Second, last week I viewed Trumbo, Spartacus, and the Coen brothers’ latest cinematic opus, Hail, Caesar! Trumbois another Hollywood tale of how the Second Red Scare oppressed the creative caste of Tinsel Town, violated their First Amendment rights and ruined lives of people inherently better than you and I because of their entertainment industry connections or something. The title character of Trumbo was resurrected from Red-baiting ignominy by a screenwriting credit on the Stanley Kubrick sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus, which aired last week on Turner Classic Movies. Hail, Caesar! includes a subplot about bumbling communists in the final days of the Hollywood studio system. Oh, and back to Koestler: His first novel was 1939’s The Gladiators, which also told of the Roman slave revolt led by – readers already are way ahead of me here – Spartacus.
It’s been one of those weeks!
Let’s unpack this, shall we? Koestler noted in the 1965 reissue of The Gladiators that
I joined the Communists Party in 1931, at the age of twenty-six, when on the editorial staff of a Liberal newspaper in Berlin. I joined the Communists partly as an alternative to the threat of Nazism and partly because, like Auden, Brecht, Malraux, Dos Passos and other writers of my generation, I felt attracted by the Soviet utopia….
When Hitler came to power I was in the Soviet Union writing a book on the First Five Year Plan; from there I went to Paris where I lived until the collapse of France. My progressive disillusionment with the Communist Party reached an acute state in 1935—the year of the Kirov murder, the first purges, the first waves of the Terror which was to sweep most of my comrades away. It was during this crisis that I began to write The Gladiators—the story of another revolution that had gone wrong.
Koestler finished the novel mere months after leaving the Communist Party:
[T]he return to the first century B.C. brought peace and relief. It was not so much an escape as a form of occupational therapy which helped me to clarify my ideas; for there existed some obvious parallels between the first pre-Christian century and the present. It had been a century of social unrest, of revolutions and mass-upheavals. Their causes had an equally familiar ring: the breakdown of traditional values, the abrupt transformation of the economic system, unemployment, corruption, and a decadent ruling class. Only against this background could it be understood that a band of seventy circus fighters could grow within a few months into an army, and for two years hold half Italy under its sway….
What Spartacus, after his initial victories, needed most was a programme and credo that would hold his mob together. It seemed to me that the philosophy most likely to appeal to the largest number of the dispossessed must have been the same which a century later found a more sublime expression in the Sermon on the Mount—and which Spartacus, the slave Messiah, had failed to implement.
For Koestler, apparently, the Utopia strived for by his fictionalized Spartacus served as a palimpsest for Matthew 5-7. These, in turn, serve as allegories for modern-day “what is mine is thine, and what is thine is mine” ideologies, according to Koestler, whose Judaism is too complicated to address in this space while his characterization of Christian Gospel too shallow, unless one considers assisting the poor an Earthly attainment of Utopia, which I don’t believe is what St. Thomas More had in mind when he coined the word. In Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998), biographer David Cesarani perceives a slightly different tack:
Using Spartacus, Koestler obliquely examined the dilemmas of the Bolsheviks in the years after 1917. Spartacus demands complete obedience from those who will follow him to the Utopian, egalitarian ‘Sun City’ he proposes to establish. But Spartacus is forced to make a series of compromises to preserve his Utopian community and is driven to ever more brutal measures to ensure internal discipline. The hoped-for rising of all the slaves of Rome, a metaphor for the world revolution, does not occur and Sun City … remains isolated. In the end he wearies of leadership: he berates the masses for their lack of revolutionary discipline but refuses to bully them any longer. The rebel horde is defeated by the Romans whose commander, Crassus, tells Spartacus, ‘you should have invented a new religion.’ Spartacus dies in battle; his followers are crucified.
The novel reflected a deep shift in Koestler’s political thinking. In it he suggested that a revolution can only succeed if its leaders are ruthless and indoctrinate people with a new set of beliefs. Any humanity or toleration of dissent is fatal. Spartacus fails because he still has old-fashioned scruples and applies repression inconsistently, continuing to value human life over the cause he champions. This is a chilling message which can be read in two ways, according to the reader’s taste. In essence, however, it is a pessimistic, un-Marxist novel. Unlike his contemporaries, Ignazio Silone and Andre Malraux, socialist writers who had also been through a long involvement with the Communist Party, he saw little hope for spontaneous revolution amongst the people, and equally little hope that uncorruptable leaders would offer them decent direction. (p. 150-151)
Another of Koestler’s biographers, Iain Hamilton, notes in his essay “Wonderfully Living: Koestler the Novelist” (Astride the Two Cultures: Arthur Koestler at 70, 1976):
In the entourage of Spartacus there is a skeptical, philosophizing lawyer, Zozimos, who sees very clearly why and how things are going wrong. “I tell you again,” he says at one point to a young zealot, “there is nothing so dangerous as a dictator who means well.” Suddenly I could hear the voice of my Highland grandfather, who, in the course of many a long discussion, had counselled me to avoid like the plague anyone who parades his good intentions. Now I knew what he meant.
Koestler had learned well from his firsthand reporting on Stalin’s Five-Year Plan.
Rather than adapting Koestler’s novel for Spartacus, Dalton Trumbo took his source material from the novel by fellow blacklisted author Howard Fast. Trumbo scripted the famous scene wherein every slave claims he’s Spartacus in order to pronounce solidarity with their leader rather than allowing him to die alone – a scene having no basis in known history, but reportedly included by Trumbo to mirror the solidarity among blacklisted Hollywood Communists. Kubrick’s final cut of Spartacus depicts the dawn of Christianity as a harbinger for ending forced servitude without any of Koestler’s well-earned cynicism. As portrayed by actor Kirk Douglas, Trumbo’s (and director Stanley Kubrick’s) Spartacus is pure beefcake with a side of Beatitudes, and, yes, it’s still a terrific film.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the trite and claustrophobic biopic Trumbo, which earned lead actor Bryan Cranston his first Academy Award nomination. If the film’s narrative is to be believed, Trumbo went from highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood to being forced to write under pseudonyms for the better part of a decade because of his political beliefs. Your writer doesn’t dispute Trumbo was named as one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, a group blacklisted after denouncing the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of the entertainment industry, but only wonders if he was as highly paid or as wacky and in-your-face as the film portrays him.
Hollywood seemingly loves depicting its members as victims of take-your-pick intolerance, and Trumbo is no different. In any event, the topic was handled better in the 1970s film The Front with Zero Mostel and Woody Allen, mostly because it was untethered from the necessity of portraying real-life celebrities. The creative talent behind Trumbo frame the screenwriter’s 10 years of industry-enforced silence as a First Amendment violation resulting from, of course, a witch hunt. I’m not entirely convinced. After reading Whitaker Chambers’ Witness and Richard Schickel’s biography of film director Elia Kazan, it’s evident that Soviet agents were quite active in both government and entertainment, and not all of them were lovable cranks and Karl Marx-quoting curmudgeons. When dramatist Arthur Miller pitched his play The Crucible to Kazan and his wife, Molly, as an allegory for the HUAC “witch hunt,” Molly knowingly responded (and I paraphrase) that witches are mythological creatures whereas Communists are real.
At least the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! acknowledges Hollywood Communists and their willingness to break U.S. law and God’s commands by kidnapping for ransom a matinee idol, Baird Whitlock, in the waning days of the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The intended recipient of the ransom money is the Soviet Union. Under sway of his captors, the dimwitted Whitlock begins spouting Marxist dialectics until the Catholic film studio fixer Eddie Mannix frees him, but not before punching him. In perhaps the film’s best scene, Whitlock, playing a Roman centurion in a Biblical epic, delivers a rousing speech confirming the divinity of Christ at the foot of the Cross. Unfortunately, the Marxist dialectics have scrambled his brain to the extent he cannot carry the soliloquy across the goal line and he flubs the scene.
Such has been the case too often in recent memory. Egalitarian and Utopian promises of a system that has proven not only a failure time and again, have served further to oppress the people Communism purportedly sought to help. When we allow statist ideologies to infect the Christian faith, we wind up flubbing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount to include wrongheaded notions that governments exist solely to redistribute wealth.