Dalton Trumbo: His Five Best Scripts

June 17, 2016
With Trumbo just released on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital, we pick the five best scripts from the gifted and highly prolific Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was famously blacklisted for much of his extraordinary career.

“His wit, certainly, but also his eloquence, his rage, and his bawdy sense of humour,” Peter Askin – the director of the 2007 documentary, Trumbo – replied when asked what he liked most about Dalton Trumbo. “Above all, perhaps, his courage, his fearlessness, a clear sense of passion in what he believed was the right way, the principled way, for a man to live.” All of that is present in his Hollywood screenwriting, much of which he did under pseudonyms or through the use of “fronts” when he found himself on the now notorious Black List. With America gripped by anti-communist fervour in the forties and fifties, the movie industry was seen as a hotbed of leftist dissent, and many found themselves out in the cold as a result of their ideologies. A longtime leftist, Dalton Trumbo would become the most famous of the blacklisted film professionals known as The Hollywood 10, officially shut out of the industry until Kirk Douglas broke The Black List by inviting him to pen 1960’s Spartacus. “You know, I did a lot of movies with Dalton,” Kirk Douglas told USA Today in 2015. “They were all good.” Here are FilmInk’s picks for Dalton Trumbo’s Top Five Scripts…

Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus

Woody Strode and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus

SPARTACUS (1960) “My young co-star in 1951’s Detective Story, Lee Grant, was unable to work for twelve years after she refused to testify against her husband before The House Un-American Activities Committee,” Kirk Douglas said upon the release of Trumbo. “I was threatened that using a Blacklisted writer for Spartacus – my friend, Dalton Trumbo – would mark me as a ‘Commie-lover’ and end my career. There are times when one has to stand up for principle.” Bringing Dalton Trumbo onto Spartacus at great risk to his own career paid off huge dividends to Hollywood superstar, Kirk Douglas: this courageous act not only eviscerated The Blacklist, but also allowed for the creation of one of the true great historical epics of the 1960s. Though the young Stanley Kubrick’s inspired direction is beyond reproach, Trumbo’s incisive, perfectly tuned adaptation of Howard Fast’s unwieldy novel is a shining example of the writer’s ability to cut right to the chase. The script’s detours into the perverse (see the famously excised bathhouse scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis), meanwhile, indicate Trumbo’s innate sense of rebellion, with the scribe gleefully injecting off-the-cuff kink into a big historical epic.

Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are The Brave

Kirk Douglas in Lonely Are The Brave

LONELY ARE THE BRAVE (1962) Lonely Are The Brave is something rare, and almost unique: a leftist American western,” wrote filmmaker, Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) in Film Comment in 2007. “Lonely Are The Brave is a pessimistic tale of the triumph of ‘stuff’ over all that is best in the bond of humans, animals, and the land. It is both a classic western, and a great film.” Based on the novel, The Brave Cowboy, by anarchist environmentalist, Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang), Lonely Are The Brave – the best work of journeyman director, David Miller (Hail, Hero!, Executive Action) – is the heartbreaking, elegiac tale of roaming ranch hand, Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas at his best), an old school cowboy painfully at odds with the vagaries of the modern world. Predating First Blood by decades, the plot has Burns pursued through the wilderness when he breaks out of a smalltown jail after getting banged up during a vicious barroom brawl with a one-armed man. While a lot of the film’s poetry stems from Abbey’s novel, Trumbo intelligently punches up its most cinematic qualities, and stitches his political concerns into the narrative with creative assurance.

John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy

John Dall and Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy

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GUN CRAZY (1950) Upon its release in 1950, Gun Crazy was nothing more than a superior B-movie: a low budget potboiler replete with pistols, repressed sexuality, a classic femme fatale, and a typically duped and doomed hero. In 1998, however, Gun Crazy was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by The Library Of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Dalton Trumbo’s fronted screenplay (credited to Millard Kaufman because of The Blacklist, with Trumbo not revealed as the writer until 1992) was co-penned with MacKinlay Kantor, who also wrote the short story upon which it was based. Directed with lurid invention by journeyman-with-a-surprisingly-twisted-mind, Joseph H. Lewis (The Big Combo), the film follows the decent hearted Bart (John Dall), a callow gun-obsessive whose life screeches out of control when he falls for carnival sharpshooter, Annie (Peggy Cummins), who lures him into a life of crime. A sensational mix of action, excitement, and divine perversity (Bart and Annie are a truly kinky couple), Gun Crazy would eventually become a cult phenomenon, something that Dalton Trumbo would likely never have guessed at while penning the film for The King Brothers, so memorably played by John Goodman and Stephen Root in Trumbo. The writer’s rage is palpable in the film, giving it the indelible kick that would make it so eternally essential.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) In a delicious Trumbo-pulled creative stunt, the utterly charming romantic drama, Roman Holiday, is all about someone hiding their true identity. Fronted by Ian McLellan Hunter (Trumbo’s credit was reinstated when the film was released on DVD in 2003), Trumbo’s script follows Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn in her first major role), who is thoroughly sick and tired of her regal duties, and escapes to the streets of Rome. After a rather unforgettable night (involving mind-altering substances on her part), Ann wakes to find herself in American journalist Joe Bradley’s (the brilliant Gregory Peck) apartment. Joe plays dumb to Ann’s royal status, and is not entirely truthful himself with regards to his current line of work. In the midst of having the time of their lives exploring the city, the two – yep, you guessed it – fall head over heels in love. A much loved romance, Roman Holiday picked up three Oscars, including the screenwriting gong (this forms a major moment in the biopic, Trumbo), which was given to Ian McLellan Hunter, but was finally posthumously presented to Trumbo’s widow, Cleo, in 1993.

Timothy Bottoms in Johnny Got His Gun

Timothy Bottoms in Johnny Got His Gun

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971) Dalton Trumbo’s sole directorial effort (an adaptation of his acclaimed 1939 novel) is a scathing, blackly satirical anti-war polemic in which a young man (Timothy Bottoms) returns from WW1 minus his arms, legs, and most of his face. Desperate to end his life, he is wholly lost, and receives little philosophical assistance from a dreamy, ineffectual vision of Jesus (a trippy Donald Sutherland), who does card tricks, constructs wooden crosses, and speaks in infuriating riddles. Though not as well known or revered as much of Trumbo’s other work (such as The Brave One, which won an Oscar for the writer’s pseudonym, Robert Rich, the name of the film’s producer’s nephew), Johnny Got His Gun remains one of his key works. Long deemed unfilmable (the great Luis Bunuel had toyed with directing an adaptation in the mid-1960s), Trumbo succeeded beautifully in giving his dark, booming prose a visual framework. “There were many times during the first 20 years of the novel’s existence when I received offers for it,” Trumbo told critic, Roger Ebert, “but I’d never let go of it, not even when I could have used the money. It’s obviously the best thing that I’ve ever done – maybe the one good thing that I’ve done – and I told them, ‘I can’t see any way to make it into a film, and I’m a fair pro at turning books into movies. So if I can’t, I don’t see how you can.’” Tellingly, however, it was Dalton Trumbo who eventually got it made. Johnny Got His Gun courses with barely contained rage, and suggests that Trumbo’s gifts extended beyond just being a fine writer.

(VERY) HONOURABLE MENTIONS: THE BRAVE ONE (1956), PAPILLON (1973), EXODUS (1960), THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955), THE FIXER (1968)

Trumbo is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital from June 16.

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