For Your Eyes Only
"This committee under its mandate from the House of Representatives has the responsibility of exposing and spotlighting subversive elements wherever they may exist. It is only to be expected that such elements would strive desperately to gain entry to the motion picture industry. Simply because the industry offers such a tremendous weapon for education and propaganda."
Thus did Rep. John Parnell Thomas, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), lay out the task ahead in the 1947 hearings on the Hollywood 10 – Tinseltown talents accused of being subversives, who eventually went to jail. (A mere three years later, Thomas would resign from Congress, after being convicted for salary fraud).
Over the course of the hearings, hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters, directors, actors and producers were named as Communist sympathizers. Screenwriter Bernard Gordon was among them. After screenwriter Jack Moffitt informed on Gordon, he was subpoenaed, fired by Paramount and plunged into the horror of the Hollywood blacklist and McCarthy era.
Gordon has made an invaluable contribution to the reassessment of the Reds-under-the-beds Cold War hysteria with his new book "The Gordon File, A Screenwriter Recalls Twenty Years of FBI Surveillance."
Like Inspector Javert relentlessly pursuing Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency conducted surveillance on Gordon and his family, friends and associates for around a quarter century. Gordon, who was born in New York in 1918, writes: "I must hand it to the FBI agents who worked on my file: they were indefatigable." The spies who hated him created a 500-plus page dossier that Gordon refers to as a "thick file of pages from the secret police that would eventually pin me like a bug in a specimen jar ..."
There have been many memoirs of the American inquisition by Hollywood screenwriters, such as Ring Lardner's "I'd Hate Myself in the Morning," Lester Cole's "Hollywood Red" and Norma Barzman's "The Red and the Blacklist." Numerous histories and biographies exist, including Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner's "A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left." In 1971, Eric Bentley edited transcripts of the HUAC hearings, "Thirty Years of Treason." Victor Navasky's 1980 "Naming Names" included interviews with "friendly" and "unfriendly" HUAC witnesses.
"The Gordon File," however, is unique. In 1997, under the Freedom of Information Act, the feisty Gordon requested his FBI dossier; he eventually received 280 pages by 2003. "The Gordon File," published by the University of Texas Press, which previously released Gordon's 1999 memoir, "Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist," includes much of this undercover documentation.
The first published entry in the formerly clandestine folders is dated Feb. 10, 1945, and is signed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself, as are many others, including classified letters Hoover wrote to the infamous CIA agent James Jesus Angleton. Gordon's case wasn't closed until Nov. 25, 1970, although it is marked "subject, of course, to being reopened in the event additional pertinent information is received." The dossier covers Gordon's activism and eventual emigration.
The FBI file assiduously notes picayune details (often inaccurately, Gordon points out), such as his 1938 Chevrolet coupe's license plate number. As he moved throughout Mexico and Europe, U.S. embassies' legal attaches kept tabs on Gordon, religiously reporting his whereabouts. In his postscript, Gordon writes, "the FBI must surely have had something on me to account for all the years, time, and money spent hounding me."
True, Gordon had been a card carrying Communist – joining the legal political party in 1942, when Moscow was America's World War II ally, but leaving the Party after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 revelations of Stalin's crimes. Yet, despite 25 years of surveillance, Gordon was never charged, let alone convicted of a crime. "The Gordon File" quotes a 2002 Los Angeles Times piece by professor Christopher Pyle:
"During the Cold War, the FBI undertook more than 500,000 counterintelligence investigations against domestic political groups. Not one produced an indictment ... [T]he investigations gradually changed the character of the agency, from one chiefly concerned with law enforcement to one centered on spying."
Gordon's "crime" – and that of everyone on the blacklist – was dissent. But surely all this domestic surveillance must have produced something. In an appendix Gordon prints selections of the FBI's file on the World War II-era Hollywood Canteen, where 2 million servicemen enjoyed some R&R, perhaps dancing with a movie star, before shipping out to the frontlines. J. Edgar's G-men caught the Canteen redhanded; were actors like John Garfield and Canteen staffers like Gordon's future wife Jean Lewin collaborating with Hitler or Hirohito? No – "The matter of white girls dancing with Negro soldiers and Negro girls dancing with white soldiers" had the Bureau in a tizzy. The FBI also noted that "The question of Negro equality is one of the basic planks in the Communist Party's platform." The state police were investigating desegregation, not crimes against the people.
Gordon writes that 278-plus writers, including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer, were spied on by the feds. Albert Einstein's dossier was triple the length of Gordon's. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith estimated FBI surveillance of him "cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Gordon fumes: "When will we demand that they spend their billions of dollars and millions of hours pursuing perpetrators of crime and true threats to our safety rather than political dissidents?"
Escaping to Fascist Spain
Unlike most blacklistees whose careers were destroyed, Gordon's best days lay ahead of him after he was named in 1947. Writing under a pseudonym, he penned 1957's "Hellcats of the Navy" – the only feature starring Ronnie and Nancy Reagan. The dissident also indulged in the vicarious vengeance of wreaking havoc on Washington, D.C. in the 1956 sci fi flick "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers."
After relocating abroad, Gordon worked more openly as a screenwriter and producer, pioneering "runaway productions," movies shot more cheaply overseas than in Hollywood studios. Working for moviemakers Philip Yordan and Samuel Bronston, ironically the ex-Communist lived in fascist Spain.
"It was the only place I could get any work," explains Gordon. "I wasn't working for Franco; I was working for Americans and Brits ... I didn't feel freer there, I felt like I was in a fascist country and didn't like it. I felt a little bit guilty about being and working there. But I wasn't doing anything that was harming the Spanish people. We were entirely independent of the Spanish economy. Money to make the pictures was brought in from abroad, and sent abroad later on. Actually, we just employed lots of Spaniards to work on films, and that was very good for them," states Gordon, who adds that as long as he didn't openly oppose Franco, the dictatorial regime didn't care about his past.
Gordon's career continued to thrive. His work included the 1963 Boxer Rebellion epic, "55 Days in Peking," starred Charlton Heston, David Niven and Ava Gardner in a drama pitting Chinese nationalists against Western imperialists. In 1963's "Cry of Battle," Filipino guerrillas fight Japanese militarists – and American racists. (Gordon acidly observes that the last film JFK saw was "55 Days in Peking," and that Oswald was nabbed in a theater screening "Cry of Battle"). Gordon adapted James Jones' great anti-war novel "The Thin Red Line" in 1964.
He portrayed the anti-Nazi struggle in 1965's "Battle of the Bulge," starring Henry Fonda. In 1968's "Custer of the West," Robert Shaw starred as that "Indian-killer who deserved what he got" (as Gordon writes). "Krakatoa, East of Java" is a McCarthyite movie metaphor: the volcanic explosion and tsunami are unconscious projections of General Suharto's 1965 U.S.-backed coup that overthrew the nationalist Sukarno, massacring hundreds of thousands of Indonesian Communists in the ultimate blacklist. And in 1972's "Pancho Villa," Telly Savalas plays the Mexican revolutionary who made buffoons out of Yankee soldiers and led the last raid on a U.S. state prior to 9/11.
The Most Important of the Arts
Gordon opens his book asking: "What's so special about screenwriters, directors, and producers?" The powers-that-be are terrified by talents of conscience and consciousness who can artistically express dissent to mass audiences. Like Lenin, Hoover probably agreed that "the cinema is the most important of the arts." Around 1970, Gordon yearned to make a film "that could have contemporary meaning for the independence struggles in Africa" and when he became a studio chief in Spain, of "produc[ing] the kind of meaningful films I had dreamed of as a kid in college." Perhaps his cinematic achievements and aspirations were what the FBI "had" on Gordon - and feared.
"The Gordon File" would be history – except, in Hollywood's grand tradition, McCarthyism is having a sequel. "Anybody's who's a political dissenter – whether it's under [Senator Joseph] McCarthy or Bush – is subject to repression. Loads of people were actually sent to jail for allegedly being Communists during the McCarthy era," recalls Gordon, a student at the City College of New York at the same time as Julius Rosenberg, who – along with wife Ethel – were executed as "atomic spies" in the 1950s.
"That's the same thing that's happening today. There's no protection from the law, because the courts go along with the administration ... You can't expect to be safe from political persecution if you have to depend on the courts ... That's what happened under McCarthyism, that's what's happening today," asserts Gordon, for whom the Patriot Act, Ashcroft, Bush, etc., are déjà vu.
The return of another witch-hunt makes "The Gordon File," an account of an earlier American auto-de-fe, a must-read by one of America's most incorrigible iconoclasts.