Bernard Gordon was born in New Britain, Connecticut, on 29th October, 1918. His parents, Kitty and William Gordon, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father managed a hardware store and Gordon grew up in New York City. He applied to study at Columbia University but was convinced he was rejected "because of its quota systern for Jews". Instead he attended the City College of New York.
While at college he became passionate about movies and with the help of his friend, Julian Zimet, he "wrote, directed, photographed, produced, and even acted in an hour-long film." In his autobiography, Hollywood Exile (1999) Gordon pointed out: "In October 1940, a few months after graduating, I put together $60 by pawning my Graflex camera and a very old microscope, plus ten bucks from a grudging father, and set off for California and my future by paying $16 for a share-the-ride trip."
Gordon managed to find work as a reader with Republic Studios. Later he moved to Paramount Studios where he employed as an assistant story editor. "I was in charge of culling Paramont's vast library of produced and unproduced stories and bringing promising stories to the attention of producers, who were always looking for new projects. I was also put in charge of the junior writers, who were apprentices learning the screenwriting trade at $50 per week."
Gordon was very interested in politics and after reading books by George Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair he considered himself a socialist. In 1942 he joined the American Communist Party. He later explained why he had made that decision: "I had lived through the devastating depression that had started in 1929. I didn't have to be persuaded that deep and intractable problems were rooted in our economy and government. Through all of my thinking life I had seen breadlines of hunger, freezing men standing long hours waiting for a handout of coffee and a bun.... I had seen my father transformed from an ambitious entrepreneur into an anxious, depressed man who worried each month how to pay the rent for his little hardware shop and agonized about how to pay the doctor bills for his chronically ill mother."
In his autobiography, Hollywood Exile (1999), Gordon explained how the party was organised. "Membership of the party meant being assigned to a club. Six or eight of us, all script readers, would meet once a week. The meetings were typically held in the evening after dinner in the home of one of the comrades... The weekly meetings were a chore. The weight of the world was heaped on us, but there was really very little we could do about it. Going to meetings was much like going to that exercise class to which you subscribed and paid your money. It was good for you. But who liked exercise."
In 1946 Gordon married Jean Lewin. She was a union activist who had been a leading figure in the Screen Office Employees Guild, which had succeeded in organizing the secretarial workers at many of the studios. Gordon described her as "five feet tall, a hundred pounds, fair skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair in the wavy style of the period." He argued that "it's difficult to convey how loyal and supportive she was and how necessary for me she became."
In 1947 nineteen members of the film industry who were suspected of being members of the American Communist Party were called to appear before the House of Un-American Activities Committee. This included Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Larry Parks, Waldo Salt, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Lewis Milestone and Irving Pichel.
The first ten witnesses called to appear before the HUAC, Biberman, Bessie, Cole, Maltz, Scott, Trumbo, Dmytryk, Lardner, Ornitz and Lawson, refused to cooperate at the September hearings and were charged with "contempt of Congress". Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this. The courts disagreed and each was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison. The case went before the Supreme Court in April 1950, but with only Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, the sentences were confirmed.
On 8th March, 1951, the HUAC committee began an "Investigation of Communism in the Entertainment Field". Sterling Hayden appeared on 10th April. Robert Vaughn, the author of Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting (1972) has argued that "Hayden... was the first of many who elected to put the continuance of their careers ahead of personal and professional friendships." People named by Hayden included Robert Lees, Karen Morley and Abraham Polonsky. Hayden also said: "One of them was someone named Bernie but I never knew his last name. He was a sort of intellectual type and led the educational discussions." Hayden was talking about Bernard Gordon.
At the time he was working on two screenplays, Flesh and Fury, a boxing picture starring Tony Curtis and The Lawless Breed, a western with Rock Hudson. The producer, William Alland, was also a former member of the American Communist Party and when he appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee he named Gordon as a communist. He also named his ex-wife and Gordon described it as "one of the worst instances of crawling during the entire nasty era."
Gordon was ordered to appear before the HUAC on 14th April, 1952. As he explained in his autobiography: "I was scheduled to appear before the committee at a hearing in Los Angeles, but the hearings were adjourned before the committee actually called me to testify. I received a telegram notifying me of the postponement and instructing me that I was still under subpoena for a hearing at a later date... As a result of that, my name does not appear in any of the books about the blacklist, and nowadays I can afford to find it irritating that I had the game (being blacklisted) but not the name. Still, the motion picture studios were well informed of my unfriendly status (unwilling to name other communists) and barred me from employment."
Gordon had a friend, Ray Marcus, who ran a small factory in Los Angeles manufacturing vinyl plastic items for household use. "Ray hired me for $50 a week as a salesman, needing sales to build his business and to help me deal with unemployment. Unfortunately, the marriage of true need and good intentions was less than successful. I was surely one of the world's worst salesmen. I drove around to the scattered department and notions stores in the vast Los Angeles area and tried to persuade the owners or buyers that they needed Ray's plastic merchandise."
In 1953 he found work as a private investigator. The following year he was employed by the producer, Charles Schneer, to do a rewrite of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a low-budget alien-invasion film with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Gordon worked under the pen name of Raymond T. Marcus, his former employer. This was followed by Hellcats of the Navy (1957), The Man Who Turned to Stone (1957), The Dead That Walk (1957), Chicago Confidential (1957), Escape from San Quentin (1957) and The Case Against Brooklyn (1958).
Gordon also spent time in London with other blacklisted writers and directors. This included Carl Foreman, Joseph Losey, Ben Barzman, Ian Hunter, Ring Lardner Jr., Jules Dassin, Abraham Polonsky, Walter Bernstein, Bernard Vorhaus and Donald Ogden Stewart. However, the British government made life difficult for blacklisted writers and Gordon was only allowed to stay in England for 30 days at a time.
He also visited Jack Berry in Paris: "It was one thing for writers to work wherever they might be, but quite another for a director. In France he had to compete with the local talent to direct French films, and that was extremely difficult. But Jack was a cheerful, energetic, and talented man who did whatever was necessary to get by and support his family. In between very occasional and low-paying directing jobs for both French and Italian producers, he was dubbing films from French to English."
Gordon also met Guy Endore during this period: "I knew him from Hollywood, where he had also worked extensively as a screenwriter before he was blacklisted.... Guy was a slender, wispy man who gave the impression he might float away. His curly, ginger hair and delicate, transparent skin seemed perfect for his gentle, fey personality. He was one of the kindest and most sensitive men I've ever known."
Gordon supported John F. Kennedy in the 1960 Presidential Election. He still had memories of Richard Nixon membership of the House of Un-American Activities Committee during the early investigation of the American Communist Party: "Nixon was the enemy. Kennedy was young, handsome, forward-looking, we believed... Maybe Camelot was about to happen. Though, to be sure, we had our reservations about Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson as his vice president for purely political and tactical reasons."
Gordon hoped that Kennedy would help break the blacklist. In 1960 Dalton Trumbo became the first blacklisted writer to use his own name when he wrote the screenplay for the film Spartacus. Based on the novel by another left-wing blacklisted writer, Howard Fast, is a film that examines the spirit of revolt. Trumbo refers back to his experiences of the House of Un-American Activities Committee. At the end, when the Romans finally defeat the rebellion, the captured slaves refuse to identify Spartacus. As Ring Lardner Jr., another member of the Hollywood Ten, pointed out in his autobiography, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (2000): “Following the election that fall, however, the President-elect and his brother, Attorney-General-to-be Robert Kennedy, crossed a picket line to see Spartacus at a theater in Washington D.C., and pronounced it good.”
After meeting Philip Yordan Gordon moved to Madrid where they two men wrote scripts for Samuel Bronston. Over the next few years they were involved in the production of Day of the Triffids (1962) and 55 Days at Peking (1963). The Daily Mail reported that "the script by Philip Yordan and Bernard Gordon shows a sophistication rare in the epic game." However, the New York Times was less impressed with the film: "With a variety of intertwined personal stories that are also superficial and vague in treatment, the characters of the principals remain largely one dimensional."
Gordon's next film, Cry of Battle (1963) was showing in the Dallas Movie Theater where Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Gordon points out in Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (1999): "Many years later when Oliver Stone was producing the film about the assassination, his production manager reached me and asked for a print of Cry of Battle so that Stone's film might accurately play back the original circumstance. I was able to supply the print and a fraction of a minute of Cry of Battle became part of Stone's JFK."
Gordon's next assignment was The Thin Red Line (1964), a script based on the best-selling novel by James Jones. One newspaper critic said: "Bernard Gordon's script is taut and exciting... the movie is one of the most exciting war films to come along in some time." This was followed by The Magnificent Showman (1964), Custer of the West (1967) and Horror Express (1972).
After he returned to the United States he had difficulty finding work. Eventually he was asked to adapt Surfacing, a novel by Margaret Atwood. The film eventually appeared in 1981. After this he concentrated on writing two autobiographical books, Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (1999) and The Gordon File: A Screenwriter Recalls Twenty Years of FBI Surveillance (2004).
Gordon remained active in politics and shortly before he died he wrote: "Do I still believe we can build a better world? Was I wrong to think we could? I am no longer certain how to go about it. Maybe this old world has to be treated like an old house... You can't turn it into a grand new mansion, but maybe you can make it habitable by fixing the leaky roof and plumbing, and improving the heating, and making it a place with living space for all, regardless of race, color, creed. But keep hammering away."
Perhaps a more significant instance of red subversion occurred in the film Crossfire, arguably I Hollywood's first effort to confront racial bigotry. The story involves the murder of a Jew-with three soldiers suspected of the crime, so that the film also examines the matter of racial prejudice in the armed forces. The film was released in 1947, shortly before the HUAC hearings in Washington at which the I Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress. All of the ten were writers, except for Edward Dmytryk, director of Crossfire, and Adrian Scott, producer of the film. Coincidence?
A word here about this all-important technicality. At the time of the original hearings in 1947, the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt even though they'd claimed their First Amendment right to remain silent when it came to discussing their political beliefs and associations. Still, they had been indicted and found guilty, and ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld their convictions. They went to jail. As a result, the attorneys representing those those witnesses called before the Hollywood committee had no choice but to inform them that the only basis left for refusing to answer the committee's questions Was the Fifth Amendment, which gave witnesses the right to remain silent.
Why was it important to remain silent when a Fifth Amendment defense automatically labeled you a Communist in the eyes of the public and of the industry? Because if you once opened the door by admitting membership in the party, you had to continue to answer the committee's questions about what you knew in the party; you were forced to become an informer. Even more important, by answering the committee's question about party or union affiliations - you implicitly acknowledged the committee's right to ask such a question, to invade your precious political privacy, a privacy that had been won after centuries of struggle against tyrannical governments that used such interrogations to attack every kind of political dissident, every type of trade union organization, and any kind of opposition to the powers that he. In the opinion of scholars as well as radicals, no part of the Constitution is as vital to democracy as the Fifth Amendment and the right it guarantees to remain silent.
I was eventually subpoenaed by HUAC on April 14, 1952, and was scheduled to appear before the committee at a hearing in Los Angeles, but the hearings were adjourned before the committee actually called me to testify. I received a telegram notifying me of the postponement and instructing me that I was still under subpoena for a hearing at a later date. I suppose that almost fifty years later I am still on call, but I did, happily, outlive the HUAC and never did get to testify. As a result of that, my name does not appear in any of the books about the blacklist, and nowadays I can afford to find it irritating that I had the game (being blacklisted) but not the name. Still, the motion picture studios were well informed of my "unfriendly" status and barred me from employment.
Paul Jarrico was a friend for many years both in Hollywood and in Europe. He was a spokesman for those who were blacklisted and was always unstintingly available when called for information about blacklisted people and events. He was the moving spirit at the Writers Guild for assigning proper credit to those who wrote under assumed names during the blacklist. Finally at an industry-wide ceremony on October 27 1997, he was handsomely recognized for his years of effort. But he died tragically in an automobile accident only one night later. His loss was shocking. An eloquent and unapologetic radical, he will be sorely missed by all who are earnest about justice.
Why then, with all of that before me, would a twenty-two-year-old kid join the Communist Party? The short answer is that it seemed the right thing to do, but no one today can he expected to comprehend that. So I'll try again.
In 1942, when the decision was upon me, I had lived through the devastating depression that had started in 1929. I didn't have to be persuaded that deep and intractable problems were rooted in our economy and government. Through all of my thinking life I had seen breadlines of hunger, freezing men standing long hours waiting for a handout of coffee and a bun. I had known the "apple Annies," shabby men and women who came into shops pleading for an opportunity to sell a piece of fruit for a couple of nickels. I had seen my father transformed from an ambitious entrepreneur into an anxious, depressed man who worried each month how to pay the rent for his little hardware shop and agonized about how to pay the doctor bills for his chronically ill mother.
I had witnessed the rise of Hitler and his virulent anti-Semitism, had watched the Republican government of Spain overwhelmed by the tanks, guns, and planes of Germany and Italy, while France, Britain, and my own country stood silently or approvingly by, had seen photos of the mass execution of Republicans in the Spanish bullrings. I was aware that Blacks were being lynched and railroaded to execution in the South, that Jews were denied jobs in almost every major American industry. I knew I had been excluded from Columbia University because of its quota system for Jews. I was aware that Japanese were "funny" people who were limited to virtual slave labor in the gardens of Beverly Hills and that Filipinos were prosecuted as criminals if they dared to marry anyone at all in California.
Like many thoughtful people at the time and like many writers I respected, from George Bernard Shaw to Upton Sinclair, I felt that capitalism was a tailed and brutal system that compounded poverty, caused shiploads of oranges to he dumped at sea rather than fed to the needy, and sent marshals to evict tenants and scatter their few miserable possessions on the sidewalk. For the thinking people I knew, it appeared clear that capitalism had failed even to function as a viable system in a world plunged into economic chaos. Roosevelt's efforts to revive America from a devastating depression had certainly not succeeded until war came along. The boom-and-bust economy needed war. It was a system that feasted on the hones of colonial peoples in Africa, Asia, South America, and that had supported and encouraged the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy. One didn't have to he particularly radical to believe these things.
But what was the answer? Socialism was the only answer we knew; the socialist program was accepted by masses of people in other countries and even by substantial numbers here at home. Lincoln Steffens, the respected American journalist who had visited the Soviet Union in 1919, wrote in his autobiography a sentence that thrilled many of us: "I have seen the future and it works."
What about Stalin? What we knew then, what we knew for certain, was that he was heading the most ferocious, bloody, and heroic fight against Hitler. We also knew that he had tried to involve Britain and France in an alliance to stop Hitler when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. But despite solemn treaties of mutual support, the Western powers had declined to join Stalin's fight. Given their long and bitter enmity for the Soviet Union, going back to its very inception in 1917, we believed the hope and policy of the Western alliance was to turn Hitler cast against the Soviets.
State and federal investigators grilled suspected citizens on their reading habits, voting patterns and church attendance. Support for racial equality became evidence of subversive leanings. Heretical literature was banned from public and school libraries; some communities even held book burnings. Federal agents were known to threaten the uncooperative with internment in the newly established camps, with the removal of their children, with the deportation of aging relatives.
We who had been party members for yens had now worked and hoped and struggled for a long time alongside our fellow members; they were usually our closest friends. We were a besieged company and that drew us closer together. To turn on such friends for reasons of fear or personal gain would be an act betrayal, not only of principle but of personal loyalty. How was that possible? It wasn't even considered. It was not a heroic decision; it was simple decency.
Do I still believe we can build a better world? Was I wrong to think we could? I am no longer certain how to go about it. Maybe this old world has to be treated like an old house... You can't turn it into a grand new mansion, but maybe you can make it habitable by fixing the leaky roof and plumbing, and improving the heating, and making it a place with living space for all, regardless of race, color, creed. But keep hammering away.