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Brian Neve is an honorary reader in politics and film at the University of Bath. He is the author of Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition and Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider and coeditor of “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era.

Interview by John Wisniewski

"Hell Drivers" featured an early performance by Sean Connery

“Hell Drivers” featured an early performance by Sean Connery

JW: What may have interested you about the life and work of filmmaker Cy Endfield, Brian?

BN: Thanks very much for your interest, John. I’ve had a long-time interest in American cinema and the Hollywood blacklist. In 1989, when at a BBC studio in London, I ran into Endfield and asked to interview him. I was working on a book on the liberal and leftist directors of the late forties and beyond – children of the thirties Depression who often started out working in the New York social theatre. He gave me a long ‘stream of consciousness’ interview in which he talked with great clarity about his early years, his political experiences and his struggle to work as a film director in the United States and then in Britain. I felt that this was a man of intelligence and substance whose memories cast new light on life and film-making in his era. I was aware of some of his films: “Hell Drivers” (1957), “Zulu” and also the early crime picture (later labelled as a film noir), “The Sound of Fury” (1950, retitled “Try and Get Me!”). Much of his other work was unknown and in London in the fifties he had been forced to use fronts and pseudonyms. Much later (Endfield had died in 1995) I responded to interest in his career and began researching the first book on his life and work, using interviews, family recollections, and primary sources. The book, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist and Zulu, was published last year by University of Wisconsin Press. It deals with his life in America (1914-1951) and with a subsequent period in the UK, following his blacklisting in 1951.

JW: Considering the Dalton Trumbo film biography, do you think that this makes viewers, or the public more aware of what happened during the 1950s, with the McCarthy hearings?

BN: Trumbo was a member of the ‘Hollywood Ten’, the group of filmmakers who testified before HUAC during the Committee’s initial hearings in Los Angeles in 1947. {Editor’s note: The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organisations suspected of having Communist ties.} It is worth noting that Senator Joseph McCarthy, who used his sub-Committee to hound real and imagined State Department Communists for several years in the early fifties, was never interested in the film industry. HUAC predated McCarthy, exploring spy cases and taking on Hollywood Communism after the Republican election victories of November 1946. HUAC drew on the FBI obsession with Communism but was essentially invited to Los Angeles by Hollywood conservatives, notably those who formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI) in 1944. In the recent “Trumbo” (Jay Roach, 2015), a biopic based on Dalton Trumbo’s Hollywood career, the MPAPAI is represented largely by gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and John Wayne. Wayne, President of the MPA from 1949, is given an earier involvement for reasons of dramatic license.

“Trumbo” received mixed reviews, but deserves respect as the first film on the blacklist era to focus on real events and on a sometime Communist protagonist. Roach’s film does not have the noir intensity of say “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), about the resistance to McCarthy’s own committee by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow. Nor does it have the personal engagement of Martin Ritt’s 1976 fable “The Front” (1976), starring Woody Allen and involving a number of those actually blacklisted, from actor Zero Mostel to Ritt himself. The actress Lee Grant, a victim of the blacklist who is still with us, has criticized “Trumbo” as an impossibly ‘feel-good’ film about that era.

"The Sound Of Fury" starring Frank Lovejoy, Kathleen Ryan, Richard Carlson and Lloyd Bridges.

“The Sound Of Fury” starring Frank Lovejoy, Kathleen Ryan, Richard Carlson and Lloyd Bridges.

By mixing newsreel and fictional footage “Trumbo” nimbly sketches much of the political context of that time. In particular it shows how the American Communist Party that Trumbo joined in 1943 (he left in late 1947) was concerned with the broader anti-fascist fight. By 1947 the Party had moved to the left, while the national mood of anti-fascism was being superseded by one of anti-Communism, making Communists and ex-Communists of whatever stripe vulnerable to Congressional Committees keen to exploit Hollywood’s immense news value. By 1951, after Soviet and advances and the beginning of the Korean War, the pressure on the left was even greater. The film is less concerned with this later period, following Trumbo’s impressment (in 1950-51) and his two year sojourn (unmentioned in “Trumbo”) in Mexico. Roach and writer John McNamara use the story of Trumbo’s fraught relationship with renowned thirties screen ‘gangster’ Edward G. Robinson, a non-Communist activist who was grey-listed. Other characters are invented, including Arlen Hird (Louis C.K), a figure designed to suggest the more partisan and bureaucratic leftists of the time. Elsewhere there is entertaining treatment of Trumbo’s ‘under the table’ work for Frank King (John Goodman) and of the role of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger in beginning to break the blacklist in 1960. Others suffered well into the sixties, and the film ends with reference to Trumbo’s 1970 Writers Guild of America Laurel Award speech in which – much to the bitter opposition of fellow Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz – Trumbo argued that while some subpoenaed witnesses behaved better than others there were in the end no unambiguous ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’.

By comparison Endfield, who had been associated with Communist Party groups at various times in the thirties and forties, was called before HUAC in 1951 during the second round of hearings that begun that year. Faced with the unwelcome choice of ‘naming names’ or being blacklisted he chose to resettle in Europe, and specifically in London. Others, including fellow directors Joseph Losey, Jules Dassin and John Berry, took a similar path.

JW: For you, what was director Cy Endfield’s most important, or most moving film?

Michael Caine in Cy Endfield's "Zulu"

Michael Caine in Cy Endfield’s “Zulu”

BN: Cy Endfield’s own favorites were “Try and Get Me!”) (1950) and “Zulu” (1964), but having watched recent revivals of his work (at the Cinematheque in Madison, Wisconsin, programmed by Jim Healy; at the Anthology Cinema Archives in New York; and at the UCLA Film and Television Archive) I would also commend his other work, and notably “The Underworld Story” (1950, with the wonderful Dan Duryea) and “Hell Drivers” (1957). This last film is showing in a restored, 6K digital version (derived from the 35mm Vista Vision print) at the 2016 London Film Festival. I hope that my book has contributed to this revival in critical interest.

“Try and Get Me!” is important in exploring the themes that Thom Andersen discusses in his documentary (and writings) on ‘Red Hollywood’. (The notion refers to a number of crime melodramas of the period 1947-51 that leftists worked on and which can be read as critiques of American attitudes and values of the time). Endfield’s two 1950 films seem to fit this category, and another example is Joseph Losey’s “The Prowler” (1951), part written by Trumbo. “Try and Get Me” – recently revived on Blu-Ray and DVD – shows how a post-war unemployed family man (played by ‘everyman’ actor Frank Lovejoy) is pressured into a life of crime by a fellow veteran (Lloyd Bridges, brilliant as a psychotic ‘homme fatale’).

In Britain Endfield struggled to rebuild his career with a series of low budget films. A degree of success came with “Hell Drivers” (made for the conservative Rank Organization). Here the director is constantly inventive, providing business for his actors that is convincing and which rings true. The action, as trucks hurtle around suburban roads, is superbly handled, while the movie also makes some comments on working class life that were ahead of their time, echoing both a Warner Bros. tradition and ‘Red Hollywood’ themes. Stanley Baker, Endfield’s long-time friend and associate, is the ex-con who goes along with a system of exploitation before eventually fighting back, learning lessons from a fellow trucker, Italian refugee Gino (Herbert Lom). The film is also notable for early performances by Sean Connery and Patrick McGoohan.

Yet finally it is the higher budget “Zulu” (made with Paramount money) that is perhaps most important, although Endfield would acknowledge his close association with writer John Prebble (another ex-Communist), and co-producer Baker (whose role is evident in the Welsh emphasis given to the British regiment). It is true that the racial context of the story is always likely to spark controversy, and some American commentators have been especially damning of its presentation of late nineteenth century British colonialism. Yet there are dangers of applying the values of a later era, and of neglecting Endfield’s mastery of place and wide-screen design (the use of the Drakensberg Mountains, in Natal; the elegant tracking shots; and the sustained depiction of battle). The film is also far from jingoism, with all ranks, from officers Chard and Bromhead (Baker and newcomer Michael Caine), to Surgeon Reynolds (Patrick Magee) and Private Hook (James Booth) touching on the bloodletting and the shame of victory. (In terms of a rationale for the engagement Colour Sergeant Bourne, played by Nigel Green, replies to a ranker’s inquiry – of ‘Why us?’ – ‘Because we’re here, lad; nobody else; just us’.)

Further, it seems to me that the Zulus – only 250 extras were used to represent 4,000 warriors, something that perhaps reflects Endfield’s secondary career as a master of close-up magic – are more than just ‘the other’ to the individualized British characters. We often, for example, cut to outside the encampment and to diagonals of Zulu chiefs. The director is interested throughout in Zulu culture, and drew on prior conversations with Chief Buthelezi (who plays his own great grandfather, the Zulu leader Catewayo). The conceit of mutual respect between the two forces maybe ahistorical but contributes much to the film’s continuing status, certainly in the UK, as a popular classic.

The political debates about “Zulu” will continue, but I’ve been happy to draw attention to a neglected career and to a further aspect of blacklist history. My book charts other elements of Endfield’s work, including his reluctant return to HUAC in 1960 and the particular interest in his work by French critics and cineastes. Overall I’ve tried in my book to track the travels and travails – in a word the struggle – of a talented man in difficult times, and to gauge the intersections of art, commerce and politics on a disrupted but distinctive film career.

 

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