Fellow Traveler (1989)




Director:     Philip Saville.

Starring:     Ron Silver (Asa Kaufman), Hart Bochner (Clifford Byrne), Imogen Stubbs (Sarah Atchison), Daniel J. Travanti (Jerry Leavy), Katherine Borowitz (Joan Kaufman).

Country: HBO and the British Film Institute

Two childhood friends get themselves blacklisted in Hollywood.  


Spoiler Warning:

Four friends, writer Asa Kaufman, Joan Kaufman, the actor Clifford Byrne and his girlfriend Sarah Atchison, are having fun playing touch football on the beach.

Clifford Byrne is up in the morning.  A beautiful, naked woman rises from bed (brief nudity), gets dressed and then says goodbye to Clifford.  Meanwhile, Asa is working on a script for a Robin Hood TV show for children. 

Now outside by his swimming pool, Clifford is drinking liquor straight from the bottle.  He takes the telephone off the hook and places a letter addressed to Sarah by the phone.  He gets into his pool and onto an inflatable bed.  He relaxes and then suddenly says let's do this.  He takes out a pistol from the floating ice bucket, puts the pistol barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger. 

London, 1954.  Asa gets a hallway telephone call from his wife Joan.  He tries to have a phone conversation with his wife, but the landlady is curious to know who he's talking to.  Asa gets very annoyed and protests that he's just talking with his wife.  The landlady leaves.  Asa goes into his room with the receiver and closes the door as far as he can, minding the telephone cord, and starts telling Joannie about his good luck at getting to write the Robin Hood script.  Joannie is trying to tell him something, but he's not listening, so she has to tell him to shut up.  She then tells him that Clifford is dead and that it was a suicide.  Asa has always looked up to his friend Clifford and tears start to well up in his eyes.  He asks if anyone knows why Clifford killed himself?  Nobody knows as of yet.  While talking, Asa has flashbacks to the fun times the four friends had on the California beach. Joan then asks if Asa is going to see Sarah?  Asa says that, as he said before, he doesn't even know if Sarah is in town. 

Flashback.  It's the McCarthy era and the radical conservatives are trying to run out of the film business the "reds" and the "fellow travelers" on the basis of any hint or gossip about the leftist political activities of the actors, writers, directors, producers, etc.  Clifford comes over to try to take Asa to the airport.  Asa is leaving for England because he is afraid that if he stays, the witch hunters will eventually force him to name the names of people who worked for leftist causes.  Asa has a taxi cab waiting for him.  Clifford is very upset that Asa is leaving for London and Asa tells him that he's not leaving forever.  He'll be back. 

Hollywood, California.  11 years earlier.  Clifford talks to a gathering of the Hollywood big shots about donating money for a good cause.  He says that many in the crowd will remember five years back when they were given such a hard time about their support for the Spanish republic against the fascists and their leader Franco.  "We've been called reds, pinkos, traitors, even, and I quote, premature anti-fascists."  But now that the United States is allied with Russia against the fascist countries, people can see that the Hollywood progressives were right all along.  And now in Hollywood it's not so bad to be a progressive.  Russia is fighting the fascists right now at Stalingrad. So let the Hollywood community express their solidarity with the anti-fascist cause by donating some money for the cause. 

Clifford goes to talk with Asa and Joan.  Joan has to leave because she volunteers at a cantina for the fighting men of the USA.  Sarah comes over and congratulates Clifford on his little speech.  They kiss.  Clifford then goes elsewhere to mingle with the crowd.  Clifford says he has reservations for dinner for the three of them.  Sarah says she wants to be alone with Clifford, but Asa says she can't take Clifford away from him.  Clifford comes back and introduces Jerry Leavy, a psychotherapist, to Asa.  He then takes Sarah by the hand to go mingle elsewhere with the guests. 

Back to the present.  London.  Clifford speaks to a director named D'Arcy about his job of writing for Robin Hood.  When they've talked about the characters in the show, D'Arcy asks if this job isn't quite a comedown for Asa?  Asa tells him that he's going to love writing for the show.  D'Arcy says:  "I must say, things have come to a pretty pass, if a man can't work at what he thinks. . . .  All the better for us, I suppose."  Asa says he hopes so. 

Asa goes over to the musical school to check on Sarah.  He waits for her outside the school.  When she comes out, he greets her.  She seems excited to see Asa.  He wants to take her out for a drink, but she says that he shouldn't be seen with her, because she has been picketing the American Embassy in London, over the Rosenberg situation (accused of giving secrets on the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets).  He says it won't hurt him, but she insists that he not be seen with her.  A car pulls up and a man gets out.  He helps put Sarah's cello into the back seat.  Sarah gets in the car.  She tells Asa to call her. 

Flashback.  Hollywood. One of the witch hunters is on TV complaining about the reds and pinkos in the USA.  He points out that there are a lot of these people in Hollywood.  The four friends watch and listen to the broadcast and they don't like it one bit.  They disagree as to what they might do to fight this witch hunt. 

Back to the present.  The children's show about Robin Hood is now being produced.

Flashback.  Asa complains to Clifford about the restrictions being placed on what can be written.  He reads:  don't smear the successful man; don't write about the common man or the little people; give the world an American kind of hero.  Asa is so upset about this that he says he hasn't been able to sleep and he has trouble writing. So Clifford recommends that his friend go see Jerry Levy, the psychotherapist. 

Back to the present.  Two British agents come to ask Asa some questions.  Asa just keeps saying that he's just a writer.  Apparently, the Americans have asked the British to keep an eye on Asa.  One of the British agents says they don't want Asa to be doing any paid work while in Britain.  Asa doesn't say anything about that.  The last question the agents ask is if Asa is still having sessions of psychotherapy?  That confirms for Asa that the Americans are involved in this. 

Flashback.  Asa keeps having the same dream over and over again.  He's a little boy that comes to see his mother at home and finds her having sex with a huge FBI man who carries around a Tommy gun.  Asa goes to see the therapist and mentions this repeating dream, along with his many problems. 

Back to the present.  Asa goes to a party at D'Arcy's place.  The director introduces Asa to some of the people there.  He introduces him to "Tudor Hamilton".  Asa's scripts will go to Tudor Hamilton and he will submit them in his name.  Then he meets Hugo, the top man at the studio.  He tells Asa that he wants him to make Sherwood Forest warm.  Give the forest some sunshine.  The viewers will like that.  He also says they will not have any worries about the witch hunt thing.  Asa is glad to hear that. 

The production of Robin Hood continues.

Asa goes over to see Sarah.  Two British leftist men are sitting in the living room.  One of the guys, named Ronnie Wilson, likes Sarah and he starts giving Asa a hard time about writing a lowly children's production for television.  This really makes Asa mad and he goes into a rant against Ronnie for his deliberate rudeness.  Ronnie gets so mad that he walks out of the apartment.

Later at night Sarah comes to see Asa.  She is really mad at him and condemns him for his hopping in and out of her life.  Asa tries to shush her for fear of his landlady hearing her.  He begs Sarah to yell at him in his room instead of in the living room area.  They go up to his room where Asa apologizes for his abruptly leaving her apartment.  He says that he just had to speak to Sarah about why Clifford killed himself.  Sarah seems a little exhausted by thinking too much about Clifford.  She says that she has seen all of Asa's films. They are about a man who has to make a moral decision against his own self interests.  Asa admits that it's true, but now they are confronted by the landlady, who tells Asa that the girl must go.  Asa protests, so he is thrown out of the apartment.  Sarah invites him over to her place. 

At her place, Sarah invites Asa to sleep with her in his bed.  He takes the offer and soon they are kissing.  Asa tries to have sex with her, but he can't climax.  (brief nudity) This is upsetting to both Sarah and Asa. 

Flashback.  Clifford is acting in one of Asa's films.  Asa complains that Clifford cut most of the speech out.  Clifford says that's what they wanted him to do and Asa should realize that sometimes you have to bend a little to get along. 

Back to the present.  Asa keeps writing the script and they keep producing the Robin Hood series.  Sarah comes home to find Asa busy working. 

Sarah gets a letter from Tess asking Sarah to forgive her.  Sarah starts crying and Asa holds her.  Tess was the girl with Clifford after Sarah.  Asa thinks Clifford left Sarah, but Sarah says she actually left Clifford.  Asa is surprised by this, so Sarah tells him that Asa never really knew Clifford.  She says that Asa only saw in Clifford what he wanted to see.  She says that she left Clifford because he never really loved her.  He was only in love with his career.  This upsets Asa and he leaves.

Now two American agents come to speak with Asa.  They say that so far they have been easy on Asa.  In fact, before too long, Asa may be receiving a subpoena to testify.  Asa replies that he's not giving them any names.  The agents make it clear that if Asa plays ball with them, they can personally assure his job security. 

Flashback.  Again Asa complains about having that same old upsetting dream about his mother having sex with an FBI agent, meaning that the agent is really screwing Asa. 

Back to the present.  A very upset Joannie calls Asa on the telephone.  She says she knows about Asa and Sarah being thrown out of his apartment, because she talked to his ex-landlady.  Moreover, she's going to have to leave for her mother's place, because the studio won't renew their lease.  Joannie says that Asa could have talked and given names, like Clifford did.  Asa finds that hard to believe.  He tells Joannie that she and the kids are going to come over to London to be with him.  Joannie asks him where are they going to live?  In his love nest with Sarah?  Asa lies and says that Sarah isn't here.  She's on a trip. 

When Asa gets off the phone, all he talks about to Sarah is Clifford and how he would never be called a "stoolie".  He says Clifford betrayed him.  Sarah tells him that she had thought that part of her life was over and done with.  Why did Asa have to come and bring up that part of her life to her again?

Flashback.  Asa says to his therapist that he knows he's going to be called to testify soon and wants the therapist to tell him what to do.  The therapist won't give him any advise.  Rather he says that Asa will have to help his therapist to help Asa.  Asa is in a real quandary. 

What the therapists wants to know is who is this FBI agent that constantly appears in his dreams?  What person of authority was there that affected Asa's life?  Asa has a hard time naming names even here. 

Back to the present.  Jerry Levy is a speaker on the relationship of Marx and Freud in London.  Ronnie and Sarah are there listening to his speech.  Asa arrives near the very end of the speech.  When they call for questions Asa speaks up immediately criticizing the doctor.  Jerry tells the moderator to stop Asa, but Asa now really explodes with the accusation that Dr. Levy killed Clifford Byrne.  He says the doctor used him as his stool pigeon and fed all his gathered information to the feds.  Jerry calls on another questioner, but it's Sarah, and she asks the doctor if these accusations are true? 

Levy now starts saying that Joe Stalin needed Joe McCarthy.  Stalin used the troubles in the USA to draw attention away from Stalin's own show trials.  Then he admits that he had to "set up" some pinkos in Hollywood who think that Stalinist behavior in the 20th century is to fight Stalinism.  Asa gets so mad that he runs toward Levy to hit him.  Others intervene and push Asa of the podium.  Asa is put in a jail cell for his outburst. 

In the Robin Hood story, Little John is about to be hanged.  But Robin Hood is there to free Little John.  Robin now swordfights with the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Robin draws flood from the sheriff.  He then stabs the sheriff repeatedly.

Sarah calls up the head of the studio to get help for Asa.  Sir Hugo Armstrong calls up the constable. 

Asa gets out of jail.  Sarah works on her Disarmament project.

Asa is now back with his wife and children.  He thinks back to those days on the beach with Clifford. 


I enjoyed the film.  It's the story of Hollywood people being harassed and punished by the witch hunts of McCarthyism.  It focuses on two couples in Hollywood who are hurt by the witch hunts.  By identifying with the main characters the viewer hopefully sympathizes with the harassed couples and is critical of the unfair and nasty tactics of the American right wing in the United States in the McCarthy era.


Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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