"Fellow Traveller" is the latest British-made movie to be given exaggerated praise by a British press doing its bit in the praiseworthy cause of reviving the British film industry.
It is that contradiction in terms, the political movie without politics,a lmost without politics anyway. It doesn't deserve its rave reviews.
It is 1954, and Joseph McCarthy's "anti-Communist" witch-hunt has cut down some of Hollywood's most talented writers, directors and actors. A refugee from McCarthyism (Ron Silver) holes up in Britain – as in fact men like Joseph Losey and Carl Foreman did. He works without a permit, scriptwriting for a kids' TV show about Robin Hood.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, his best friend, under pressure from the witch-hunters, shoots himself. He may have helped the "commie-hunters". The writer does not quite get involved with the dead friend's one-time girlfriend (Imogen Stubbs), now a school teacher in Britain and a CP "activist for peace". He breaks up a lecture on "Marx and Freud" given by his old Hollywood psychoanalyst (Daniel J Travanti), a CP supporter, whom he accuses of being an informer. Finally, he brings his wife and children over.
We see the threadbare, dowdy early post-war Britain, just as rationing is ending and prosperity is rearing its multifaceted head. Britain too has its political police. They "visit" the writer to ask what he's doing there. They obviously know all about him. But they are not very threatening, or even very intrusive.
The "Communists" we see in Britain are nothing but peace-activists. This is true, as anyone who mistakenly went looking for revolutionary politics to the CP in the '50s soon found out. But that is too one-sided. The CP was a real power in industry, and there, though it was a long way from revolutionary socialist politics, its working-class militants didn't just circulate peace petitions.
The Hollywood CP we see in flashback to 1943 is a super-patriotic all-American jingo club: fight fascism, support our gallant Russian allies and Uncle Joe Stalin! Though you wouldn't know it from "Fellow Traveller", that CP was an organisation that broke strikes – for instance, in 1944 advocating that striking US miners be conscripted into the army and forced down the pits at gunpoint under military discipline. It sold out the black struggle for equality, and vigorously supported and prosecuted the witch-hunting of anti-war leftists, especially Trotskyists.
"Fellow Traveller" shows you people involved in this organisation, prosperous and enthusiastic, in tune with the US government and its supporters. It shows you some of the same people stranded and demoralised, on the wrong side of the Cold War divide, when the wartime allies fell out.
Was that all "Communism" was? Was that all they were? Nothing is explained or explored. The protagonists could belong to any one of a large range of categories of people at loggerheads with any one of a number of states.
Even the witch-hunt is not properly pictured or even etched in. For the high publicity "McCarthy" and "Hollywood" aspects of it were late and peripheral. The real witch-hunt was initiated by the US government in 1947 and its main victims were tens of thousands of ordinary working class people.
Worse than that is the episode concerning the Hollywood psychoanalyst. Accused of passing on infosmation, he is goaded into defending himself by saying that it is in Stalin's interest that the Hollywood witch-hunt should rage, because it discredits the US in Europe
True enough. But the idea that the witch-hunt was fomented or fed by Stalinists to discredit the US begs a question: why would they need to when so many Americans were doing it for them?
Part of the problem with any drama dealing with the US witch-hunts is the nature of the hardcore victims, the Stalinists and their fellow travellers. It is not just that they were American supporters (though usually unwitting, ignorant, starry-eyed supporters) of a regime overseas compared with which the American system was the unsullied liberal ideal. Nor that they had themselves been among the most unscrupulous pioneering witch-hunters, though they had.
Fundamesltally, the problem lies in the way they behaved under pressure and at bay. James P Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, Felix Morrow and the other American working-class socialists hauled into court during the repressions of the early 1940s, were proud and valiant militants in their own cause. They stood their ground and eagerly explained what they were and what they really stood for.
They used the courtroom to indict the ruling class, as a forum for propaganda and agitation against it. They behaved as self-respecting revolutionaries of varying hues have behaved in many ages and countries.
The Stalinists didn't do that. After the first jailings – the "Hollywood Ten,' – they uniformly followed a Party policy of "taking the Fifth". They pleaded the Fifth Amendment to the American Constitution, which allowed them to choose to remain silent so as not to "incriminate" themselves. They hid, lied, tried to use threadbare camouflage, and evaded the political issues. Essentially they did this because they could not proclaim and defend the real principle and the only onr, that governed what they did: uncritical support for the USSR. Everything else was subordinated to that and was when nrcessary sacrificed to it.
At the start of the "commie hunting" the CP USA was a very powerful organisation. It had 100,000 members in 1945, and great influence in the Labour movement, controlling a number of trade unions. But it had built its influence in the labour movement on corrupt and bureaucratic back-scratching, allying even with gangsters. Under the pressure of the government offensive, its power and influence collapsed spectacularly. The US Stalinists slunk into their political graves and boltholes.
Hard-core members like John Williamson, Gus Hall, and Alex Bittelman willingly faced jail and – Williamson - deportation. The periphery built in the days of bootlicking for President Roosevelt suffered an immense moral collapse. The rats trampled each other to death in their stampede from Stalin's stricken US merchantman.
To make good, satisfying drama out of that, drama dealing with the substance of the matter– the politics – you would have to deal with the absurdities and grotesqueries which destroyed a generation of would-be socialists and, more importantly, were a major factor in policically deraiiing the US labour movement.
In fact, surviving participants in that awful experience have shown that they cannot come to terms with it. They either lie or fantasise about it.
Thus Lilian Hellman, who died an unrepentant Stalinist, wrote best-selling memoirs in the '70s ("Scoundrel Time"), showing herself in a good light – and has since been shown to be an outright liar. She ducked out too, "taking the Fifth".
Symptomatic is perhaps the 1977 Woody Allen movie,'The Front", which dealt with the witch-hunt and was made mainly by people were had been it's victims.. It has the Allen character telling his persecutors in court to "go fuck yourselves". But none of them did that, or anything like it. Its the fantasy about his youth of the old man who ran away from the war he should have fought.
Artistically, the witch-hunt silenced immensely talented people, like director Abraham Polonsky, who didn't make a movie for 20 years. Politically, however, there was never any very noticeable socialist content in the work of the Stalinists and their fellow travellers. The movie moguls and their supervisors saw to that.
On TV you'll maybe catch Barbara Stanwyck in an old movie saying that someone is "as angry as the Daily Worker" – but that's sneak advertising, not politics. What politics there was in '30s and '40s Hollywood films was mainly glorifications of bourgeois democratic liberalism – about Thomas Jefferson, or Benito Juarez, or Abraham Lincoln. There was a comic episode in which Ginger Rogers cited as an example of Communist propaganda in which she had unwittingly participated during the war, a decision by a number of women to share a big flat co-operatively, in which someone says: 'All for one and one for all – that's democracy'.
Though such things were targeted in the early '50s, they were not just the work of Stalinists. Paradoxically, some of the very best of Hollywood radical movies were made by self-prostrating turucoats who sang their heads off for the McCarthyites. For example, the fine movie about the Mexican Revoludon, "Vivs Zspata", was written by John Steinbeck, who had been a C P supporter in the easrly war period, and directed by Elia Kszan in 1952, just after he had been a "friendly witness" for the witch-hunters, naming names.
It's a messy story from any point of view, with all the colours and lines blurred and smudged and unsatisfying. "Fellow Traveller" doesn't even begin to get to grips with its proper political subject.
18 Jan 1090