Great American Atheists: James Dalton Trumbo

There is a sublime moment in the Umberto Ecco novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, when one of the characters, upon meeting the legendary (perhaps, in a euhemeristic sense, mythical) Comte de Saint Germain and asked him if his reputation for having, miraculously, lived many centuries had given him insight into the human condition and its progress. He answers that living for so long has its pluses, but one meets the same fools and cowards, montebanks and lunatics. I am afraid that this would be Dalton Trumbo’s destiny were he to pop up, Elvis-like, in a Wal-Mart some morning, and if by chance some movie buff (or viewer of PBS’ American Masters, which just did 90 minutes on Trumbo’s extraordinary life) recognized him, he would, by dint of looking about at the political circus we have going today, say much the same thing.

Trumbo won an Oscar for the movie, The Brave One, but he couldn’t go to the ceremonies to pick it up; he’d penned the script under a pseudonym, Robert Rich, as he’d been blacklisted by the same studio moguls whose relatives in Russia had been persecuted both by Hitler and Stalin. It is to the eternal shame of men like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn that they threw men like Tumbo under the bus when the House Unamerican Activities Committee (whose acronym some now render as Whacko, instead of HUAC) sent film writers to prison for contempt of congress simply because they refused to crater, thereby giving up their rights under the First and Fifth Amendments: freedom of association and freedom from self-incrimination. Trumbo never forgave either the committee or his former Hollywood employers.

At some point in his career, Trumbo was asked by one of his producers why it was he had no religion, he had no “faith.” In stubbornly maintaining his freedom from religion Trumbo had something in common with the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who (whatever your personal feelings about her, and some non-believers dislike her intensely) served with distinction in the U.S. armed forces before re-entering civilian society for their professional pursuits: O’Hair as an “out” atheist decades before Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens; Trumbo, as a novelist and screen writer. When I met O’Hair, I learned that her pet peeve was the claim of believers that she could not be a patriot because she was an atheist. She could not be a good citizen because she did not believe in a personal god.

One of the great ironies of Trumbo’s career in film is that none of the pictures he wrote has a single overly atheistic theme, not a line of dialogue, not a visual reference to the illogic of belief. He was no Ben Barzman, whose screenplay for the Joseph Losey film, The Boy With Green Hair (1948), presented what is basically an allegory on persecution of those who do not conform, essentially the same theme set in a SciFi horror context eight years later when Don Siegel shot Invasion of the Body Snatchers from a screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring. Embittered by his imprisonment and blacklisting, Trumbo only hinted at the theme of the individual against the crowd when he wrote Kirk Douglas’ favorite movie, Lonely Are the Brave (1962), in which the actor, ironically himself an East European Jew, plays a cowboy hemmed in by the advance of civilization. Trumbo’s ending, showing the Douglas character and his horse run down on a busy highway, has a glimpse of the 18-wheeler that struck them: it bears an emblem informing us that its cargo is porcelain toilet fixtures.

A proverbial rugged individualist, Trumbo’s open-minded attitudes toward sex were ingeniously incorporated into the PBS program when one of the Hollywood actors reading from his letters rendered one the scenarist wrote to his teenaged son. Subject: masturbation. He had just read a book on human sexuality by Havelock Ellis and wanted his son to know that masturbation was not only harmless; it was beneficial, and Trumbo allowed as to how he’d done it himself for years. (This, at a time when most parents were telling their children that spanking the money would make hair grow on your palms and drive you insane.)

Trumbo thumbed his nose at all conventionality. When Kirk Douglas forced the producers of Spartacus (directed by Stanley Kubrick, who moved to England, as had Losey, in the wake of studio tampering with his picture) he included a scene in which Laurence Olivier, as a Roman nobleman, inquires of his slave (Tony Curtis) if he preferred “oysters or snails.” Unbelievably, because of its homoerotic content no doubt, the scene was cut, but when the film was re-released in 1991, it was restored. This time, however, because the dialogue track had been lost, Sir Anthony Hopkins dubbed in Lord Olivier, saying that he, personally, likes both oysters and snails. Not having read it, I wonder if this scene is included in the novel by Howard Fast.

In what might be seen as a personal statement on maintaining one’s dignity in the face of adversity, Trumbo wrote a scene in a post-blacklist movie, Papillon, where Steve McQueen is tortured by his captors on Devil’s Island to give up the names of others who’ve plotted to escape from the tropical hell. He refuses and is almost garroted for doing so. How ironic that today’s good Christian politicians believe they can obtain information from and about terrorists by waterboarding a man 185 times. Like Saint Germain, Trumbo would probably shrug and say, “Plus c,a change...."

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