Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Director/Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 1939, successful screenwriter Dalton Trumbo published a strongly antiwar novel called Johnny Got His Gun. Its central character, Joe Bonham, an 18-year-old volunteer in World War I, has been the victim of a horrible mortar attack that blew off his limbs and his face, but somehow, left his torso and brain intact. The doctors at the field hospital to which he is taken believe he is, basically, a breathing tree stump, with no feelings or thoughts. They transfer him to a permanent hospital where he is expected to offer researchers information that may help them treat patients in the future. But Joe can think and feel. So there he languishes in his body-prison year after year, remembering his past, trying to discover where he is in the present, and hoping against hope that he will be able to make contact with the outside world.

Trumbo was one of the Hollywood 10 who refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was held in contempt of Congress and eventually jailed, and most cruel of all, blacklisted in Hollywood. He continued to write, his scripts submitted for production through a “front”. One such front, Robert Rich, won an Oscar for best screenplay for 1956’s The Brave One; he did not appear to collect “his” Oscar because he was actually the child of an acquaintance of Trumbo’s. Eventually, Trumbo beat the ban and began working under his own name. During the height of the Vietnam War, he decided to adapt his pacifist book for the screen. He ended up making it his first and, as it turns out, only directorial effort.

This year, Shout! Films issued Johnny Got His Gun on DVD; I was lucky enough to be contacted by the film’s cinematographer Jules Brenner, now a film critic, and offered a review copy.

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The film’s opening credits show stills from WWI, from rank-and-file soldiers marching in formation, to enthusiastic civilians cheering them on, to the old men in command, and of course, the casualties on the fields and in the trenches. We immediately are taken into Joe’s situation, a flurry of Army doctors and nurses attending to his immediate needs and talking about his future. Joe (Timothy Bottoms) eventually awakens and wonders why it is so dark. Since he can’t see or hear anything, he becomes attuned to the vibrations of people coming in and out of his room, the routine of the nurses who clean his airway, connect his feeding tube, and check his vitals. He can tell by the touch of a hand whether the person is a man or a woman. He can also tell that a pricking sensation at his shoulder is stitches being removed from his body. But they’re too far up. Oh no, they’ve taken his arm! His horror only increases when he realizes that all of his limbs are gone. The film unfolds his reality in the hospital, his memories, and his hallucinations and dreams.

“I remember the real things, Mother, even before we left Colorado and moved to Los Angeles. I remember everything.” A memory of his mother (blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt) examining his dirty, bare feet; his menagerie of pets; bathing in a washtub; running through snow to use the outhouse–all comforting memories scored by composer Jerry Fielding with nostalgically wistful music. I was quite reminded through the images and music of another period piece that shares a lot in common with this film–Death of a Salesman, particularly the production staged and later filmed by Volker Schlöndorff. Certainly, cannon fodder Joe Bonham is a comrade of chewed up and spit out Willy Loman.

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I found several memories quite touching, as when his girl’s father catches Joe and Kareen (Kathy Fields) necking on the couch on his last night as a civilian, berates them for acting like they’re in the backseat of a flivver, and then orders them both to Kareen’s bedroom. Or when on a camping trip, Joe, with his back to his father (Jason Robards) on the floor of their tent, confesses that he lost the prize fishing pole his father had lent him reluctantly and his father simply turns over and hugs Joe. Others seem like a cardboard cutout spouting Trumbo’s views, for example, when a young Joe asks his father what democracy is, and his father says it’s about governments sending people to kill each other.

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In drug-influenced dreams and hallucinations, he imagines seeing Jesus (Donald Sutherland) preparing to take soldiers on a train for their date with death. He sees himself as a freak in a sideshow run by his father and mother. He hears an oration on progress from a man played by Trumbo himself. He sees Kareen in a garden strewn with Greek sculptures telling him she had to marry someone else when he didn’t return from the front. These hallucinations seem dated now, a product of 60s and 70s pseudo-psychedelia. However, if the film had been made by Luis Buñuel, a friend of Trumbo’s who had originally been slated to direct it, imagine the possibilities of these sequences. It’s tantalizing to think what he might have done with it, how he might have ratcheted up the political perversity, how he would have handled the sexual elements, whether Joe would have gotten one of the maestro’s fetishized artificial limbs. We do know how he would have handled Jesus, as one of his shots, of Donald Sutherland piloting a train at night, a gauzy scarf blowing in the wind, made it into the film. (“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?”)

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The extended sequence in Joe’s reality when he makes contact with a new nurse (Diane Varsi) is suspenseful. She traces “Merry Christmas,” a letter at a time, on his chest, and he responds later by tapping out Morse code with his head. Will something good finally break for this poor wretch? What do you think. Nonetheless, the voiceover narration by Bottoms that carries this story along communicates his excitement in a way that got me excited, too.

If the characters had been more well fleshed, less symbolic, I think the film would have been more affecting. Trumbo’s writing comes from another era, one in which poetic polemics were popular and accepted. Today’s audiences have been so marketed to that even messages with which we are sympathetic may not move us. In 1971, Trumbo could expect viewers to bring their own experiences of war loss to the movie theatre. In 2009, we are far too remote from war to be as deeply touched.

What moved me the most about this film, actually a partial memoir of Trumbo’s own childhood (for example, the death of Joe’s father was shot in the very house, the very room, and on the very bed where Trumbo’s father actually died), was that it seemed to address his experiences with the blacklist. He was a living, thinking man who was silenced by politicians fighting a principle that was supposed to “make the world safe for democracy,” as Joe’s father says to him. This painful period underscored so many scenes in this film that it felt more like an autobiography than a film about war.

The DVD extras, including a documentary about Trumbo and the making of Johnny Got His Gun and the radio play starring James Cagney as Joe, are superb. While the film didn’t pack the punch I thought it would, I’m glad I saw this very personal work brought to life by the man who conceived it so many years before. l

  • Greg F. spoke:
    12th/05/2009 to 6:34 am

    I want to get the DVD for the Cagney radio show. I’ve never seen this film and would like to but the radio show has me the most excited. I have radio shows I’ve bought on CD although now you can simply listen to them online on several internet stations devoted to radio shows of the thirties, forties and fifties.
    As for the plot it sounds a bit gimmicky to me and also familiar. I realized about halfway through the review that an episode of M.A.S.H. did a story clearly influenced by this from the POV of the wounded soldier and what he thinks.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/05/2009 to 8:17 am

    The film is classic agitprop, and actually sounds like a radio play in execution.
    I was very reminded of one of the scariest scifi short stories I’ve ever read: Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was a formative book for Ellison.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    13th/05/2009 to 8:23 am

    I didn’t see the film theatrically, but saw an imported DVD a couple of years ago. Better is Trumbo’s novel primarily because it could convey much better Joe’s living in literal darkness. What I still remember is his first mistaking the messages tapped on his chest as rats climbing on his immobile body.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/05/2009 to 8:34 am

    That was unclear to me in the film. It appeared that he was hallucinating the rats, but then there appeared a wound on his head. Since they put him in a utility closet, it didn’t seem farfetched that there could have been rats. I never did decide what happened to him.

  • impunched spoke:
    13th/10/2009 to 1:12 am

    A very refective and well-written article about one of the best books and movies I’ve ever experienced. Yet-it’s not good enough? The film could have been better? It didn’t pack a punch? Were you looking for more blood and guts? C’mon-that’s part of what makes this film so amazing! It lets your imagination work: to wander up and down the horrific and timeless shadowy hallways that are Joe’s only existence now. An existence without sight, sound, and smell. I saw this film and read the book when I was 14 in Lit. class-and still think about it and discuss it with people to this day at 39 years old. It also gave me vivid nightmares for a long time. If one is always thinking about how something could have been different or better, it will be difficult to enjoy anything. Just take the film for what it is. It’s about relating to a character who is suffering and in great emotional pain. We have all experienced that. I think we can all be deeply touched by this movie-whether war is near or far.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/10/2009 to 7:36 am

    I didn’t feel it that way, and as you can see, I didn’t call for more blood and guts. I took the film for what it is and found it somewhat lacking but worth the effort. Take that for what it is, my friend.

  • J. Lott spoke:
    18th/06/2015 to 9:16 am

    My father was the production coordinator on the film and is listed in the credits as such. I have been looking for folks associated with the original film. Dad also was touring with the original movie cans and promotional materials to the theaters where they would sign a contract agreement he would leave the Film in its cans and promtional materials, when the contract time was up he would go back and pick them up…and repeat. I still have a lot of the original materials, photos, and letters and a couple promo packets Dad had put together and stuff like that. The movie was way ahead of its time and is still just as relevant today as it was over 40 years ago.

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