Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Blacklist

Among the large group of paperbacks that came into the shop earlier in the week was a copy of The Bridge Over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle. Set during World War II, it is a fictional account of British prisoners of war working on the Burma railway. It was a best seller when published (originally in French--1952; later in English--1954).

The movie adaptation of the book won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness). Best Score and Best Screenplay (Adaptation) when it was released in 1957.

Credited as the writer, Boulle accepted the award with what was the shortest acceptance speech in Oscar history when he said, simply: “Merci”. It actually made sense for Boulle to say that because he was, indeed, French. And he spoke no English.

And that inconvenient little fact would have made it very hard for him to write the screenplay to a movie filmed in English using American and British actors.

Actually, he didn’t write it. Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson did. These two guys were Hollywood heavyweights. Foreman wrote, among other things, the 1950 film version of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Jose Ferrer and the 1961 blockbuster The Guns of Navarone. Wilson’s credits included the Christmas perennial It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), along with Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Planet of the Apes (1968).

But Foreman and Wilson had to step aside for Boulle because they both had been blacklisted. Their names could not be publicly associated with the film, for this was the height of the Cold War. Sputnik had just been launched. Along with Senator Joe McCarthy, America was looking under the bed for Communists.

Wilson admitted under oath that he had been a member of the Communist Party in the late 1930s; worse, he had refused to name “fellow travelers”. Foreman had refused to testify altogether. As a result, they had been banned from working in Hollywood.

They actually had some pretty good company. Composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland were on the list. Bandleader Artie Shaw was there, as were folksingers Burl Ives and Pete Seeger. Actors Lee J. Cobb and Zero Mostel. Even Gypsy Rose Lee (and you had to know things were getting serious when red-blooded American boys were accused of thinking about Communism when looking at Gypsy Rose Lee).

Nearly 300 people from the entertainment industry—television, radio, recording, theatre and movies—were fired from their jobs and prevented from getting new work by the blacklist. If they did work in the American industry, it was without credit and for significantly reduced wages. Many went to Mexico or to Europe to work there; others left the entertainment world altogether.

And no one had broken any laws. Without doubt, all had a Constitutional right to free assembly and free speech. It wasn’t illegal to be a member of the Communist Party.

The really screwy thing was that many of the people weren’t even Communists, or even Communist sympathizers. They had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or knew someone who was. Or appeared to know someone who was. It was really out of control.

The blacklist lasted from, roughly, 1949 to 1960. It began to crumble when Dalton Trumbo, a truly gifted writer, was given credit for the screenplays to Exodus and Spartacus, both in 1960. The sky didn’t fall, and slowly it melted away.

But it left ruined lives and disillusioned people in its wake.

Pierre Boulle wrote other novels after Bridge Over The River Kwai, most notably Planet of the Apes. He died in 1994 at age 82.

Carl Foreman moved to England in the 1950s and continued his work there. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his accomplishments. He died in 1984.

Michael Wilson continued to work, usually without credit, in the industry. He is known to have written the screenplay (uncredited) for Planet of the Apes and received belated credit for his work on Lawrence of Arabia. He died in 1978.

Foreman and Wilson finally received their Oscars, posthumously, in 1984.

So, if you choose to watch the Oscars tomorrow night, you may want to keep in mind that what you see on the screen isn’t necessarily real.

And if you think censorship is dead...think again. It isn't dead. It can happen again.

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