Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Director: Dalton Trumbo

Stars: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi

Release Company: Shout! Factory

MPAA Rating: R

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Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun



"I like Johnny Got His Gun enormously. For me the film has the same power as the novel. It has the same disturbing quality, and moments of extremely powerful emotion. The film left an impression on me that is among the strongest I have ever experienced."
Luis Buñuel
It's long been a mystery why Dalton Trumbo's film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun was never released on DVD. A prize winner at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, I remember being struck by certain images and its strong anti-war message when viewing it in theaters. It did receive more recent attention when Metallica used film footage for its musical video "One," and I was reminded once again of the film when listening to Bob Dylan's "John Brown" on a bootleg disk—an anti-war song about a returning soldier whose blown up face remains unrecognized by his own mother.

At long last Trumbo's film gets a DVD treatment 38 years after it debuted at Cannes. Shout! Factory is releasing it at the end of April to mark the 70th anniversary of the novel's publication, and the bonus features are worthy of the film, including: a 60 minute documentary about Dalton Trumbo, a recent interview with Timothy Bottoms, behind the scenes footage, Metallica's "One" video, a 1940 radio production starring James Cagney, and a reprinted replica of the original movie poster.

The movie itself holds up remarkably well although Buñuel's criticism of it being “a bit too long and over intellectualized” is certainly valid. The novel itself remains a classic—arguably the strongest anti-war novel ever written. So the fact that the novelist himself is translating his original prose into cinematic form is truly rare; however, film lovers universally can only hunger for what could have been. Buñuel originally was to make this film in the early 60s before the project eventually got shelved. At least one of Buñuel's dreamlike visions remained in the film—Jesus riding the night train carrying the dead soldiers, ambiguously shouting in either ecstasy or sorrow.

Famously blacklisted as part of the "Hollywood Ten," Trumbo wrote numerous successful scripts either under his own name or using a "front," but Johnny Got His Gun marks the first (and last) time he ever directed a film. The project required a great deal of collaboration with the nuts and bolts of directing often coming from Dalton's son and from cinematographer Jules Brenner's willingness to listen closely to Dalton's concepts to formulate the necessary lighting and shooting strategy. Thus, the film combines three visual styles to represent the state of mind of the protagonist and the time period: black and white footage to represent the present, color for the past, and filtered color to signal a dream state.

The photography provides visual shortcuts to assist the viewer since there is as much time tripping as you find in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. As far as the basic plot, Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) is critically injured by an artillery shell on the last day of World War I and is miraculously kept alive by surgeons, who think his brain damage so severe that he is essentially a vegetable—unable to think or experience pain.

They are dead wrong. Eventually Joe discovers his reality—that he's lost both arms, both legs, and that he's lost his eyes, nose, and mouth. Yet he lives, remembers, thinks, and continuously suffers. He can sense vibrations, so he can tell when people enter the room and estimate how heavy they are. His skin remains sensitive to touch, so he forms an attachment to a compassionate nurse (Diane Varsi), who attempts to bring some sunshine into his life and meet his needs—in contrast to military and medical officers who only want to hide Joe in the Utility room so others can't see the horror of his condition.

Not even Jesus (Donald Sutherland) can help Joe in the dream sequences. He can change water into beer (a trick he learned at weddings) and do card tricks, but he tells Joe that only a miracle can save him when he learns about his physical condition. Such a non-religious view of Life certainly would be a treat to see with Luis Buñuel's sensibilities, but Dalton Trumbo's treatment retains its own power—a strong historical and literary adaptation of a truly remarkable anti-war classic.

It is strikingly sobering that the film's central message remains so relevant, especially today after we've witnessed the folly and fiasco of George W. Bush's campaign to bring Democracy to Iraq. We can only nod in agreement as Jason Robart's character defines Democracy as "having something to do with young men killing each other." After all some 80,000,000 fathers have sacrificed their sons in wars since that "Great War to make the world safe for Democracy" ended.

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