Sunday 4 August 2013

Johnny Got His Gun [1971]

JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN is an American drama that was written and directed by Dalton Trumbo and premièred in May 1971.  It stars Timothy Bottoms with Jason Robards Jr, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi and Kathy Fields.  The film relates the thoughts and memories of a young American soldier grievously injured in WW2 and now a permanent resident in a military hospital.  The twist, if that's the right word (and I'm not sure it is), is that young Joe has lost both arms and legs as well as eyes, ears, nose and mouth.  He is entirely reliant on the nurses who provide his 24-hour care and his only sensory inputs are vibrations, such as footsteps, and when people touch him.

Aside from its unusual set up, JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN is notable for a couple of other reasons.  First, it is one of very few American films that is both anti-war and atheist; and secondly it was the first and last film to be directed by Trumbo, who earlier in his career had been a prolific screenwriter until he fell foul of the appalling anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.  Metalheads may also be aware that this film was the inspiration for Metallica's song 'One' and indeed footage from it was used in the accompanying video.

The hospital scenes make effective use of monochrome photography
Unlike, say, Lewis Milestone's PORK CHOP HILL [1959], which tries to have its cake and eat it by pushing a superficial 'war is hell' message but at the same giving us plenty of 'war is heroic and makes a man of you and is essential to sustain our freedom' propaganda, Trumbo's film is explicitly anti-war throughout and features no more than three or four minutes of war scenes - and even those are non-action sequences. One might say that describing it as 'anti-war' is insufficient; perhaps a more accurate term might be 'humanist' because Trumbo's pacifism is inextricably linked with his belief that there cannot be a merciful God who would permit the suffering that war must perforce entail.

Colour is used for thoughts and memories, such as this scene between Joe and Christ in his workshop
To explore this idea Trumbo uses the device of imagined dialogue between Joe, fellow casualties of war and Jesus Christ, played as a kind of well-meaning but ineffectual hippy by Donald Sutherland, who is managing their transport to the afterlife.  Joe asks Christ for help in determining whether he is dead - and truly conversing with Him - or merely dreaming.  After a lengthy discussion, Christ concedes that Joe is only dreaming and that He can offer no help; effectively, Christ - at least in Joe's mind - accepts that He does not exist.  Such a message would be almost inconceivable in current American cinema, even though US citizens are today engaged in largely pointless conflicts much as they were when JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN was first released.  It would seem that, at least on the political right, war and religion are very much part of the American way.

The horrors of war
It's easy to see then how holding views like Trumbo's could get you into a lot of trouble in the US, particularly in the 1950s when rabid anti-Communists spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy were determined to root out anyone whom they suspected of holding views they considered to be un-American. This purge was especially severe in the artistic community where minds were more open and as such more likely to be sympathetic to a liberal, if not left-wing, kind of politics.  The sorry tale of this part of US social and cultural history has been told many times; suffice it to say that Trumbo was one of those who, when called to testify before the Senate about alleged Communists, refused to give evidence and was subsequently imprisoned and blacklisted.  Although Trumbo continued to write screenplays his work was credited to others and it was not until 1960 that the political climate improved to the extent that he could once again receive screen credits in his own right (for Otto Preminger's EXODUS).

Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham
Enough with the history already, let me turn to the film itself.  As you might expect, it's a profoundly humane film that for the most part achieves its aims efficiently.  Timothy Bottoms, here making his feature début, is a fine actor who was perhaps uniquely suited to the role of Joe.  There is something melancholy about his very appearance, a kind of long-suffering but undemonstrative world weariness that is perfect for the part.  On a couple of occasions the voice-over in the hospital scenes doesn't quite work but blimey it's a very tough part and on the whole he handles it very well.  The memory sequences, which are in colour as opposed to the harsh monochrome of the hospital, are very touching and quite unconventional.  For example, when Joe and his girl Kareen are caught making out on the couch by her father, he immediately banishes her to her bedroom before sending Joe in there after her, aware that his departure to France is imminent.

Joe says goodbye to Kareen (Kathy Fields)
Similarly, when Joe loses his father's prized fishing rod while out on their last camping trip together the old man (Jason Robards Jr, in another of his warm and wise paternal roles) consoles and embrace him rather than ruin their trip.

Joe's father embraces him as he confesses to losing the fishing rod
But humanity is ultimately shown to be vulnerable to being worn down by the horrors of war, not just among the victims but also among those untouched by the conflict itself.  The lack of humanity displayed by the military doctors comes not from injury or the privations of the trenches but from a lifetime of thinking with a military mindset.  The film's climax, while inevitable given the film's depiction of a monolithic organization, is incredibly moving; it evokes the same feelings of pity, rage, despair and yet hope for the indomitable human spirit as does Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST [1975], which may give you some idea of this film's quality.

The nurse (Diane Varsi) spells out the letters of 'Merry Christmas' on Joe's chest
A few notes about the credits.  Trumbo I have talked about at length already so I shall just add that he based his screenplay on his own novel.  Oddly, imdb claims that Luis Bunuel was responsible for the Christ sequences but I'm not sure how true that is.  Cinematographer Jules Brenner had an interesting and varied career which included work on such delirious titles as HELTER SKELTER [1976], about the Manson family, Tobe Hooper's excellent mini-series SALEM'S LOT [1979] and Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD [1985].  He also lensed an obscure TV movie called THE NIGHT THEY TOOK MISS BEAUTIFUL [1977] which despite not being very good has somehow stuck in my mind since seeing it as a kid.  The score is by Jerry Fielding who, like Trumbo, had been blacklisted in the 50s.

David Soul (R)
In the supporting cast you may spot a very young David Soul and also Charles McGraw, one of my Dad's favourite actors who is chiefly remembered for a string of tough guy roles in B-pictures in the 40s and 50s, the best of which is probably Richard Fleischer's THE NARROW MARGIN [1952].  McGraw occasionally got small parts in much bigger movies, notably as the gladiator trainer who torments Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's SPARTACUS [1960] which was written by none other than Dalton Trumbo.

Charles McGraw as Kareen's father


  1. World War One not world war two

  2. Yes people are wounded in war - often horribly

  3. Trumbo was a communist -

  4. This genre of film preys on weak uninformed minds