- Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture by Rebecca Prime
“Madness! Madness!” This is the definitive verdict on the reckless heroics of a team of commandos that has blown up a bridge on the River Kwai. These final words are uttered by a British army doctor who, though in uniform, also cannot fathom the ethos of military discipline that risks death among prisoners for the sake of sticking to the rules of the Geneva Convention. David Lean’s great film pits the ideal of glory against the claims of common sense; and though The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957, when the Cold War defined the contours of international relations, unimaginative patriotic passions are subjected to considerable scrutiny and skepticism. The politics of this movie therefore tilt unmistakably toward the left; and though novelist Pierre Boule was credited with writing the scenario, he did not know English. Two very gifted expatriates were in fact responsible for writing a film that won seven Oscars, including one for best screenplay (adapted). In the shadow of the blacklist, the ex-Communist Carl Foreman had moved to London, just as Michael Wilson, a more committed Marxist, had fled to Paris and Rome. Their fate testifies to the peculiarities of an era when not even the faint whiff of Communism was supposed to contaminate Hollywood, which feared the wrath of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), as well as the prospect of repudiation at the box office. But because talent was at a premium in Hollywood, which faced intense competition from television, even leftists who had refused to name names, or who had fled abroad to avoid getting served with subpoenas, might be enlisted in the relentless effort to attract the mass audience. Or, as one wag cracked, “Blacklist, shmacklist! Just so long as everyone is working.”
How some of them contrived to secure employment across the Atlantic is the subject of Rebecca Prime’s vivid and informative monograph. Her idea for a book is inspired. Though Mexico served as a refuge for secretive scenarists who could peddle scripts across the border, Europe boasted of famous film industries rich enough to offer opportunities to directors as well. The beneficiaries included two directors (Joseph Losey in England and Jules Dassin in France and Greece) who managed to forge significant careers. Thanks to Losey’s finely calibrated explorations of the British class system (The Servant) and to Dassin’s international hits in genres like the crime thriller (Rififi) and comedy (Never on Sunday), the inference is plausible that they could scarcely [End Page 222] have done better had they remained locked within the studio system. Foreman and Wilson generally had to work anonymously, however; and the credit that they deserved for The Bridge on the River Kwai was granted only posthumously.
Hollywood Exiles in Europe is not merely an account of victimization. Foreman even went to Washington in 1956 to testify about his Communist past without invoking the Fifth Amendment or having to name names, and thus helped undermine the power that HUAC had earlier exercised to intimidate its witnesses. Wilson refused to cooperate with HUAC at all, but continued to get screenplays produced, especially in Rome. His leftism proved an advantage in Paris, where Cahiers du Cinéma hailed Salt of the Earth (1954), which Wilson wrote, as “far and away the best American film in the last ten years” (p. 73). Others worked in Madrid, where the right-wing government of Francisco Franco raised no objections, and where epics like El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire could be made more cheaply than elsewhere. Of course not everyone could adapt smoothly to working in countries that were not Anglophone, and sometimes legal barriers and union regulations impeded opportunities that the talent and experience of the expatriates might have enabled them to seize. They also had to live with continued financial uncertainty, with temporary and reduced living quarters, and with the fear...