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August 04, 2005

Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo - 1971
Fremantle U.K. Region 0 DVD

I never saw Johnny Got His Gun at the time it was initially released, which according to imdb.com was on August 4, 1971. Trumbo's novel was so vivid, with many disturbing images. I had enough horrifying images imagined after reading the novel that I felt uncomfortable seeing these same images on the big screen. I decided to see the film now primarily because it seemed quite appropriate when the United States is again in a war, with some parallels to when Trumbo's film was released.

Dalton Trumbo's novel and film are about a young soldier who is severely wounded during World War One. Missing both arms and legs, with his face "scooped out" in his words, Joe Bonham is presumed to be a vegetable with no feelings. The film cuts between black and white scenes of the hospitalized Joe, mostly under blankets and bandages with only the top of his head visible, and scenes in color of Joe remembering his past or in his dreams. Much of the real and imagined horror of the novel is muted for the movie, yet Trumbo succeeded in conveying the frustration of having an active, thinking mind trapped by almost total physical inability.

Not all of Johnny Got His Gun succeeds in translation from novel to film. Some of the problems could be attributed to Trumbo obviously working with a limited budget. The dream sequences are very stagey, and some of the exterior scenes look like low budget Fellini. While some of the name actors appeared in this film as a way of supporting Trumbo and his vision, it is still disconcerting to see Donald Sutherland as a blue eyed, blond hippie Jesus. Jason Robards is better as Joe's father, the person who explains the relationship of war and democracy to his young son in flashback. The film was also the debut of Timothy Bottoms, released just two months before his more widely seen turn in The Last Picture Show.

That Johnny Got His Gun was made into a film seems almost inconceivable today. Trumbo's novel, published in 1939, questioned whether the goals of the first world war had been achieved in view of the number of dead and wounded soldiers following the armistice. The novel was republished in 1970 when the United States was involved in Viet Nam. Trumbo, a blacklisted screen writer in the Fifties, had by the end of the Sixties re-established his career more successfully than any of the other Hollywood Ten. Perhaps it was more commercially viable in the early Seventies, but it is difficult to imagine a film expressing clear anti-war sentiments made by Hollywood today.

One could almost imagine Trumbo being blacklisted again for this statement made in 1940:
"If they say to us, 'We must fight this war to preserve democracy,' let us say to them, 'There is no such thing as democracy in time of war. It is a lie, a deliberate deception to lead us to our own destruction. We will not die in order that our children may inherit a permanent military dictatorship.'"

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 4, 2005 05:07 PM