Red Channels», including the names of 150 prominent intellectuals who were accused of collaborating with the Communists or of «communist» views. Among them were world-famous directors, actors, composers, writers and playwrights. Then thousands of ordinary Americans of a wide variety of professions fell under suspicion. These people were fiercely harassed by the authorities, special services, the press and «patriotic citizens». They were fired from their jobs and denied the right to a profession, exposed to public insults as «traitors» and «Kremlin agents», their family members were persecuted, they received threatening letters, they were spied on and forced to emigrate from the country. Several people survived the persecution by committing suicide. Anti-communism, which has driven millions of people crazy, has become an impetus for the persecution of migrants and contributed to the spread of anti-Semitism and racism, from which many victims of this campaign also suffered. At the same time, popular film stars were included in McCarthy’s report only because they were considered «dangerous suffragists.»
Democratic film industry workers tried to resist. In Hollywood, the «First Amendment to the Constitution Defense Committee» was formed, which included renowned filmmakers William Wyler and John Huston, along with movie stars Humphrey Bogart and Gene Kelly. However, the flywheel of the McCarthy repression was rapidly gaining momentum. «Reds» were put on «black lists», breaking contracts with them at film studios. Cinematographers Association President Eric Johnston said the producers and bosses would refuse the job «to anyone who is identified as a communist.» Soon thereafter, the «patriots» began to persecute those who had been found to be friendly with the left, forcing them to denounce and condemn former friends. The «crusade» against dissidents was led by the future US President Ronald Reagan, who was appointed head of the Film Actors Guild. Speaking with film mogul Walt Disney, he declared that «the communists are a serious threat to the film industry,» and thus opened the way for a career as a politician.
Many filmmakers, including Edward Dmytryk, could not withstand the pressure, agreed to testify against like-minded people. Former communist director Elia Kazan made an anti-union film commissioned by the authorities. “Kazan traded his soul for a swimming pool… One of the problems of American art is the apostasy of the left, their treachery towards themselves. Sometimes out of stupidity, inertia, out of love for slogans, sometimes — the most ordinary defection. There are few people of my generation who, like me, have not betrayed their beliefs,” sadly wrote Orson Welles, the creator of the greatest film in Hollywood history, who left the United States in 1947.
However, people like Fast and Trumbo continued to resist. After being released after imprisonment, Dalton went with his family to Mexico for a while, and then returned to the United States and secretly continued to work on the scripts, presenting them to directors under pseudonyms or through dummies. Two films at once — «Roman Holiday» and «The Brave One» — receive an Oscar for the scripts written by Trumbo. After that, he was offered an order for the «Spartacus» peplum, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick and producer Kirk Douglas, who also played the main role in this film. Despite the threats, Douglas decided to mention Trumbo’s surname in the credits, which angered the McCarthyists.
Right-wing politicians and «activists» were convinced that Trumbo’s «underground» script based on Fast’s work in an allegorical form, in Aesopian language, promoted communist ideas. Slaves of patriotic propaganda raised a veritable uprising against «Spartacus», which was called a «revolutionary» and «inflammatory» film. «Vigilant citizens» demanded to remove it from the rental, picketed cinemas and even forced President John F. Kennedy to speak out, who, feeling the spirit of new times, commended the brainchild of Kubrick, Douglas, Trumbo and Fast. And the leader of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, subsequently symbolically opened his concerts with monologues from the movie «Spartacus» during the world tour of The Wall.
The moral victory of the disgraced communists was the symbolic end of the «era of McCarthyism.» The 1960s began, and despite years of anti-communist backlash, many of the new generation of Americans defiantly turned to leftist views, breaking with the prejudices and bigotry of their parents. People from the «black lists» were able to return to work, Trumbo himself acted as a director, filming his book «Johnny Got His Gun» — in the late eighties, Metallica shot the cult video for the song «One» based on this film.
The scripts published under pseudonyms were returned to the name of the original author, and in 1993, forty years after the premiere of the film «Roman Holiday», Trumbo’s widow received his rightful Oscar for the literary script of this film. Finally, in 2007, a monument was unveiled in the United States to the leftist writer and screenwriter, who was once branded as an «agent of Moscow.» The sculptor depicted Trumbo in the bathroom, where he liked to work because of back pain, by putting a typewriter on the board. And in 2015, the movie «Trumbo» was released, where Brian Cranston, the main star of the super popular series «Breaking Bad», played the role of a communist.
The topic of «McCarthyism» still remains painful for modern Hollywood. Trumbo himself spoke in a conciliatory manner that the «patriots» who denounced dissidents were also victims of anti-communist hysteria in their own way. However, the cinematic community has not forgiven the betrayal of those who participated in the persecution of colleagues in the shop. Even in the late nineties, when aged director Elia Kazan received his «honorary» Lifetime Achievement Oscar, Steven Spielberg and Jim Carrey defiantly refused to stand up during the awards ceremony, while Nick Nolte and Ed Harris refrained from applause. In 2006, George Clooney released the historical drama «Good Night, and Good Luck», telling about the confrontation between Senator McCarthy and the television journalist Edward Murrow who exposed him, and the social and political life of the post-war USA, with censorship and persecution of dissidents, appears in this film in an extremely unattractive form.
Of course, the censorship of power and money — dependence on the dictates of politicians, producers and owners of film studios — has not disappeared from Hollywood, as George Lucas recently told The Wall Street Journal: “In the world where we live, in the system that we have created for ourselves — must say this is a large industry — we must not lose money. The point is that you are forced to make a certain movie. I always said this to those who then, during the Soviet Union, asked: «Hey, aren’t you glad that you live in America?» I always answered them that I know many Soviet directors, and they have much more freedom than I do. They just need to be careful about criticizing the government, otherwise they can do whatever they want.”
However, the struggle of Fast and Trumbo was not in vain. It is through their efforts that Hollywood filmmakers are free to address leftist and antiwar themes. In Ukrainian cinema, they cannot afford such a thing, and in general they do not try to shoot anything except low-quality propaganda.
Alas, «Trumbo» film tells us that the American past of McCarthyism is now our present. The parallels are obvious. In the fifties, the FBI banned British citizen Charlie Chaplin, who was officially suspected of «anti-American» activity, from returning to the United States, and forced Bertolt Brecht, Hans Eisler, Jules Dassin, Alexander Knox and other «unreliable» artists to leave the country. Nowadays, the Ukrainian authorities form politically compiled «black lists» of foreign actors, directors and musicians, claiming that they are «a threat to Ukraine’s national security» and prohibiting them from entering the country. However, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine went further than the McCarthyists — its leadership, mired in corruption scandals, “does not recommend” to show classic Soviet films of previous years on central TV channels if they once starred actors who fell into disgrace from the current government. The State Film Agency of Ukraine has banned the showing of almost 400 films and TV series of all genres: from comedies, sitcoms and detective stories to science fiction and historical dramas. For comparison: «The Prowler», directed by Trumbo’s script, was a success in the American box office, although the director, both scriptwriters and art consultant of this film suffered as a result of anti-communist “purges”.
Donald Trumbo and Howard Fast are the people that Ukraine, which has now fallen into the black hole of history, needs most of all. A country where McCarthy clones sit in parliament and government, where denunciation has replaced dignity, and truth is equated with treason. A country where communists are banned and persecuted, where dissidents are sentenced for «pro-Soviet» posts on social networks, and journalist and writer [Oles] Buzina was killed for his views, while the Nazis accused of this crime were released.
The heroism of our days is not to shoot at our own compatriots, blindly echo propaganda and beat the drum of war, demanding the continuation of the senseless carnage. Real civic courage is demonstrated by those who oppose chauvinistic hysteria and anti-social «reforms», against the persecution of oppositionists and the destruction of monuments, against the censoring of history, the banning of films and books. No need to dress up for this in the toga of a dramatic actor. It is enough to have your own opinion without giving it up under pressure, even if someone calls it a crime and treason.
Andrey Manchuk, 14.01.2021 / Source.