Tuesday, 23rd February, 2016
I am sometimes asked if we called the company Spartacus Educational after the slave, Spartacus, who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire in 73 BC. The answer is yes, but not so much the historical character but the one that appeared in the Hollywood movie of the same name.
In reality, we know very little about Spartacus. The first account of his rebellion appeared in a book written by Diodorus in 61 BC. This story was picked up by Plutarch 150 years later and his account of his activities are not very reliable. Over the centuries Spartacus has become a symbol of resistance to the powerful. When I started Spartacus Educational in 1984 I was a one-man business that was taking on the multinational corporations that dominated educational publishing.
The Spartacus that I knew was the one who appeared in the 1960 film that starred Kirk Douglas as the rebellious slave. I first saw the movie when I was a teenager and it had a strong impact on my political beliefs. I did not know it at the time, but that was the intention of the scriptwriter, Dalton Trumbo, and the man who wrote the novel the story was based on, Howard Fast.
The best remembered scene in the movie concerns the defeat of the slaves. Marcus Licinius Crassus (Lawrence Oliver), the leader of the Roman Army, attempts to identify Spartacus so he can be punished more severely than the other slaves. However, the men refuse to do this and all claim "I'm Spartacus". As a result, they are sentenced to death by crucifixion along the Via Appia.
This of course never happened but Trumbo was making a political point about his experiences in the preceding ten years. In the 1930s Trumbo established himself as the greatest screenwriter of his generation. He was also a trade union activist and was one of the leaders of the Screen Writers Guild.
During the Second World War, Trumbo joined the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). He became disillusioned by communism, mainly because of the actions of Joseph Stalin after the war and left the party. However, in 1947 the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry.
Later that year nineteen members of the film industry who were suspected of being communists were called to appear before the HUAC. This included Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr, Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Edward Dmytryk, Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Larry Parks, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen and Lewis Milestone.
Trumbo appeared before the HUAC on 28th October, 1947. He was denied the right to make an opening statement. In it he wanted to make the point that the HUAC was having a damaging impact on world opinion: "As indicated by news dispatches from foreign countries during the past week, the eyes of the world are focused today upon the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In every capital city these hearings will be reported. From what happens during the proceedings, the peoples of the earth will learn by precept and example precisely what America means when her strong voice calls out to the community of nations for freedom of the press, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the civil rights of men standing accused before government agencies, the vitality and strength of private enterprise, the inviolable right of every American to think as he wishes, to organize and assemble as he pleases, to vote in secret as he chooses."
Trumbo was asked by Robert E. Stripling if he was a member of the Screen Writers Guild. He refused to answer the question: "Mr. Stripling, the rights of American labor to inviolably secret membership have been won in this country by a great cost of blood and a great cost in terms of hunger. These rights have become an American tradition. Over the Voice of America we have broadcast to the entire world the freedom of our labor... You asked me a question which would permit you to haul every union member in the United States up here to identify himself as a union member, to subject him to future intimidation and coercion. This, I believe is an unconstitutional question."
Trumbo also refused to admit he had been a member of the CPUSA. Trumbo was removed from the room and HUAC investigator, Louis Russell, now read out a nine page report on his Communist Party affiliations. John Parnell Thomas, the chairman of the HUAC, stated: "The evidence presented before this Committee concerning Dalton Trumbo clearly indicates that he is an active Communist Party member. Also the fact that he followed the usual Communist line of not responding to questions of the Committee is definite proof that he is a member of the Communist Party. Therefore, by unanimous vote of the members present, the subcommittee recommends to the full committee that Dalton Trumbo be cited for contempt of Congress." Trumbo was found guilty of contempt of Congress and was sentenced to ten months in prison. On his release he was blacklisted and was officially unable to work in Hollywood.
Trumbo was not a member of the CPUSA in 1947. This was not the issue. What the HUAC wanted Trumbo to do was to name other members of the Hollywood movie industry who had been members of the CPUSA. They already knew the names because FBI agents had infiltrated the organisation. However, it was important for people such as Trumbo to be seen as betraying his former comrades.
Most of those former members of the CPUSA called up before the HUAC were willing to name other members in exchange for being allowed to work in Hollywood. This included the successful director, Elia Kazan, who named eight people who had been members of the party in the 1930s. As a result, these people were called before the HUAC. Those that refused to name names, were blacklisted. Kazan later claimed he felt no guilty about what he had done: "There's a normal sadness about hurting friends, but I would rather hurt them a little than hurt myself a lot."
As a reward for his co-operation, Kazan was allowed to continue working in Hollywood and in 1954 directed On the Waterfront (1954). It was a film about corruption in the trade union movement and was an attempt to justify the morality of providing information on friends to people in authority. Budd Schulberg, the writer and the actor Lee J. Cobb, who both testified before the HUAC, also worked on the film.
Dalton Trumbo carried on writing screenplays by using pseudonyms such as Ben Parry, Robert Rich and Sally Stubblefield. This included Roman Holiday (1953), which won the Academy Award for best screenplay, Carnival Story (1954), One Man Mutiny (1955), The Boss (1956), The Brave One (1956), another Academy Award winner, The Brothers Rico (1957), The Deerslayer (1957), The Green-Eyed Blonde (1957), The Cowboy (1958) and Terror in a Texas Town (1958).
In 1960 Dalton Trumbo became the first blacklisted writer to use his own name when he wrote the screenplay for the film Spartacus. In direct contrast to Kazan's On the Waterfront, Trumbo's slaves show their solidarity by refusing to identify their leader.
A few weeks ago a movie was released on the life of Dalton Trumbo. Directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara, the film stars Bryan Cranston as Trumbo. Unfortunately, the film does not do justice to this highly principled man. Instead he is portrayed as a bit of an eccentric who is rarely given the opportunity to explain his political views.
In 1970 Dalton Trumbo argued that all screenwriters were victims during McCarthyism. "Some suffered less than others, some grew and some diminished, but in the final tally we were all victims because almost without exception each of us felt compelled to say things he did not want to say, to do things that he did not want to do, to deliver and receive wounds he truly did not want to exchange. That is why none of us - right, left, or centre - emerged from that long nightmare without sin."
Trumbo was criticized by other blacklisted people who had their careers destroyed for not naming names. In an interview Albert Maltz gave to the New York Times in 1972 he compared the experiences of Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk: "There is currently in vogue a thesis pronounced by Dalton Trumbo which declares that everyone during the years of blacklist was equally a victim. This is factual nonsense and represents a bewildering moral position.... Adrian Scott was the producer of the notable film Crossfire in 1947 and Edward Dmytryk was its director. Crossfire won wide critical acclaim, many awards and commercial success. Both of these men refused to co-operate with the HUAC. Both were held in contempt of the HUAC and went to jail. When Dmytryk emerged from his prison term he did so with a new set of principles. He suddenly saw the heavenly light, testified as a friend of the HUAC, praised its purposes and practices and denounced all who opposed it. Dmytryk immediately found work as a director, and has worked all down the years since. Adrian Scott, who came out of prison with his principles intact, could not produce a film for a studio again until 1970. He was blacklisted for 21 years. To assert that he and Dmytryk were equally victims is beyond my comprehension."
Maltz would probably say that Trumbo was more forgiving because he managed to have a good career despite the blacklist. Maltz had not been so lucky. In 1959 Frank Sinatra announced that he proposed to break the blacklist by employing Maltz as the screenwriter of his proposed film, The Execution of Private Slovik, based on the book by William Bradford Huie.
Sinatra soon came under attack for his decision. He nearly came to blows with John Wayne, who called him a "Commie" when they met in the street. However, what really hurt Sinatra was the criticism he received in the press. This included claims that his friend, John F. Kennedy, also wanted an end to the blacklist. Sinatra issued a statement to the press: "I would like to comment on the attacks from certain quarters on Senator John Kennedy by connecting him with my decision on employing a screenwriter. This type of partisan politics is hitting below the belt... I make movies. I do not ask the advice of Senator Kennedy on whom I should hire. Senator Kennedy does not ask me how he should vote in the Senate."
Michael Freedland, the author of Witch-Hunt in Hollywood (2009) argues that "Kennedy didn't like the association with the name of one of the Hollywood Ten. He would soon run from President and he was worried that he could harm him." A few days later Sinatra took out another paid-for advertisement in the newspapers: "In view of the reaction of my family, friends and the American public I've instructed my lawyers to make a settlement with Albert Maltz. My conversations with Maltz indicate that he has an affirmative, pro-American approach to the story, but the American public has indicated it feels that the morality of hiring Maltz is the most crucial matter and I will accept this majority opinion."
Sigmund Freud claimed that all great art comes from pain and suffering. Maybe without the blacklist Howard Fast would never have written Spartacus, the novel and Dalton Trumbo would not have had that idea for the last scene of Spartacus, the movie. But they did, and the name Spartacus has become a symbol of those who are unwilling to betray their ideals in order to achieve success.
Right-wing infiltration of the BBC (1st February, 2016)
Bert Trautmann, a committed Nazi who became a British hero (13th January, 2016)
Frank Foley, a Christian worth remembering at Christmas (24th December, 2015)
How did governments react to the Jewish Migration Crisis in December, 1938? (17th December, 2015)
Does going to war help the careers of politicians? (2nd December, 2015)
Art and Politics: The Work of John Heartfield (18th November, 2015)
The People we should be remembering on Remembrance Sunday (7th November, 2015)
Why Suffragette is a reactionary movie (21st October, 2015)
Volkswagen and Nazi Germany (1st October, 2015)
David Cameron's Trade Union Act and fascism in Europe (23rd September, 2015)
The problems of appearing in a BBC documentary (17th September, 2015)
Mary Tudor, the first Queen of England (12th September, 2015)
Jeremy Corbyn, the new Harold Wilson? (5th September, 2015)
Anne Boleyn in the history classroom (29th August, 2015)
Women and Politics during the Reign of Henry VIII (14th July, 2015)
The Politics of Austerity (16th June, 2015)
Was Henry FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, murdered? (31st May, 2015)
Was social mobility greater under Henry VIII than it is under David Cameron? (29th April, 2015)
Is Sir Thomas More one of the 10 worst Britons in History? (6th March, 2015)
Was Henry VIII as bad as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin? (12th February, 2015)
The History of Freedom of Speech (13th January, 2015)
The Christmas Truce Football Game in 1914 (24th December, 2014)
The Secret Files of James Jesus Angleton (12th November, 2014)
Ben Bradlee and the Death of Mary Pinchot Meyer (29th October, 2014)
Yuri Nosenko and the Warren Report (15th October, 2014)
The KGB and Martin Luther King (2nd October, 2014)
The Death of Tomás Harris (24th September, 2014)
Simulations in the Classroom (1st September, 2014)
The KGB and the JFK Assassination (21st August, 2014)
West Ham United and the First World War (4th August, 2014)
The First World War and the War Propaganda Bureau (28th July, 2014)
Interpretations in History (8th July, 2014)
Alger Hiss was not framed by the FBI (17th June, 2014)
Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: Part 2 (14th June, 2014)
The Student as Teacher (7th June, 2014)
Is Wikipedia under the control of political extremists? (23rd May, 2014)
Why MI5 did not want you to know about Ernest Holloway Oldham (6th May, 2014)
The Strange Death of Lev Sedov (16th April, 2014)
Why we will never discover who killed John F. Kennedy (27th March, 2014)
The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)
Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)
Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)
Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)
Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)
Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)
Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)
The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)
The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)
Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)
New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)
Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)
Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)
Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)
Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)
The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)
Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)
British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)
Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)
Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)
The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)
The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)
What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)
Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)