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HOLLYWOOD EXILE: Bernard Gordon, Sci-Fi's Secret Screenwriter

The black-listed writer details his career in his new memoir.

By Ted Newsom     June 07, 2000

As a writer and later as a producer, Bernard Gordon conjured up some of the most memorable fantasy images in films: UFOs smashing into the Capitol dome in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, ambulatory plants devouring innocent humans in Day of the Triffids, an ancient alien absorbing victims' minds through the glow of its eerie red eyeball in Horror Express. Yet until recently, his name was almost unknown to fantasy film fans. Gordon's recent memoir, titled Hollywood Exile--or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (from the University of Texas Press) details the creation of these films, as well as Crack in the World, Krakatoa East of Java, and non-genre pictures like Circus World and 55 Days at Peking.
While Bernie Gordon was abetting these threats to Civilization As We Know It in the 1950s and '60s, he was battling an omnipotent enemy himself--the US Government, powered by its dread of progressive thought. Bernard Gordon wasn't just a well-meaning liberal; he was an honest-to-God Communist, and his political beliefs forced him to hide behind pseudonyms for decades, until the Writers Guilde of America officially awarded him credit for the scripts he wrote during the blacklist era. In his Hollywood Hills home, the 82-year-old Gordon recently took some time to reflect on the film gigs that(barely) paid his bills, and the notorious era that spawned them...

* * *



Born in New York, the young Gordon saw Communism as an answer to many of the social ills in the US: racial and social inequality, abuse of labor, the disparity between the wealthy and poor, and so on. The socialist experiment of the Soviet Union seemed promising--from what anyone outside could learn of it. Reports of Stalin's purges, mock trials and mass murders were dismissed by most American Reds as capitalist propaganda.
In Hollywood, Gordon became a script reader, helping to unionize his fellow readers. Membership in the Communist Party was not illegal then, although the weekly meetings were scarcely the exciting clandestine gatherings dramatized in later TV shows like I Led 3 Lives. 'Mostly we talked about the fact that the group was broke, and we had to try to sell more copies of The Daily Worker [the official party newspaper].' Like many in the party, Gordon became disillusioned when the truth of Stalin's despotic crimes was revealed.
In 1946, Bernie married Jean Lewin, one of the organizers of the Hollywood Canteen during the war, a brief respite for GIs on their way to battle. Two early scripts for Universal started him professionally: The Lawless Breed starring Rock Hudson and Flesh and Fury with Tony Curtis, both for William Alland, producer of It Came from Outer Space.
'I'd ducked a subpoena for several weeks before I finally got called to testify. The House Un-American Activities Committee had a small offshoot out here, but they kept putting off calling me. Finally they packed up their little sideshow and headed back to Washington, without ever calling me. I suppose officially I'm still under subpoena after 50 years.'
He was abruptly persona non grata at Universal. 'Nobody could say it outright, because forbidding employment on the basis of political affiliation was, and still is, against the law for anyone to even ask about your politics. In the hysteria of the times, little niceties like the US Constitution got put aside. William Alland had always been friendly to me. He was friendly to HUAC, too. He'd been an informer for them, passing on who might or might not be a Red.'
Many writers worked under assumed names or had others take their places in meetings, secretly writing the scripts themselves. Gordon found himself in that position with a young producer at Columbia Pictures working for exploitation movie maven Sam Katzman.
'Charlie Schneer called and asked if I had any scripts laying around--which is a clever way of asking a writer to write on spec without saying that. Some friends of mine--also blacklisted--had done a Billy the Kid play, so I made a deal with them. Since I couldn't put my own name on it, I made another deal with another blacklisted writer named Bob Williams, who had done a lot of westerns. With all these partners, I netted about 700 bucks for the whole script.' The low-budget movie was released as The Law vs. Billy the Kid.
Says Gordon, 'You can either give Charlie credit for being courageous enough to do it, or you can say he was smart enough to get a writer cheap. Both were true.'
Schneer planned a picture to cash in on UFO hysteria, with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Schneer assigned story duties to irascible genre veteran Curt Siodmak (Donovan's Brain). Siodmak and Schneer did not get along, so the script assignment fell to George Worthing Yates. Dissatisfied, Schneer handed the script for Attack of the Flying Saucers to Bernie Gordon.
'The script they had was unsatisfactory for one reason or the other, so I re-wrote it. I ended up rewriting George several times. I felt I should've got solo credit for it, because it was entirely rewritten--but then, writers usually feel like that. At least on that, I got paid directly, the princely sum of $1500, which went pretty quickly. I just borrowed the name Raymond T. Marcus from a friend. Charlie knew about it. He didn't seem to care; he just wanted the script done.
'I still get a kick out of the opening scene, where this newly-married guy starts kissing and feeling up his wife while she's driving. She says something like, 'You're going to cause an accident.' It was my idea to have the alien speech sound like a blur, nothing, until the tape recorder slows it down, showing that they're working on a completely different time reference. And my major little invention was the 'Infinitely Indexed Memory Bank,' the method the aliens use for storing data. I figured I anticipated the computer and the Internet with that.'
Gordon turned in his final rewrite in June, 1955, a detailed 152 page script, half again as long as a non-effects picture, since each shot had to be defined to reflect the storyboards: X for a stock shot, PP for process photography, and H for a Harryhausen stop-motion effect.
Although Washington, DC. is the target of the attack, it is implied that all nations of the world have consolidated their efforts, putting aside political differences. 'There couldn't have been anything very obvious in it,' the writer shrugged. 'I don't know if it's true, what the mad dogs were saying about the 'commies' politicizing everything, but I did try to write from the heart. I felt there were some real issues raised by the story about peace, war, and destruction.'
Prior to release, the film was retitled Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. 'It opened at the New York Paramount, and made a couple million dollars, on a cost of only about $100,000. Its success helped me get additional work--although ultimately they found me 'too embarrassing.' Even nice guys like Charlie Schneer had a hard time hiring the people they wanted.'
Saucers led to several other low-paying jobs for Columbia, like writing Zombies of Mara Tau. 'There was a scene where the zombies get out of their coffins and they looked ridiculously awkward trying to climb out. I said to the director, 'Why didn't you change it? Why not shoot it over, put the coffins upright so they can get out from a standing position instead of looking like goofs?' This exasperated director, Eddie Cahn, said, 'Look, I got six days to make a 90 minute movie. You think I got time for retakes?''
After knocking off the even less memorable The Man Who Turned to Stone, Gordon worked again for Schneer--this time on a submarine drama which became a footnote in history books, Hellcats of the Navy.
'Charlie had offices on Gower at the main studio by then, which was a big step up geographically from the Katzman unit,' Gordon said. 'He said, 'Come on down to Long Beach and see the inside of this submarine; it'll give you ideas for the script.' I told him that me being caught inside a Navy submarine was the last thing I wanted to do. That's all they needed, a Communist on a Navy sub. They'd accuse me of stealing all the secrets and giving them to the Russians! They'd throw me in jail and throw away the key. So I told Charlie, 'Just tell them I'm claustrophobic.' '
The original draft had been written by David Lang, a 'friendly' witness to HUAC. 'Rewriting Lang was a pleasure. He was a fink of the worst order, a guy who told them anything they wanted to hear to say his own skin. Among other things, he named my best friend Julian Zemit, whom Lang never met in his life. We had no idea who'd be in the picture at that point.
'My friends needled me for years afterward that I didn't just let Reagan drown in the last scene,' laughed Gordon. 'He was never one of my favorite people. He always denied there was such a thing as the blacklist--which is crazy, because that's how he met his wife. She was in trouble because another Nancy Davis, also an actress, was under suspicion, and Reagan helped her out. I never bothered to inform him when he was President that the only movie he ever did with the First Lady was written by a guy who couldn't put his name on it, because he was a victim of a blacklist that didn't exist.'
Schneer convinced the esteemed Admiral Chester Nimitz to appear in a filmed introduction to the story. 'I often wonder what Admiral Nimitz would've thought if he knew his speech was written by a Commie,' chuckled Gordon.
In 1958, Columbia optioned Gordon and Zemit's script The Beach Boys for a healthy sum of $90,000, lifting them out of the B-picture slums. 'When Charlie heard about this he got a little upset,' chuckled Gordon. 'He said to Roger Edens, the producer, 'I'll never be able to afford to hire him again!''
Gordon met writer-entrepreneur Philip Yordan and relocated to Spain. Gordon's Hollywood Exile paints a fascinating picture of the 'improbably prolific' Phil Yordan: manipulator, grandstanding actor, loyal friend and cold-hearted bastard. Runaway productions proliferated in Madrid, where filming was cheap.
'Yordan wanted me to polish a script he had on Day of the Triffids, but that was hopeless. Instead, I read the original book, which was well written but the elements of a good, discursive novel don't necessarily translate into a good movie story. Plus, the way Yordan was financing it, only part of it would be shot in England, and the rest in France or Spain, to get funding there. That meant coming up with a logical reason to get the characters out of England.'
In Triffids, a colossal meteor shower blinds most people on Earth. They and the few sighted survivors are stalked by huge moving plants called Triffids. Gordon's solution was to re-affirm the essential survival instinct of mankind, and come up with a method of destroying the invaders--destruction by salt water. The survivors gather together to re-establish civilization in the end. Trouble on Triffids rendered much of the material unusable, particularly the effects scenes. Only about 50 minutes of the film was watchable, too little for a feature.
'We were stuck, so Phil came up with the idea of doing an isolated story that intercut with the footage we'd already filmed. I wrote the new scenes in a lighthouse, coming up with the characters of an alcoholic man and his wife. I asked Phil if he thought the new stuff was good, and he said, 'It's too goddamn good. It makes the rest of the picture look bad!''
With Yordan off chasing more funds, Gordon became a producer, hiring cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis (Evil of Frankenstein) to helm the new sequence. Through Francis, Gordon found actors Kieron Moore (Dr. Blood's Coffin) and Janette Scott (who had screamed a lot for Francis in Hammer's Paranoiac.)
Gordon became part of Yordan's coterie of expatriate film makers in Spain. Yordan relied heavily on Gordon's writing on major films such as 55 Days at Peking, Custer of the West, and Battle of the Bulge. Gordon also wrote the original film version of The Thin Red Line, with Keir Dullea. 'I was working, and getting paid,' said Gordon, 'thus the title of my book. The Blacklist led to chances I might never have had. In Hollywood, I couldn't get arrested. Although that's probably a bad simile.'
He still found screen credit elusive. Yordan told him Triffids would not carry his name since Allied Artists had insisted Yordan write the script himself. True or not, screen credit for Triffids went to Philip Yordan for several decades.
When English writer Jon Manchip White had pitched a title to Yordan, Crack in the World, he was then stuck for a story line. 'I'd just read about a project called MOHOLE,' said Gordon, 'where they tried to penetrate the Earth's crust from a floating platform in the Gulf of Mexico. That was a good start for a science-fiction yarn, so Jon and I put the story together with the line producer, Bernie Glasser. Jon and Bernie both came to me independently afterward and figured I should get at least co-credit on the story. By the time the picture was shot, nobody seemed to remember I had anything to do with it.'
The film reunited the Triffids' Janette Scott and Kieron Moore, but the highlight was the elaborate special effects: a rocket sent nose-down into a crevice in the earth--volcanic eruptions, and the accidental creation of a second Moon. Russian-French designer Eugene Louriť (director of Gorgo) was responsible for the visuals, as he was on the later Krakatoa East of Java.
'I know Krakatoa is not east of Java,' Gordon notes serenely. 'Yordan pitched that title to Cinerama, and they approved it. You couldn't go back and say, 'By the way, we had our geography backward.' You'd look like an idiot.
'Yordan sent this very rough draft of mine with Gene Lourie to Rome, and he did about a half-hour of volcano and tidal wave miniature shots,' Gordon adds. 'And on the basis of the effects reel, the distributors went crazy and said, 'When can we have this?' They knew they weren't selling the story; they were selling the visuals. And it ended up getting an Oscar nomination for effects.'
Gordon's production Horror Express pitted Peter Cushing against Christopher Lee as rival scientists aboard the Trans-Siberian Express. Also aboard is a prehistoric ape-man, in whose corpse exists a super-intelligent alien that absorbs minds of its victims. Intelligently written by Bernie's friend Julian Zimet and the late Arnaud d'Usseau with on-set rewrites by Gordon, it boasted solid production values on a tiny budget. The period train sets and the large-scale miniature train have often been identified as leftovers from Nicholas and Alexandra or Dr. Zhivago, probably because the plot includes a Russian nobleman and a Rasputin-like monk.
'Actually, the train was constructed for our movie Pancho Villa,' revealed Gordon. 'The sets were made by our art department. We only had enough room on the stage for one set, so we had to shoot all the scenes in each train car at once, redress the sets, then shoot the next ones.' He arranged to shoot at the abandoned Delicias train station, elaborately designed by Alexander-Gustave Eiffel, creator of the Eiffel Tower.
The first thing the Peter Cushing did when he arrived in Spain was regretfully tell Gordon he would not do the picture. Panicked, Gordon cajoled and reasoned with the English actor, but Cushing planned to take the first plane home. Cushing's co-star took charge. 'Christopher, who is garrulous at the best of times, started talking to Cushing, joking, reminiscing, and filibustering for about an hour. Neither Cushing nor I could get a word in. Never once did Christopher address the film or Peter's intention to go home. At the end, we were both worn down, and Christopher said, 'All right, Peter, see you at work tomorrow,' and left. That was it. Peter later apologized.' Nervous when he began any film, Cushing was even more distraught because of the death of his wife Helen a year before. With the famed British horror duo and a pre-Kojak Telly Savalas as a Cossack detective, the $300,000 film was a success with audiences and even critics.
Bernie and Jean Gordon tired of life overseas and returned to California. He wrote occasional TV episodes, but still suffered residual effects from the blacklist. Many of the films he had written were still credited to fronts, different names, or other people entirely. In 1997, the Writers Guild finally awarded him proper credit, and in fact he has more retroactive screen credits than any other blacklisted writer.
Older and only slightly mellower, the white-haired Gordon still fights political dragons. After delivering the finished draft of Hollywood Exile in 1998, he argued against Elia Kazan receiving an Academy Award for 'lifetime achievement.' 'Kazan already had Oscars for pictures he'd directed, and he's a good director,' argued Gordon, 'but the 'Lifetime Achievement' business grated on me. Kazan testified to the HUAC and named his friends as Communists, to get himself out of a jam. He ruined other people's lives to further his own career. That's betrayal on a basic human level.'
Gordon was astounded how much press the anti-Kazan movement received. CNN, the major networks, and international television and radio reporters featured this soft-spoken elder statesman of the left passionately stating his case. Kazan did receive the award--but, added Gordon, 'What I thought was going to be a little clutch of a dozen or so demonstrators outside the Awards turned out to be eight or ten thousand people showing support.'
That media coverage, plus the belated recognition by the Writers Guild for the many films he wrote during the Blacklist, gives Gordon a certain wry sense of accomplishment. 'Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is a big cult film, largely because of the effects, and there's a lot of people who like Horror Express, which I'm still very proud of. So now I become famous for my fifteen minutes.' With a wry smile, he shakes his head and adds, 'It's just too bad it couldn't have happened a couple decades earlier when it would've done some good.'

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