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Johnny Got His Gun

Shout Factory // PG // April 28, 2009
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 17, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
Dalton Trumbo is probably best remembered, rightly or wrongly, for being blacklisted, along with two handfuls of other prominent Hollywood talent during the dark days of the HUAC. Trumbo never really let even that ordeal (which included some significant jail time) totally stop him (as his pseudonymous 1956 Academy Award proved). And yet, when with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight we look back over his storied career, it's obvious that Trumbo really was a great American original with an amazing variety of credits to his name. While he may never be mentioned in the same breath as Steinbeck or Hemingway (though I for one think he deserves it), the fact is he is at least at the level of Sinclair Lewis in his ability to portray social and political injustices within deeply intimate stories. His groundbreaking 1938 novel Johnny Got His Gun is probably going to remain his greatest single achievement, despite scores of brilliant screenplays (Spartacus, Lonely are the Brave). A long gestating film adaptation finally came to fruition in 1970, with Trumbo himself taking the directorial reins for the only time in his long career. The result is a devastating and haunting film with several images that will burn themselves into your memory and be hard to shake, whether or not you buy into its patently anti-war message.



Johnny Got His Gun is an alarmingly simple story, probably more horrifying due to that very simplicity. Timothy Bottoms (in his screen debut) plays WWI soldier Joe Bonham, who is literally blown to smithereens as the film opens. What is left of Joe is literally little more than his torso and brain--he has no arms, no legs, no ears, no eyes, no mouth. The doctors attending to Joe assume he's in a vegetative state, with little or no brain activity. They're wrong. Joe is completely aware (if highly confused, at least at first, as to what's going on), but obviously unable to communicate. It's like your worst nightmare come to life, and indeed Joe has a hard time distinguishing between his waking and dreaming states, especially since he's being continually pumped full of morphine.



Trumbo's book was a first-person narration told from Joe's inner point of view. Obviously this source material doesn't scream "film." How do you adapt a film that is told by a mute protagonist whose stream of consciousness ramblings make up the novel? While the film was well adapted as a short radio drama starring Jimmy Cagney (included as an extra), somehow the audio format seems a more natural medium for a story which is basically a soliloquoy, albeit one mixing fantasy and reality as Joe drifts between morphine-induced hallucinations, his own memories, and his growing awareness of his "real" state. Trumbo hedges his bets by opening the film with a "point of view" shot taken from Joe's bed perspective, as three doctors loom menacingly over his shattered body. The rest of the film wavers between a more typical third-person omniscience while anchoring the film in Joe's consciousness through an omnipresent voiceover. What Trumbo brilliantly illuminates are the three worlds of Joe's awareness. His horrifying "real" world is rendered in a razor sharp black and white, while his memories and hallucinations are in color, with both assuming a gauzy, soft focus ambience at times.



The film, while obviously a low-budget affair, is full of both remarkable performances and equally remarkable images. Bottoms is wonderfully innocent as Joe in the memory and fantasy sequences. If some of his voiceover doesn't rise to the level of emotional fury one might want, the absolutely riveting final sequence, like something out of the scariest Twilight Zone episode ever, will leave most viewers emotionally devastated. Playing Bottoms' parents are the redoubtable Jason Robards and the lovely Marsha Hunt. Hunt's role is fairly minimal (an extra divulges that most of her scenes were cut due to time constraints), but Robards does his usual splendid work evincing one of those great middle American men of the earth he was always able to portray so forcefully. Hunt and Robards are both unforgettable in one of the final fantasy sequences when Joe, finally aware of his real state, imagines he's on display in a sort of surreal, Felliniesque circus. Also on hand is a beautifully effective Donald Sutherland as Christ in a couple of hallucinatory segments. Looking like a sort of younger Max von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told, Sutherland does remarkably understated work that contains incredible emotional gravitas. There's one especially stunning image of Sutherland culled from what was originally a Trumbo-Luis Bunuel collaboration on bringing the film version to the screen. Jesus shepherds Joe, along with several actually deceased vets (as opposed to Joe's living death), onto a train to transport them to the afterworld, and a graceful tracking shot has Sutherland, white robes and scarves flowing behind him, leaning out of the conductor's cabin on a moonless night.



(There are two interesting cameos to keep your eyes peeled for. That's Trumbo himself waxing portentous about various reactions to war during the tennis sequence. And that's none other than a very young "Hutch" himself, David Soul, as Swede, one of the young men Jesus is recruiting for that final train ride).



Trumbo does amazingly good work in his only foray into directing. Scenes are typically framed well, and due to DP Jules Brenner's excellent camerawork, there are some beautifully lyrical scenes, especially Joe's memories of his boyhood, interspersed with the cold, brutal reality of his post-war existence. Jerry Fielding contributes a somewhat atypical score that, aside from a few brief string cues, consists almost entirely of martial drums. But it's Trumbo the trenchant social commentator, in his guise as screenwriter, who makes the most important overall contribution to the film's success. A simple little scene like Joe's memory of asking his father what democracy means, ripples out from the film, not only within the context of what ultimately happens to Joe, but what happened to Trumbo himself (in fact, most of Joe's boyhood life is based on Trumbo's own story).



While the film was seen as an anti-war screed at the height of the Vietnam conflict (can you imagine the radical right-wing reaction to seeing Sutherland as Christ in those days?), the intervening years have actually added at least a couple of new layers on how to perceive the central conceit of the film. The Terry Schaivo controversy is just one example of how well intentioned people on both sides of a particular debate can come to radically different conclusions. The right-to-lifers can point to Johnny and say, "See? He's alive, he's conscious, how can you take a life?" Others can simply refer to Johnny's own desperate pleas to end his life, as his existence, if you can even call it that, is pure hell. With technology advancing by leaps and bounds since the time frame of this film, it brings the moral questions of keeping someone alive under such appalling circumstances into even starker relief.



Johnny Got His Gun is not a particularly easy film to watch, and its hypnotic power coupled with its extremely disturbing premise is sure to unsettle even the most jaded viewer. It's a major achievement and one that Trumbo should rightfully be always remembered for.








The DVD


Video:
There are more than a few problems with the source elements utilized in this enhanced 1.78:1 transfer. My sense is that most of these were probably part of the original film, including sloppy edit splices and the occasional wobbliness of image. There is one brief moment toward the end of the film that I am curious about, however. Suddenly, just for one brief scene (shortly after the doctors figure out Joe is trying to communicate with them via Morse Code), it looks like about a minute or so is blown up from a 16mm print, with completely different contrast and clarity. I'm wondering if that brief moment was cut from the film for some reason somewhere along the way (though it's such an important plot point, I can't imagine why it would have been). Overall, however, there's decent enough contrast and clarity in the black and white segments, and good saturation, if intentional gauziness and softness, in the color segments.




Sound:
The DD 2.0 soundtrack sports excellent fidelity, if nothing spectacular. This isn't a showy sound world to begin with, but what's here is clear and crisp, with dialogue easy to hear and the omnipresent paradiddles of Fielding's underscore cutting through with snap and crackle. The film is close captioned.





Extras:
Several excellent extras augment this DVD, chief among them a nice 2006 retrospective on Trumbo featuring Trumbo's son Christopher (who strangely refers to his father as "Trumbo" throughout the piece), Marsha Hunt, and Jules Brenner, among others. Also offered are a more recent interview with Bottoms, some behind the scenes footage of Trumbo directing with Bottoms and Brenner providing commentary, the 1940 radio adaptation with Cagney, an American Cinematographer article on the film from 1971, and the original trailer. Also included is Metallica's music video for "One," a video which used extensive clips from the film and introduced it to a new generation of viewers.




Final Thoughts:
Johnny Got His Gun is one of the most emotionally devastating films you're likely to see. You won't soon forget it, and that's either going to spur you on to some useful introspection or drive you a little mad. That's the sign of masterful writing, and Trumbo's singular achievement. Highly recommended.


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"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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