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Dalton Trumbo's sobering anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1938, only weeks prior to the beginning of hostilities in Europe. Isolationism was a powerful force, as much of the country felt that European wars were Europe's business. The polarized political climate explains how Johnny Got His Gun could be made into a radio show starring James Cagney.
Trumbo was the most outspoken and famous of the "Hollywood Ten" that refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. A very successful screenwriter before his blacklisting and imprisonment by the HUAC, Trumbo continued to write under pseudonyms and fronts, becoming famous for winning an Oscar for a film that could not dare carry his credit. Years later, after Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger publicly credited Trumbo on a pair of big-budget films, the writer spent a decade trying to interest studios in a film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. In 1970 he directed it himself as an independent production.
Trumbo's film attracted plenty of attention at its Westwood premiere; by that time the Hollywood press was reporting outspoken blacklistees as underdogs and the film's brief run was well publicized. It screened a few times on television -- heavily cut, I'm told -- and then pretty much dropped out of sight. Publicity for this DVD credits a 1989 Metallica music video for renewing interest in Johnny Got His Gun, but the fact is that the movie never really caught on with the public in spite of maintaining a strong historical profile as a liberal protest picture. That's too bad, as the good drama is a worthy meditation on the human toll of war.
Dalton Trumbo's screenplay succeeds at the daunting task of animating a story in which the main character has been reduced to an armless, legless, faceless torso, covered by hospital tenting. WW1 doughboy Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) is recovered alive from the trenches in France. A military doctor (Eduard Franz) declares Joe brain-dead, and orders that he be cared for in an out-of-the-way hospital room. Joe can't be identified, and it's implied that the doctors will study his "living remains" to help them learn better how to care for severely injured soldiers.
But Joe is very much alive and awake. Unable to communicate his horror to his gentle nurses, he draws within his own mind, re-living every detail of his life up until the moment that the mortar shell blew him to pieces. He fantasizes strange scenes that mix reality and fantasy. Joe really can't tell when his "reality" ends and his dreams begin. By 1971 anti-war films were already an established subgenre. Richard Attenborough's 1969 Oh! What a Lovely War recounted the horrors of WW1 and M*A*S*H and Catch-22 had just come out as well. The black comedy Catch-22 had a scene in which nurses attend a hospital casualty who is bandaged from head to toe, as if he were a statue that needed dusting. Trumbo keeps Johnny Got His Gun alive with a constant swirl of life-affirming memories, symbolic dream visuals and bitter political observations.
Contrasting filming styles are used to differentiate dreams from reality. The scenes of Joe in his hospital bed are rendered in stark B&W. He's hidden away and forgotten except by the uncommonly kind and giving nursing staff. The male medical authorities behave as if the prestige of the armed services -- and its recruiting programs -- were dependent on Joe's case remaining hushed up.
Joe's memories of childhood are rendered realistically, in glowing color. He remembers his loving mother (noted actress and blacklist protester Marsha Hunt) in the kitchen, while his thoughtful father (Jason Robards) makes useless attempts at emotional contact. Young Joe feels terrible when he loses his dad's precious fishing rod. He goes off to war at age 20, looking for adventure, with his loyal girlfriend Kareen (Kathy Fields) begging him to run away instead. Kareen's father (Charles McGraw) catches the sweethearts necking in the parlor. Knowing what may lie in store for the young couple, the grizzled old union man surprises them both by simply telling them to sleep together. We're grateful to see Joe and Kareen experience at least one night of happiness.
Joe's thoughts are presented as a stream of consciousness voiceover, a radio device not always successful in films (cite this year's Watchmen). But Trumbo's excellent script and Bottoms' good acting overcome this obstacle. In one scene, a nurse goes against policy and opens the window shutters. Joe is elated -- he can feel the warm sunshine and lapses into a momentary sensation of rapture. He can communicate nothing, but inside he's pouring out his heart to his angel of mercy.
Joe's other daydreams are rendered as surreal visions. He imagines himself a freak on display in a traveling show, with his father and mother serving as carnival barker and tout. More successful are a series of distorted vignettes in which Jesus Christ (Donald Sutherland) appears. Joe and Jesus are on a troop train with a group of soldiers who already know how they'll be killed; when they ask what's going to happen to Joe, Jesus (himself a casualty of political unrest) tells them to mind their own business. Jesus is later seen in the charging locomotive, howling with the steam whistle as the train carries the dead men away. Believe it or not, Sutherland makes an excellent Jesus Christ, with piercing blue eyes. He would have been ideal for Nicholas Ray's King of Kings, as a soulful, complex savior whose motto could be "I'm a stranger here myself".
Jesus counsels Joe as he fashions crosses in a carpentry shop. When Joe explains that he has no arms, legs, eyes or mouth, Jesus has to admit that Joe needs a miracle. In one of Joe's other fantasies he tries but fails to reunite with Kareen in a surreal nighttime landscape. He's haunted by his father's conviction that "we all must sacrifice to preserve Democracy".
Trumbo's bias is firmly against the Army, organized religion and a society seemingly eager to feed its young men into the military death machine. But he doesn't condemn individual characters. A service chaplain, for instance, criticizes the officer who insists that Joe be maintained as a medical guinea pig.
Just when we think that Johnny Got His Gun has run out of ideas, Joe is assigned an imaginative new nurse, played by the expressive Diane Varsi (Peyton Place). She gets the idea to communicate with Joe by writing letters on his chest, which seems to work. She then brings in a military officer, who attempts to talk to Joe using Morse Code. The hospital's military brass is present, along with a chaplain. What happens from that point on is not easy to forget.
Dalton Trumbo was able to attract a lot of talent to help him with his radically original independent film. Cinematographer Jules Brenner makes the most of Harold Michelson's simple but effective sets. The great composer Jerry Fielding brings the picture to life with a score that hits all of the right emotional notes. Mostly a downbeat experience, Johnny Got His Gun can hold its head proudly -- those who see it are almost certainly moved by its message. 1
Shout! Factory's Johnny Got His Gun is a fine enhanced transfer of a film that's been scarce for the last forty years, at least in an intact condition. We're told that the version on this DVD is uncut.
The Trumbo family cooperated to produce the disc's satisfying extras. A lengthy docu covers the writer's life and times. A real fighter when it came to proclaiming his opinions, Trumbo defied his congressional inquisitors and refused to knuckle under even after serving jail time and having his livelihood taken away. It took over ten years for him to once again work as a writer in the open. Defenders of the HUAC hearings sometimes use Trumbo's career recovery to deny the existence of the blacklist, when he was just one of thousands that were victimized by political opportunists. Jules Brenner, Christopher Trumbo, Marsha Hunt and the late Harold Michelson offer personal testimony, while Timothy Bottoms is given an interview of his own. It was the eighteen year-old Bottoms' first film appearance.
One prominent extra is the entire 1940 James Cagney radio show sourced from the book. Dalton Trumbo appears in some footage taken during the shoot. An original trailer, the Metallica music video and a reprint of an American Cinematographer article are included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Johnny Got His Gun rates:
1. A formative experience for me was making deliveries for a pharmacy in San Bernardino in 1970, when I was eighteen. I saw rest homes that were horrible places to live, and drove to parts of town that I never knew were there, real slums. But my strongest memory is visiting a small house every month only a few blocks from the pharmacy. A sweet little grandmother type greeted me at the door, where I waited to get my money. Somebody was in a bed in the back room. I wasn't curious. My deliveries were "all business" -- I didn't want to pry or invade customers' privacy.
One day she showed me a framed picture on the wall, an artwork of a troop train with a message thanking the wounded veterans of the American Expeditionary Force back in WW1. It was personally signed by General Pershing. Her teenaged sweetheart had been gassed in the trenches and sent home on a hospital ship. They married when he returned; she left high school to take care of him. At age 19 he was bedridden, on drugs and oxygen; he only had one part of one lung left and it didn't work very well. I was standing in the same little house where they had met in 1917. He had never left the house and she rarely did; she'd been caring for him right there for fifty-two years. They never had children. They didn't have a television and didn't listen to the radio.
She asked if I wanted to meet him and I politely declined. The truth was that I was totally unprepared; she couldn't have dragged me in there. We sheltered kids, lucky enough to come from unbroken families, were rarely faced with anything resembling harsh reality. I said I might be drafted but I was going off to UCLA in a couple of weeks. She only vaguely knew that the country was at war.
I know exactly when this happened because I got back into the delivery car, turned on the radio -- and heard that Jimi Hendrix had just died. I think I told my girl friend that the couple was a case of "true love" .... but I know that I didn't think too deeply about what their lives must have been like. When you're 18 you only look forward to the good things.
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