THE BLOG
02/23/2011 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

R.I.P. Christopher Trumbo: The Hollywood Ten and the Power of Words

If you don't already know the history of this incident, spend a few minutes following the links here. You need to know about this.

Words do have power. In the 1960s, I was a graduate student in English at Columbia University, and friends with Christopher Trumbo. Chris was the son, of Dalton Trumbo, one of the original Hollywood Ten blacklisted screen play writers, actors, and directors. All of them were blacklisted and forced into poverty because of how people interpreted their words in a nation that had freedom of speech and assembly.

Chris grew up in Los Angeles as the son of a successful screenplay writer who suddenly found himself banished to Mexico in poverty because of political repression. Chris was only a child. It was the defining incident of his family's life. None of them ever really recovered. By the time I met them in the mid-sixties, they had regained a measure of affluence and respect, but they were scarred, for sure. They had been forced to be brave beyond their means, and principled beyond their wlldest imaginations. They were writers thrust into heroism by the power of their words.

Many years later, Chris wrote a book about his father and made it into a documentary, to remind us of the power of words. Here's part of an interview he did with Cineaste :

Cineaste: What prompted you to write the play Trumbo and then the documentary film?

Christopher Trumbo: I did it basically because the history of the blacklist has been misunderstood in all kinds of ways. People often think it was part of the [Senator Joseph] McCarthy era, but this was before that time. Also, people don't realize that the blacklist had different periods within it, times when it was easier to get work and when it was more difficult.

Cineaste: There was a lot of murkiness and misunderstanding even at the time, and even among those involved.

Trumbo: At first no one really knew what the blacklist was, including people who were blacklisted. After eleven people testified--the eleventh was [Bertolt] Brecht, who went straight back to Europe the next day--the [HUAC] hearings were shut down because the press was split about the situation and the law reviews were saying the [Hollywood] Ten had a good case, so the committee didn't know what its legal position was going to be. Meanwhile the studios were waiting to see what would happen, still hiring people but maybe for less money. When the Ten were sentenced, the committee understood that it had a lot of power, and so did the Hollywood right wing. So the committee reopened for business, and the people who were called were in a whole different situation because they knew what can happen if you don't cooperate.

Cineaste: Do you agree with the view that HUAC picked on Hollywood because of the publicity it would bring?

Trumbo: Sure, the publicity value of Hollywood was huge. The images of actors and actresses were carefully managed and presented as products, and they were closely associated with studios, which also had personalities of their own. Of course Hollywood is still an industry, but at that time it was a much more closely held industry.

Cineaste: HUAC and the blacklist didn't arise out of nowhere. How far back do its roots go?

Trumbo: It was all such a bizarre occurrence, but it's actually part and parcel of political repression in this country, which begins much, much earlier--the Alien and Sedition Acts [of 1798], President Wilson throwing people who disagreed with him during World War I into jail... it's a continuing process. You don't expect something like the blacklist, but suddenly there it is, and you say, "How could they do this?"!

The Hollywood Ten era was an over-reaction to a threat, the threat of Communism. It was a real threat, but the wrong people were targeted. People of conscience. Lives were destroyed.

I always liked Chris, who was a gentle man who chose a somewhat retiring life in Ojai, California. I lost touch with him, however, and when I quit teaching English I also lost touch with what I had learned about the power of words.

I remembered it all on Saturday morning, when I saw a young woman in my state, who went to the same college I went to, and shared many political beliefs with me, shot while trying to communicate with her constituents.

I remembered it on Saturday afternoon when I saw the Twitter messages flying about who was responsible (and, I am sorry to say, got drawn into the fray myself).

And on Saturday night, Christopher Trumbo died at the age of 70 in Ojai of renal cancer. R.I.P. Chris; you were a dignified and principled man.