Hollywood's Missing Movies

Why American films have ignored life under communism.


Every so often someone in Hollywood uses his power to break the movie colony's rules. Consider this year's Total Eclipse. Odd as it may seem, this is the first serious American film set against the background of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact, the deal that allied Europe's two totalitarian powers against the West and helped plunge the world into war. With an ally on the eastern front, Hitler sent his Panzers west while Stalin helped himself to the Baltic states and invaded Finland. A film like this could easily have turned out as big a didactic dud as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's 1982 bomb, Inchon, with Laurence Olivier as Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But this time the verisimilitude of the script, carried by some outstanding performances, is the source of the film's dramatic power.

Dustin Hoffman's persuasive portrayal of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin obviously emerges from his close study of how power and perversity converged in the dictator. Likewise, Jurgen Prochnow sparkles as Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, and so does Robert Duvall as Vyacheslav Molotov, his Soviet counterpart. Duvall's delivery of Molotov's line that "fascism is a matter of taste" is a key moment, and deserves at least as much admiration as Duvall's famous quip from Apocalypse Now about the smell of napalm in the morning. The Molotov speech has drawn some objections for being over the top, but it was not invented by screenwriter William Goldman (Marathon Man); it's an actual quote.

The sheer unexpectedness of the film is almost as shocking as its content. In one of the film's more chilling sequences, the Soviets hand over a number of German Communists, Jews who had taken refuge in Moscow, to the Gestapo. Modern audiences may find this surprising, but that incident too is taken from the historical record. Indeed, former KGB officials are credited as advisers on the film, whose cast also includes some of their actual victims.

There has simply been nothing like it on the screen in six decades. It has taken that long for moviegoers to see Soviet forces invading Poland and meeting their Nazi counterparts. Audiences would likely be similarly surprised by cinematic treatments of Cuban prisons, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the bloody campaigns of Ethiopia's Stalinist Col. Mengistu, all still awaiting attention from Hollywood.

Total Eclipse is rated PG-13 for violence, particularly graphic in some of the mass murder scenes, images of starving infants from Stalin's 1932 forced famine in the Ukraine, and the torture of dissidents. Director Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List) deftly cuts from the Moscow trials to the torture chambers of the Lubyanka. More controversial are the portrayals of American communists during the period of the Pact. They are shown here picketing the White House, calling President Roosevelt a warmonger, and demanding that America stay out of the "capitalist war" in Europe. Harvey Keitel turns in a powerful performance as American Communist boss Earl Browder, and Linda Hunt brings depth to Lillian Hellman, who, when Hitler attacks the USSR in September of 1939, actually did cry out, "The motherland has been invaded."

Painstakingly accurate and filled with historical surprises, this film is so refreshing, so remarkable, that even at 162 minutes it seems too short.

Never heard of Total Eclipse? It hasn't been produced or even written. In all likelihood, such a film has never even been contemplated, at least in Hollywood. Indeed, in the decade since the Berlin Wall fell, or even the decade before that, no Hollywood film has addressed the actual history of communism, the agony of the millions whose lives were poisoned by it, and the century of international deceit that obscured communist reality. The simple but startling truth is that the major conflict of our time, democracy versus Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism–what The New York Times recently called "the holy war of the 20th century"–is almost entirely missing from American cinema. It is as though since 1945, Hollywood had produced little or nothing about the victory of the Allies and the crimes of National Socialism. This void is all the stranger since the major conflict of our time would seem to be a natural draw for Hollywood.

Though of global dimension, the conflict encompasses millions of dramatic personal stories played out on a grand tapestry of history: courageous Solidarity unionists against a Communist military junta; teenagers facing down tanks in the streets of Budapest and Prague; Cuban gays oppressed by a macho-Marxist dictatorship; writers and artists resisting the kitsch of obscurantist materialism; families fleeing brutal persecution, risking their lives to find freedom.

Furthermore, great villains make for great drama, and communism's central casting department is crowded: Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hönecker, Ceaucescu, Pol Pot, Col. Mengistu–all of cosmic megalomania–along with their squads of hacks, sycophants, and stooges, foreign and domestic.

A few English-language films have drawn on this remarkable material, especially book-into-film projects based on highly publicized works, among them One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (a 1971 British-Norwegian production) and, of course, Doctor Zhivago (1965). But many other natural book-to-film projects remain untouched, from the story of Stalin's daughter Svetlana (who left Russia for the West) to works by such high-ranking defectors as Polish Ambassador Romuald Spasowski (The Liberation of One), KGB agent Arkady Schevchenko (Breaking With Moscow), and persecuted Cuban poets Armando Valladares (Against All Hope) and Heberto Padilla (Heroes Are Grazing in My Garden). In light of the most recent revelations concerning the espionage of Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers' Witness is another obvious candidate.

The reason this ample supply of stories remains unfilmed is not ignorance. Though its films may not often reflect it, Hollywood is filled with knowledgeable writers and producers. The reasons lie elsewhere, especially in Hollywood's own convoluted political history, a history that has passed through many stages. Perhaps the most pertinent of those stages involves the "back story" of communism's own largely uncharted offensive in the studios.

The cinema's great potential for persuasion excited Stalin and his wholly-owned American subsidiary, the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), which lived off Soviet cash until it criticized Gorbachev's reforms as "old social democratic thinking class collaboration." Correspondence between American communists and their Soviet bosses can now be perused in The Soviet World of American Communism (1998). Editors John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Kyrill Anderson gathered newly declassified material from the Moscow-based archives of the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet organization that controlled national communist parties. Members of the CPUSA made some documentary films in the 1930s, but nothing that could compete with the American commercial cinema, which the party set out to co-opt.

"One of the most pressing tasks confronting the Communist Party in the field of propaganda," wrote the indefatigable Comintern agent Willi Muenzenberg in a 1925 Daily Worker article, "is the conquest of this supremely important propaganda unit, until now the monopoly of the ruling class. We must wrest it from them and turn it against them." It was an ambitious task, but conditions would soon turn to the party's advantage.

The Depression convinced many that capitalism was on its last legs and that socialism was the wave of the future. In the days of the Popular Front of the mid-'30s, communists found it easy to make common cause with liberals against Hitler and Spain's Franco. In 1935, V.J. Jerome, the CPUSA's cultural commissar, set up a Hollywood branch of the party. This highly secretive unit enjoyed great success, recruiting members, organizing entire unions, raising money from unwitting Hollywood liberals, and using those funds to support Soviet causes through front groups such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. "We had our own sly arithmetic, we could find fronts and make two become one," remembered screenwriter Walter Bernstein (Fail Safe, The Front, The House on Carroll Street) in his 1996 autobiography, Inside Out.

During the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, for example, actor Melvyn Douglas (Ninotchka) and screenwriter-director Philip Dunne (Wild in the Country) proposed that the Motion Picture Democratic Committee, a conclave of industry Democrats, condemn Stalin's invasion of Finland in late 1939. But the group was actually secretly dominated by Communists, and it rejected the resolution. As Dunne later described it in his 1980 memoir, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, "All over town the industrious communist tail wagged the lazy liberal dog."

"There was never an organized, articulate, and effective liberal or left-wing opposition to the communists in Hollywood," concluded John Cogley, a socialist, in his 1956 Report on Blacklisting. As former party member Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) put it, the party was "the only game in town." But even though the Communists were strongest in the Screen Writers Guild, influencing the content of movies was a trickier matter.

Communist cultural doctrine cast writers as "artists in uniform," producing works whose function was to transmit political messages and raise the consciousness of their audiences. Otherwise, movies were mere bourgeois decadence, a tool of capitalist distraction, and therefore subjugation. Party bosses V.J. Jerome and John Howard Lawson (a co-founder of the Screen Writers Guild and screenwriter of Algiers and Action in the North Atlantic) enforced this art-is-a-weapon creed in Hollywood, as they had done earlier among New York dramatists. Albert Maltz (Destination Tokyo) was to challenge the doctrine in a 1946 New Masses article, arguing that doctrinaire politics often resulted in poor writing. Responding to the notion that "art is a weapon," Maltz suggested, "An artist can be a great artist without being an integrated or logical or a progressive thinker on all matters."

As a result of such heresy, the party dragged him through a series of humiliating inquisitions and forced him to publish a retraction. Maltz trashed his original article as "a one-sided, nondialectical treatment of complex issues" that was "distinguished for its omissions" and which "succeeded in merging my comments with the unprincipled attacks upon the left that I have always repudiated and combated." Maltz was to defend that retraction until he died in 1985.

Dalton Trumbo (Kitty Foyle), a Communist Party member and for a time the highest-paid screenwriter in town, described the screenwriting trade as "literary guerrilla warfare." The studio system, in which projects were closely supervised, made the insertion of propaganda difficult if not impossible. Hollywood did not become a bastion of Stalinist propaganda, except as part of the war effort, when Russia was celebrated as an ally. Ayn Rand, then a Hollywood screenwriter and one of the few in the movie community who had actually lived under communism, was to point out that, in their zeal to provide artistic lend-lease, American Communist screenwriters went to extraordinary and absurd lengths. In such wartime movies as North Star and Song of Russia (both 1943), they portrayed the USSR as a land of joyous, well-fed workers who loved their masters. Mission to Moscow (also 1943), starring Walter Huston, went so far as to whitewash Stalin's murderous show trials of the 1930s.

But if Comintern fantasies of a Soviet Hollywood were never realized, party functionaries nevertheless played a significant role: They were sometimes able to prevent the production of movies they opposed. The party had not only helped organize the Screen Writers Guild, it had organized the Story Analysts Guild as well. Story analysts judge scripts and film treatments early in the decision making process. A dismissive report often means that a studio will pass on a proposed production. The party was thus well positioned to quash scripts and treatments with anti-Soviet content, along with stories that portrayed business and religion in a favorable light. In The Worker, Dalton Trumbo openly bragged that the following works had not reached the screen: Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and The Yogi and the Commissar; Victor Kravchenko's I Chose Freedom; and Bernard Clare by James T. Farrell, also author of Studs Lonigan and vilified by party enforcer Mike Gold as "a vicious, voluble Trotskyite."

Even talent agents sometimes answered to Moscow. Party organizer Robert Weber landed with the William Morris agency, where he represented Communist writers and directors such as Ring Lardner Jr. and Bernard Gordon. Weber carried considerable clout regarding who worked and who didn't. So did George Willner, a Communist agent representing screenwriters, who sold out his noncommunist clients by deliberately neglecting to shop their stories. On a wider scale, the party launched smear campaigns and blacklists against noncommunists, targeting such figures as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and Bette Davis.

These were among the many actors defying the party-backed labor group, the Conference of Studio Unions. The CSU, which was trying to shut down the industry and force through jurisdictional concessions that would give it supremacy in studio labor, clashed with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and its allies, who were trying to keep the studios going. Katharine Hepburn stumped for the CSU, reading speeches written by Dalton Trumbo, while Ronald Reagan, then a liberal Democrat, headed the anti-communists in the talent guilds.

These were the true front lines of the communist offensive, and bloody warfare broke out in the streets outside every studio. The prospect of communist influence in Hollywood got Washington snooping, but in classic style, the politicians got it backward.

The first head of what eventually became the House Committee on Un-American Activities was New York Democrat Samuel Dickstein. As the recently declassified "Venona" documents (decrypts of Soviet cables) reveal, Dickstein moonlighted for Soviet intelligence–not out of ideology but for money. Initially concerned with pro-fascist groups in the late 1930s, the committee after the war was dominated by right-wing Republicans, though its most loathsome figure was Mississippi Democrat John Rankin, a sulfuric anti-Semite.

In 1947, while investigating Comintern agent Gerhart Eisler, whose brother Hanns was a composer in Hollywood, the committee found movie people coming forth with stories of Communist Party intrigue and decided that there was enough to justify hearings. They selected fewer than 50 witnesses of various job descriptions and political profiles, including party heavyweights John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo.

Eager to exploit Hollywood for publicity, the committee stupidly made film content the issue, ignoring the party's vast organizing campaigns in the back lots despite convincing testimony from, among others, Walt Disney. More important, the committee ignored the reality that it wasn't what the party put into North Star and Song of Russia that really mattered but the anti-communist, anti-Soviet material it kept out.

While the committee welcomed the publicity, the beleaguered film industry circled the wagons. Studio bosses, although adamantly anti-communist, asserted defiantly that no congressman could tell them how to run their business. A celebrity support group, including such figures as Humphrey Bogart and Danny Kaye, journeyed to Washington to defend their own.

The hearings featured a series of angry harangues by Stalinist writers who came to be known as the Hollywood Ten. Dalton Trumbo, who joined the party during the Nazi-Soviet Pact and even wrote a novel, The Remarkable Andrew, to support the Pact, bellowed, "This is the beginning of the American concentration camp."

Such performances shocked the studio bosses and the celebrity supporters, who had been expecting an eloquent constitutional defense of freedom of expression. Party membership itself was not illegal, and members could have alluded to the wartime alliance with the Soviets. Many wanted to testify, a phenomenon Norman Mailer dubbed "subpoena envy." As director John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), who organized the celebrity support group, later learned to his dismay, CPUSA lawyers had decided on the confrontational strategy, largely to protect enforcer John Howard Lawson and others who had already testified to a California committee that they were not communists.

After another series of hearings in the early 1950s, studios produced a string of now largely forgotten, mostly low-budget anti-communist films, among them Big Jim McClain and My Son John, in which Helen Hayes informs to the government on her son, Robert Walker. These dealt with communism as a kind of domestic political mafia but left actual conditions under communist regimes largely unexplored. More important was Hollywood's internal reaction.

Studio bosses, fearful of bad publicity, announced that they would indeed fire communists, which they had previously refused to do. This was the beginning of the blacklist, Hollywood's version of the conflict of our time, enshrined in such films as The Front (1976), starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel and written by Walter Bernstein, and the star-studded but bland Guilty by Suspicion (1991). Viewers of such fare could easily conclude that communism scarcely existed except as a source of boundless optimism in the hearts of the country's most creative writers. Much the same message emerged from Julia, the 1977 Jane Fonda vehicle based on an autohagiographical memoir by Lillian Hellman.

Over the years, a number of book-length accounts have taken up the cause, some written by relatives of the blacklisted, invoking "inquisition" and "red scare" in their titles and bristling with terms such as witch-hunt and McCarthyite. The senator from Wisconsin, it should be noted, played no role in Hollywood, whose anti-communists, mostly liberal Democrats, found him an impediment to their cause.

As it plays out in the movies, the blacklist story is vintage Hollywood: black hats vs. white hats. The evil government committee rides into town and, for no apparent reason, makes life miserable for a group of noble artists. In one subplot, the victims survive by selling scripts under fake names. The story carries considerable appeal, though it misses the irony that those who thought capitalism evil continued to take advantage of the kind of market that did not exist in the socialist regimes they extolled. Albert Maltz championed East Germany, while fellow Hollywood Ten alumnus Lester Cole favored that bastion of artistic freedom, North Korea.

By the 1960s the blacklist was over; Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger restored the names of blacklisted writers to the credits of the films they actually wrote. The Hollywood Ten and other communist writers were on their way, as Philip Dunne put it, to being "virtually deified." Dunne had been through it all and found the revisionist accounts so distorted that, he said, "I could almost believe that I was reading the chronicle of some mythical kingdom."

The legend of the blacklist, sanitized of all references to Stalin or to the Communist Party's actual record in the studios, became a continuing influence on Hollywood's political life. Hollywood had entered its period of anti-anti-communism, a well-known phenomenon in American cultural and intellectual life. Those motivated by this ideology have vilified such critics of the Soviet Union as Robert Conquest and Sidney Hook, while venerating such paleo-leftists as journalist I.F. Stone, whose 1952 Hidden History of the Korean War parroted the party line that South Korea invaded the North. Anti-anti-communism demonizes anti-communists, however truthful their revelations, as paranoid and on the wrong side of history, while praising apologists of totalitarianism as well-meaning idealists, however mendacious and servile their record. Such a vision is not likely to promote a meaningful cinematic treatment of communism.

Witness the longstanding campaign to prevent director Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire) from receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Motion Picture Academy. Kazan, a former communist, cooperated with HUAC and defended his position in a New York Times advertisement that called on liberals to take a stand against communism. Since Kazan's cinematic achievements are undeniable, his career violates a significant aspect of the Hollywood Ten legend: that those who defied the committee were brilliant artists and noble idealists, while those who cooperated were vile mediocrities who could build their careers only by destroying others.

Kazan finally received his award at last year's Oscars, but amid renewed controversy over whether he should receive any applause at the event. (Abraham Polonsky [I Can Get It for You Wholesale], a leading Hollywood Communist who led the assault on Albert Maltz, hoped in print that Kazan would be assassinated.) But though Kazan finally received his due from Hollywood, Stalin never has.

According to Hollywood, American anti-communism derived not from any deficiencies of socialism or threat from the USSR but from paranoia, xenophobia, and the nefarious influence of Nazis who entered the United States after the war. That was the theme of Walter Bernstein's 1988 The House on Carroll Street, which featured a score more appropriate for a '50s monster movie. Bernstein, incidentally, shows up in the Venona decrypts, which reveal that he was a willing collaborator with the KGB. If nothing else, such a revelation gives new meaning to the Hollywood phrase, "Have your agent call my agent."

On the rare occasion when life under communism is portrayed, its characteristic brutality is virtually never actually represented. Consider, for instance, Warren Beatty's Oscar-winning Reds (1981), a psalm to Lenin acolyte John Reed. In that film a character concedes that the Soviet regime "violates human rights" but none of these violations appears on the screen. Likewise, audiences don't see the Khmer Rouge murdering any of their nearly 2 million victims in The Killing Fields (1984). Indeed, the real villains in that tragedy, we learn, are Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and U.S. foreign policy.

A similar theme runs through Missing (1982), with Jack Lemmon, directed by Constantine Costa-Gavras, a man of the left who, unlike his Hollywood colleagues, is sometimes willing to address communist themes honestly. Costa-Gavras' 1970 film The Confession deals with the 1952 anti-Semitic show trials in Czechoslovakia that resulted in 11 executions. After hanging, the victims' bodies were incinerated; the film shows a policeman scattering their ashes on frozen roads around Prague, which was what actually happened. For Yves Montand, who played Czech Foreign Minister Artur London, The Confession was "a farewell to the generous sentimentality of the Left, a Left that had been blind to its own crimes and cultivates a messianic pose, proposing to bring happiness to human beings, even if it means slaughtering them."

But Hollywood has yet to show itself capable of portraying what The Black Book of Communism, a recent scholarly assessment of communist crimes, calls "politically correct mass slaughter." In Eleni (1985), John Malkovich hunts down a Greek communist responsible for the death of his mother, but much of the hostile action takes place off screen. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), while generally anti-communist in tone, includes only fleeting glimpses of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Odd as it may seem, one of the few Hollywood movies that does depict violence in communist countries on screen is a Disney film. The 1983 Night Crossing shows a daring escape from East Germany, Albert Maltz's version of the good society. Viewers see German border guards, whom John Hurt calls "pigs," gunning down those who flee. Material abounds for this type of film. Soviet Bloc archives are yielding their revelations about the Katyn Forest murders of Polish officers by Soviet forces, KGB assassination campaigns in the West, and the identity of Stalinist agents in Western governments. Vitaly Shentalinsky's 1996 book, Arrested Voices, documented Stalin's campaigns against writers and artists, whose victims included Itzak Feffer and Solomon Mikaels, both of whom had been showcased in Hollywood by Communists as evidence that anti-Semitism did not exist in the Soviet Union.

Films from former communist countries, the 1999 Thief among them, show that even the Russians are coming to terms with the communist legacy. But the circus surrounding Kazan's Oscar and other recent events suggest that Hollywood probably will not follow suit. The blacklist mythography casts too long a shadow, one in which a fuller appreciation of the epic battle between communism and democracy remains in the dark. "Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist," staged at the Motion Picture Academy's theater on the 50th anniversary of the 1947 hearings, featured Billy Crystal and Kevin Spacey in dramatic roles. Also appearing were Hollywood Ten veteran Ring Lardner Jr. and fellow party member and Song of Russia co-writer Paul Jarrico, who compared the Hollywood Ten's performance with the stand that Jefferson took against the Alien and Sedition Act. Actress Marsha Hunt said that "for over a decade, this was no longer the land of the free, nor the home of the brave."

This event was a colorized, multimedia version of Philip Dunne's "mythical kingdom," but for the anti-anti-communist Hollywood crowd, it proved the feel-good hit of the fall. Such events pass on the myths to younger filmmakers who see themselves not just as entertainers but teachers.

For instance, Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock, released last fall, takes its title from an agitprop musical written by Marc Blitztein, a doctrinaire Stalinist. The original work was welcomed by the 1930s Federal Theater Project, a group dominated by communists, precisely because of its Soviet-inspired Socialist Realism. The progressive Works Progress Administration (WPA) closed down the show out of budgetary considerations, though Robbins attempts to blame it on an axis of HUAC and capitalists allied with Mussolini and Hitler. The fascist-capitalist bosses, headed by Nelson Rockefeller, raking in the dough selling goods to Hitler, are also out to get muralist Diego Rivera, played by Ruben Blades. Audiences predictably stayed away from this film, but in Hollywood, the mythology of the left remains powerful enough to see such a project through production.

Late last year, the University of Southern California, whose film school is a kind of Hollywood employment agency, unveiled a sculpture garden honoring the Hollywood Ten as victims of the Cold War and champions of the First Amendment. The mythology has become a monument, a kind of museum of anti-anti-communism in a town that welcomed Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista junta but never took up the cause of a single Soviet or Eastern European dissident. The specter that once haunted Europe is gone, yet it still seems to hang over the palms of Southern California, an ideological smog that obscures the view for millions of filmgoers.

Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley (74551.271@compuserve.com) is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and the author of Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s, now available in paperback from Prima Publishing.