My Father, the Blacklist and ‘High Noon’

My Father, the Blacklist and ‘High Noon’
My Father, the Blacklist and ‘High Noon’


For filmmaker Carl Foreman, resisting McCarthyism was a patriotic duty, even if it meant the end of his career in the U.S.

Americans who worry that “cancel culture" is a growing threat to democracy may find it cathartic to watch “High Noon on the Waterfront," a short documentary by directors David Roberts and Billy Shebar. Released last year, the film explores the meaning of moral courage in the 1950s, when the U.S. was in the grip of McCarthyism. In Hollywood, the hunt for communists and alleged subversives resulted in a blacklist that robbed the industry of some of its brightest talent for almost two decades and destroyed the lives of hundreds of people.

The documentary focuses on the divergent fates of two filmmakers, Carl Foreman and Elia Kazan, who have come to symbolize the stark polarities of the era. Both men were former members of the Communist Party, and known for tackling socially progressive themes in their work. Both were subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and subsequently made films that were allegories of the blacklist. But the similarities end there.

Foreman admitted he had belonged to the Communist Party in his youth but refused to provide names of other party members. “I realize that there are some people who will never be convinced of my ‘loyalty’ to the United States…unless I name all persons I knew to be members of the Party during my own period of membership. My life would be much easier if I could oblige them. But I cannot, and will not, do so," he stated. As a result, he was classified as an uncooperative witness and blacklisted in Hollywood.

Kazan, on the other hand, opted for self-preservation. At his HUAC hearing in 1953, he named eight people as former Party members and was allowed to continue making films.

When Foreman received his subpoena he was working on the movie “High Noon." Knowing what was to come, he intended the script to be his personal testimony against the blacklist. The film’s protagonist is a small-town sheriff named Will Kane who is faced with a difficult moral choice. He must decide whether to follow his conscience and try to stop a gang of outlaws from taking over the town, or listen to the townspeople who say that appeasement is the safer course of action. In the end Kane, played by Gary Cooper, confronts the outlaws alone.

Elia Kazan made a contrasting moral statement in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront," which he directed from a script by Budd Schulberg, who cooperated with HUAC. It depicts the heroic struggle of a longshoreman, played by Marlon Brando, at the mob-controlled dockyard in Hoboken, N.J., who decides to testify against his corrupt bosses, despite intense pressure and threats.

To the end of their lives, Foreman and Kazan were each adamant that they had made the right decision about whether to name names. “High Noon on the Waterfront" lets the men speak for themselves, juxtaposing excerpts from their personal writings with clips from the two films. The voices of Foreman and Kazan are supplied by Edward Norton and John Turturro, respectively, adding dramatic intensity.

Carl Foreman was my father, and when I saw the documentary I found it unnerving, to say the least, to hear him speaking in Edward Norton’s voice. That is partly because I struggle to recall his real voice. I was 15 years old when he died and more interested in imitating Madonna than making clear memories of him. Just a few more years would have changed all that. But his death in 1984, when he was 69, froze our relationship at its most awkward and superficial stage.

My father’s HUAC testimony took place many years before I was born. All I really knew about it was that his unique stance had made him equally unpopular with the left and the right. He was hardly alone in refusing to name names, but he also denounced Soviet communism and disassociated himself from the American Communist Party. To the committee, not naming names made him a subversive; to his former comrades, rejecting communism made him a turncoat.

Watching “High Noon on the Waterfront" made me confront the fact that I didn’t know what my father really believed or why he had acted as he did. Why refuse to name names in the way that would cause him the most harm and suffering?

I couldn’t find the answer to this conundrum in any books on the period, so I went back to his private papers. Searching through years of correspondence, I finally found it in a letter he wrote to his agent in 1956, four years after being blacklisted. “I can give you no greater proof of my loyalty to America" than refusing to name names, my father wrote. “Everything we say about the freedom of the individual in America becomes meaningless if the individual is forced to conform to other people’s ideas of what constitutes loyalty, and if we continue to insist that everybody thinks and acts alike in our country we will not only lose the Cold War but in the long run we will find ourselves thinking and acting exactly like the Russians while professing to be their exact opposites."

For Carl Foreman, liberty and civic virtue were democratic values worth sacrificing for. To be a good American he was prepared to be punished as a bad one. This was true moral courage.

The punishment began with “High Noon." The movie was released in 1952 and became a huge financial and critical success, garnering six Oscar nominations. But by the time of the 1953 Academy Awards ceremony, my father’s name had become radioactive. The biggest fear of the movie’s other producers wasn’t that “High Noon" would lose the Oscar race but that it would win. None of them wanted to represent Carl Foreman on stage in the two categories he stood to win, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. In the end, they decided the matter by drawing lots.

The fuss turned out to be unwarranted. In the biggest surprise of the night, “High Noon" was shut out of all the big categories except Best Actor, which Cooper won despite his vocal support for my father. A declassified CIA file in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library shows that at least one of the CIA’s informants in Hollywood met with individual Academy members, letting them know that a vote for “Foreman’s picture" would count as a vote against America.

My father couldn’t have attended the Oscars even if he wanted to. Having moved to England as a political exile after his HUAC appearance, he was now a political refugee. In 1953 the State Department revoked his American passport; each time he applied for it to be returned, he was told he would need to name names first. Eventually he took the State Department to court and won, getting his passport back in 1956.

My father’s defiance cost him his home, his film company, his career and his first marriage. Yet he refused to talk about it, which the English found deeply puzzling. There were a number of blacklisted Hollywood expats in London, but my father avoided joining anything overtly political. Even when job offers from British film companies dematerialized due to American pressure, he rejected all attempts to turn him into a political martyr because, he later said, it would feed anti-American sentiment: “I felt it would embarrass America at a time when it was already being embarrassed."

His extreme self-control took its toll. The actor Kirk Douglas—who got his big break playing a troubled prizefighter in the Oscar-winning sports movie “Champion," written by my father—recalled seeing him during a visit to London. My father seemed so forlorn, telling Douglas, “It’s OK if you don’t want to have lunch with me. I understand." “Jesus, I thought," Douglas wrote in his book “I Am Spartacus!: Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist." “This is what happens to a guy who thinks all his friends have turned on him."

My father’s story did not end with “High Noon," HUAC or the Hollywood blacklist, however. He went on to write the screenplays for “Mackenna’s Gold," “The Guns of Navarone," “Born Free" and “Young Winston." He and another blacklisted writer, Michael Wilson, co-wrote the World War II epic “The Bridge on the River Kwai," which won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1958. He also found his soulmate in my mother, Eve, while filming the “The Guns of Navarone." They formed a deliriously happy partnership (in addition to having me and my brother Jonathan, also a writer).

The “Kwai" win, however, remains one of the most notorious in Hollywood history. Still officially blacklisted and living in exile, neither writer was allowed to take credit for his work. The Academy Award was given instead to Pierre Boulle, the French novelist whose book had inspired the film. This fiction was maintained by the Academy even after the blacklist faded away in the 1960s. It finally became untenable when the long-lost original “Kwai" script was discovered in the UCLA archives, proving Foreman and Wilson’s authorship beyond doubt. On June 25, 1984, the board of the Writers Guild of America voted to restore the men’s names and their Oscars. My father died at 10 a.m. the next day; by then Wilson had been dead for six years.

Amanda Foreman writes the Historically Speaking column in Review. Her new book “The World Made by Women: A New History of Humanity" will be published in 2025.

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