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Johnny Got His Gun
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by Lybarger

"Sadly, time has not made this story any less relevant or potent."
4 stars

Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun is so disturbing that it’s nearly impossible to take its content in any way but personally.

While the book was set during the waning days of World War I, the tale has never lost its urgency and took on new life during the Vietnam War era.

The film that Trumbo himself later directed in 1971 suffers from some inconsistent performances and the 65 year old freshman director’s growing pains. Nonetheless, the fact that his movie is finally available on DVD is a cause for celebration even if the subject matter is as grim as it gets.

Timothy Bottoms (“The Last Picture Show,” “Elephant”) stars as Joe Bonham, an American foot soldier confined to his hospital bed. At first he doesn’t know where he is because he’s been wounded so severely that he has lost all of his limbs and all of his senses with the exception of touch.

Because he’s unable to speak and is wounded beyond recognition, his doctors believe that his mind is gone as well as his most of his body.

Joe might have been happier if that were the case.

Instead, Joe’s feverishly active brain desperately tries to make sense of his fate and to cry out for help even though he no longer has a voice or even a face.

Trumbo follows Joe back through his life before the explosion that maimed him. The author modeled Joe’s upbringing after his own. Not only did he include incidents like the time he lost his father’s prized fishing pole in the story, but Trumbo even filmed scenes of the movie in the house where his own father died.

As a result, Joe Bonham doesn’t come off as saintly (there’s a scene where he visits a brothel), but simply as an ordinary fellow undeserving his nightmarish existence. The more mundane his recollections, the more believable he seems. When the sympathetic Bottoms (in voiceover) screams or whimpers in agony or loneliness, it’s hard not to be moved.

Trumbo can also teach a new generation of filmmakers about how to jolt a viewer. By simply showing a few scraps that were once bandages, he can horrify an audience more effectively than if he had gallons of fake blood.

The footage of Joe’s memories is shot in muted colors, and his dreams and fantasies are rendered in vibrant hues. When his brain moves back into the here and now, the film switches to a sterile black-and-white.

With its variances in tone and approach, “Johnny Got His Gun” occasionally falters. Some of the fantasies look more silly than surreal to a post-1971 audience. A protracted Christmas party scene does little more than fill time with tediously repetitive phrases and images. On DVD, it takes some effort not to move on to the next chapter.

Before he directed the film version of “Johnny Got His Gun,” Trumbo had been one of the best paid screenwriters in Hollywood, penning scripts as diverse from the Ginger Rogers movie “Kitty Foyle” to “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” which recounted the Doolittle air raid on Japan.

Despite making a windfall off of the capitalist system, Trumbo was also a Communist. After informing the FBI when Nazi sympathizers and Communist radicals had sent him letters of encouragement that he didn’t want, Trumbo became a target of federal investigations himself and was later jailed. He was one of the “Hollywood Ten” who were banned from working because they had the courage not to name names.

While under the blacklist during the 1950s and 60s, he wrote the Oscar-winning scripts for “Roman Holliday” and “The Brave One” but was denied his proper share of the credit. Studios were happy to pay Trumbo’s services through “front” writers who would take credit for his work.

By the time he made “Johnny Got His Gun,” Trumbo no longer had to worry about being persecuted for his political and economic views. At times, the film seems a bit strident as older characters who are in no danger of being sent into battle rhapsodize about sending younger men into harm’s way. It’s a point that Trumbo effectively hammers home early in the film and doesn’t need to repeat.

Joe’s departures from present reality were an important part of the book, but the film for the most part does a surprisingly good job of making these sequences work on the screen as well. A young Donald Sutherland portrays Joe’s imaginary version of Jesus with an appropriate sense of empathy and resignation. As a side note, some of these scenes were actually conceived by Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel (“Belle de Jour”), a fellow blacklisted Communist who had hoped to direct the film but became unavailable.

Bottoms and Jason Robards, who plays Joe’s caring father are terrific, but Kathy Fields turns in a one-note performance as the young woman who later dominates Joe’s dreams.

The film’s ending is still unsettling. It differs from the book, but it’s the most forceful scene in the film. As a result, the movie, despite its flaws, still feels like a kick in the stomach.

As the movie started, I was reminded that two of my relatives had thankfully returned safely from Iraq but that some of their peers would not. It also brought to mind the recent scandal at Walter Reed hospital where people who had risked life and limb for their fellow Americans had been treated to appallingly shoddy medical care. Trumbo was wise to make Joe Bonham simply an ordinary soul because too many people like him have been neglected.

The DVD comes with some worthwhile extras including a one-hour documentary about Trumbo and his novel, including recollections from his son Christopher Trumbo and cinematographer Jules Brenner. A recent documentary about Trumbo is currently unavailable on DVD and would also have been a worthwhile addition.

In a separate interview Bottoms sheepishly recalls having a crush on the actress who played his nurse in the movie (Diane Varsi). Also included with the package are a surprisingly effective 1940 radio adaptation starring a remarkably sensitive James Cagney and the music video for Metallica’s 1989 music video “One.”

While including a music video might seem odd for such sober subject matter, “One” introduced me and millions of others to the story. The clip features well-chosen scenes from the movie and ably condenses the tale to a mere seven minutes.

Thankfully both Metallica’s abridgement and Trumbo’s original are available in this package. While it’s wonderful that the film is finally available, the madness that has inspired it is also unfortunately still with us.

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originally posted: 05/07/09 12:15:46
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User Comments

1/25/10 Chad Dillon Cooper Great film about the results of war. Thought provoking,scary. 5 stars
1/18/10 babette US invaded Iraq for oil. No heroes there... 5 stars
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  04-Aug-1971 (PG)
  DVD: 28-Apr-2009

  N/A (12)

  04-Aug-1971 (M)

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