A prodigal son is honored by his hometown

  • Andrew Gulliford


It's not only war heroes who get honored in the West with lasting memorials. When prodigal son Dalton Trumbo finally returned to his hometown of Grand Junction, Colo., he arrived on Main Street in a bronze bathtub.

After four years, despite rain and snow, he's still there, and some residents still can't figure out if having a statue of the town's most famous and controversial writer is a blessing or a curse. The city council decided that paying for the sculpture with city money was not an appropriate use of tax revenues, so local citizens raised the $44,000 for the casting.

Trumbo might be pleased. He's there in all his bronze glory with a cup of coffee and cigarettes -- even a rubber duckie --because the bathtub is where he did his writing. And he's still on the fringe, as he always was, on the eastern edge of the town's outdoor mall.

Dalton Trumbo was no fan of his hometown and grew up knowing hard times there, but at the height of his literary powers he earned $1 million dollars per script. Time Magazine said that "Trumbo turned rambling, middle-grade raw material into tight and excellent scripts, lightened with humor and touched with irony."

But he struggled through the Great Depression only to run headfirst into the wall of anti-communism in the late 1940s. As actors and movie producers caved in to political hysteria and ratted on their colleagues, Dalton Trumbo became one of The Hollywood Ten, scriptwriters and performers of integrity who refused to testify before the powerful Congressional House Un-American Activities Committee. Trumbo's communist label probably came in part from his vivid antiwar novel, Johnny Got His Gun, which won an American Booksellers Award in 1939.  A prescient novel about a wounded American soldier whose body was mostly shot away, the book was a powerful indictment of modern warfare. The Washington Post called it "a terrifying book, of an extraordinary emotional intensity."

Trumbo let the book's publication lapse during World War II. He wrote, "There are times it may be needful for certain private rights to give way to the requirements of a larger public good. I know that's a dangerous thought, and I shouldn't wish to carry it too far, but World War II was not a romantic war." But when it came to the ugly tentacles of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's career-destroying anti-communist crusade, Trumbo drew the line.

Like some other disgruntled intellectuals in Los Angeles, Trumbo had been associated with the Young Communist League, the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, and the Los Angeles Chapter of the Civil Rights Congress. For standing up for freedom of association and the right of every American to hold divergent beliefs, Trumbo was blacklisted by Hollywood in 1950, and served 10 months in federal prison for contempt of Congress.

After being released, Trumbo moved with his family to Mexico, "broke as a bankrupt bastard," he said, where he continued to write blockbuster movie scripts. Under a dozen pseudonyms he wrote 30 scripts including the Oscar-winning The Brave One, in 1956.  In that same year, another renegade Westerner published the book The Brave Cowboy, and in 1962, actor Kirk Douglas paid author Ed Abbey for the film rights and had Trumbo pen the script.

Re-titled Lonely Are the Brave and starring Kirk Douglas, George Kennedy and Walter Matthau, the film received rave reviews from Newsweek, but The New Yorker sniffed, "The vulgarity of Mr. Trumbo's perceptions is that he has his hero, a cowboy on horseback, run down by a trailer-truck filled with toilets. There may be a lot wrong with this country, but Mr. Trumbo is plainly not the man to point it out." Abbey disagreed. Cactus Ed quipped, "The New Yorker review of our movie calls it 'shoddy and simple minded, a song of hatred for 20th century American society.' Exactly! Exactly what I meant it to be. I am quite pleased by the reviewer's observation."

A heavy smoker, Dalton Trumbo lost a lung to cancer and died in 1976, but his legacy lives on. I'll never forget the shock of reading Johnny Got His Gun. With over 40 printings, the L.A. Times said it is "perhaps the most effective anti-war novel ever written in America." Trumbo's hand can also be found in dozens of scripts for movies and television, and he always drew on the West for characters, scenes and settings.

So, prodigal sons and daughters occasionally do come home. Sometimes even in a bronze bathtub.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of Southwest studies and history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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