Of all the people I interviewed in my years at The New York Times, none was brighter, feistier or more heroic than Dalton Trumbo, the subject of a powerful documentary which opens on 6/27/08. I treasure the letter the legendary screenwriter wrote to me in 1970, shortly after the publication of this article. It’s reprinted at the end of the piece. --GF

“In the mid-thirties, the Prince of Wales visited a hospital in Canada. At the end of a hallway, there was a door marked ‘No Admittance.’ ‘What’s in there?’ he asked. ‘We’d rather you not go in there,’ they told him. But the Prince of Wales insisted, and when he came out of the room, he was weeping. ‘The only way I could salute, the only way I could communicate with that man,’ he said, ‘was to kiss his cheek.’”

Dalton Trumbo’s voice is steady, but his eyes narrow at the thought of the butchered, blinded tube-fed body—a “basket case” from the first World War—dutifully kept breathing, but concealed darkly behind a hospital door. And there is one other atrocity that haunts Trumbo’s mind: a British major so torn up that he was deliberately reported missing in action. It was not until years later—after the victim had finally died, alone, in a military hospital—that his family learned the truth.

Those two tormenting images so stuck in the mind of Dalton Trumbo, then a young Hollywood screenwriter, that they drove him to write what is perhaps the most bitter and graphic antiwar novel ever written. It was published in 1939, just three days before the outbreak of World War II, and it was called “Johnny Got His Gun.”

The “gun” that Johnny got was actually a German bombshell in a World War I trench. When he awoke, his arms were gone, and his legs, and most of his face. All five senses obliterated. One tube in his throat and another in his stomach were all that kept him alive. And the desperate need to reach through the suffocating darkness, to cry out, to make it known that he still lived. As a man. That his mind—and his soul—had somehow survived.

Dalton Trumbo’s book has survived, too. “Johnny Got His Gun” is so timely, in fact, that Trumbo has managed to convince two producers, Eugene Frenke and Bruce Campbell, that it can be turned into a provocative movie. So, beginning next Thursday, the war story everyone said was too somber to be filmed will be coming in on a shoestring and a prayer and a very tight eight-week shooting schedule. The movie is budgeted at only $500,000 (plus deferments) and if it is not completed for any reason, the costs will come out of Trumbo’s own pocket.

For the central role of Joe Bonham--the World War I “Johnny”—Trumbo has chosen Timothy Bottoms, a recent high school graduate with no professional acting experience. Marsha Hunt will play Joe’s mother, Cathy Fields his girl, Diane Varsi a nurse, and Donald Sutherland will appear as Christ in two of Joe’s fantasies. And making his debut as a director will be a 64-year-old rebel by the name of Dalton Trumbo.

Trumbo, a vigorous man with white hair, a handlebar moustache and an appealing penchant for profanity, lives-extremely well—in an elegant house above the Sunset Strip. The walls are covered with expensive paintings and pictures of his pretty wife and three grown children. On a recent morning, he sat sipping coffee in the spacious den overlooking the swimming pool. But not for long. In an instant he was up, pacing and puffing away at his cigarette through a long black holder. Now rummaging through a desk drawer, in search of a misplaced newspaper clipping, now shuffling photos and letters and mementos. Another sit, another slug of coffee, and he was off and pacing again, and puffing. And all the time talking. Talk of Hollywood, of sex, of youth, of revolution, of politicians who use investigating committees as springboards to the White House, of witch-hunting, of fondly remembered prison guards more compassionate than movie moguls.

And talk of wars, wars to end all wars and wars that are not even called wars. “God, but we were all crazy about the first World War,” he says. “The enthusiasm…I remember young boys going to Canada to volunteer in the Canadian Air Force. They just couldn’t wait for the United States to get into the war. Europe was mad with pleasure. The Germans were insane with joy; the French marched gaily off to slaughter. Dogfights in the air, the dropping of wreaths over the wounded. And then, for the first time, the whole world really saw blood.

“There will be no blood at all in ‘Johnny Got His Gun.’ We will not dwell on the horror. There will be a surgical mask over Joe’s face, and he will be covered with a sheet so that the stumps do not show. Our story is one of a man deprived of everything, all the sensual experiences. The first half of the film will be a slow investigation of his condition; the second part will show him trying to manage that condition—attempting to measure time by the baths he is given, learning how to distinguish between day and night, and finally discovering how to communicate.

“The opening scenes—his goodbye to his girl, the troop ship, the trenches, the operating tent—will be in black and white. But his memories and his fantasies will be in color. The memories in a gentle color; the fantasies—the bad dreams, the nightmares—in black, yellow, green. Vivid colors that grab at your throat.”

In the forties, Hollywood movies tended to romanticize war—Errol Flynn and Dana Andrews and Sonny Tufts managed to wear their wounds proudly and most becomingly--and even Trumbo helped pretty up the battlefield in the interest of the Allied war effort. “My personal feeling was that all wars are bad and can be prevented by intelligent and compassionate leadership,” he says, “but that once a war is engaged in, it is possible to take sides. I felt that World War II was a moral war from our point of view, one that should be won.”

True, Van Johnson lost a leg in Trumbo’s “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” but he ended up, grinning and good-natured, in the loving arms of Phyllis Thaxter. And in Trumbo’s “A Guy Named Joe,” a dead but persistently patriotic Spencer Tracy helped his charming widow, Irene Dunne, find her way into the manly military arms of Van Johnson. “We made the movies and we wished they were better,” Trumbo says matter-of-factly. “But no picture is too good when it is designed as propaganda.”

Another not-too-good Trumbo movie was interpreted—at least by one hawk-eyed critic—as propaganda of a different color. Red. The movie was called “Tender Comrade” and it starred Ginger Rogers, who had won an Oscar for her performance as a strong-willed secretary in Trumbo’s earlier success, “Kitty Foyle.” This time, she was featured as a sumptuously pompadoured worker in a war plant, courageously struggling away while her hubby was off winning the war. When “Tender Comrade” was released in 1943, audiences applauded its simple, heart-tugging drama. But, by 1947, the eyes and ears of many citizens across the hysteria-ridden nation were opened to all sorts of amazing nuance. Trumbo recalls that day during the reign of the House Committee on Un-American Activities when Ginger Rogers’s apple-pie mother—once linked romantically with J. Edgar Hoover—took the stand and tearfully testified that Trumbo had forced her defenseless daughter to utter—dare she repeat it?—this loathsome line of Communist propaganda: “Share and share alike—that’s democracy.”

That bit of black comedy was only a small part of an enormous tragedy that touched the lives of thousands of Americans during the late forties and early fifties. For Trumbo and the other members of the Hollywood Ten who refused to say whether they had ever belonged to the Communist party, the Barnumized drama featured taunting by politically ambitious Congressmen, blacklisting by frightened film companies and, ultimately, imprisonment.

Today, Trumbo seems remarkably free from bitterness about the agonies of the McCarthy era. “The degree of bitterness depends on the degree of suffering. There were mental breakdowns, broken marriages, distraught children. I’m not bitter about those who cooperated with the Committee, although I never had a close friend who cooperated. I’m sure that if I did, I would be quite bitter toward him. At the time, I was damned angry, and hostile, and aggressive. I’d hate to think I could pass through an experience like that and not make a fool of myself once in a while. But there are new problems today.

“I don’t think that exactly the same thing could happen in this country again. Not that same simplistic anti-Communist thing. Obviously, one philosophy could not have sired so many problems. Next time, it’ll be something deadlier. If they can just find one scapegoat. After all, what are they going to do if this war goes for three or four more years? They’ve got to smother dissent. They may set up internment camps. Hubert Humphrey, who had been attacked by the right in the fifties, helped put through a bill to provide for such camps, in order to prove how he felt. Of course, I think they will have to operate quite differently from the way they did during World War II. Nobody protested when the Japanese-Americans were imprisoned then, their properties left behind them. The Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles was taken over completely. Even the trees were sold for three dollars apiece. Everybody profited. And there had not been a single proof of Japanese-American espionage.”

Nobody protested all that much either when Trumbo was imprisoned in Ashland, Kentucky’s Federal Correctional Institution in 1950. As it turned out, the experience was not totally grim. “It was a place of quality,” says Trumbo, “as evidenced by the fact that the head librarian was a congressman who was there for a felony called taking a bribe, whereas I was there for a misdemeanor called contempt of Congress. Try as I might, I could not repent of the crime of contempt for an idiotic Congress.

“I worked as a clerk in the storeroom, so I had a typewriter at my disposal and was able to write a screenplay which I sold on the black market. Many of the inmates were young and they liked to talk about Hollywood. They were car thieves mainly. Others were bootleggers, men with families to support. Three quarters of those guys should never have been in there—and I’m not prepared to say the other quarter should have been, either. I used to write letters for them and then read the letters they got back. It was the time of the Korean War, and I remember the captain of the guard calling me aside one day, saying ‘Something awful has happened. My boy has been drafted and I thought you’d understand.’ Prison was not really so bad, except that it was intolerably long.”

Trumbo was released from prison in 1951, but it took another intolerably long time for him to get back on his financial feet. He was forced to sell his ranch, and in 1952 he left the politically tense Hollywood and settled down with his wife and three children in Mexico. During the two years he spent there, Trumbo wrote several movies under pseudonyms, since he was still prominent on Hollywood’s blacklist. When “The Brave One” won an Oscar in 1957 for the best screenplay, the Motion Picture Academy was confused and embarrassed to find that the movie’s author, Robert Rich, did not exist. Rich, in fact, was Dalton Trumbo. It was not until 1959 that Trumbo received a respectable sum for his services. The movie was “Spartacus,” written for Universal under the name of Sam Jackson. “Kirk Douglas wanted to give me screenplay credit, and so did Edward Lewis, the producer, but Universal wouldn’t let them”

Then, in 1960, Otto Preminger, in breathtakingly Ottocratic style, announced that he had hired Trumbo to write the script for his prestigious production of “Exodus.” After waiting a decent interval to recover from the shock and to gauge public response to Preminger’s pronouncement, Universal stepped boldly forward and changed Sam Jackson’s name to Dalton Trumbo. And so, 13 years and nine pseudonyms after the birth of the blacklist, Dalton Trumbo was back taking credit, or shouldering blame, for the fruits of his labor. In recent years he has been responsible for such films as “Lonely Are the Brave,” “Hawaii” and “The Fixer.”

There is one particularly juicy fruit for which he will not shoulder the blame, however: “The Sandpiper,” A 1965 suds-and-sex pic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. “Jesus Christ! Do I hate that movie!” he says, jabbing his cigarette holder at the memory of it. “Let’s just start by saying the script was lousy, though I’m not sure it was that bad. Here you have this hungry 22-year-old girl with a little baby, no husband and no money. And she’s played by Elizabeth Taylor, an opulent woman who weighs approximately 145 pounds and has 22 costume changes by Irene Sharaff or whatever the hell her name is. I kept telling Marty Ransohoff, the producer, that it wasn’t right for this poor starving girl to have $85,000 worth of clothes. Finally, Marty agreed. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘She could never afford to buy all those clothes. I’ll tell you what we’ll do—we’ll put a sewing machine in her living room.’”

Trumbo shakes his head and grunts. “You know, that goddamn movie made money. I guess people will always gather around an accident.”

But it is doubtful that an accident of “Sandpiper” proportions would pay off at the box office today. Young moviegoers of the seventies like their movies real and, above all, relevant.

“I agree with today’s protesting students,“ Trumbo says. “When 400,000 young people march peacefully in front of the White House, speaking the names of the dead men of their generation, men killed in war, and the President’s press relations man announces that the President will pay no attention to them because he is watching TV, and when the President later calls them bums, what are the students to do to gain attention?

“I’m against burning down libraries, but we burn down far more than that in Vietnam. After all, who is it that’s using violence? Where does it come from? How many students were killed in South Carolina, in Santa Barbara, in Mississippi, at Kent State? I don’t think a burned down ROTC hall—that should not have been on campus in the first place—is worth a human life. It’s terribly interesting that the ROTC is being thrown off campuses now. Administrators have suddenly discovered that academic credit should not be given for it. Who called their attention to it? The students. Why didn’t those administrators discover 30 years ago that the purpose of a university is to teach students how to live and that the purpose of ROTC is to teach them how to kill and how to die?

“In the past you could talk about a good war or a bad war, but today, with the bomb, we could kill the whole world. Maybe what I’m really saying is that it will get me too—that I won’t participate in the next war, except as the victim of a bomb.”

Dalton Trumbo, rebel of old, takes a swig of coffee and frowns out at his peaceful blue swimming pool. “Christ, I don’t know what to say. All I do is sit around and scowl.”

Dear Guy:

I am deeply in your debt for the best interview I have ever sat (or walked) through. What most amazes me is the way you are able to take notes in the age of tape-recorders and make them sound more like the person interviewed than he himself could possibly have done. It’s a lost art for which you will undoubtedly be penalized.

It’s only natural that I should also be grateful for the friendliness of the piece---the sense that we liked each other while we were working it out, which clearly we did.

I’m deep in Johnny now. Sutherland is in the can, and Jason Robards is presently headed there. I try to walk faster than anybody else on the set in order to persuade my juniors that I’m a spry old cocker who knows exactly what he’s up to (which often I don’t), and the stuff we’re getting seems, on occasion, tolerably good. Wish me luck!

With every thankful good wish,

Dalton Trumbo


To read Guy Flatley's review of "Trumbo," click here.