Johnny Got His Gun

by Terrence Butcher

17 May 2009

Joe Bonham is a stark, bracing reminder of such horror in a way that Frankenstein’s monster could never be.
cover art

Johnny Got His Gun


cover art

Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo

US: 1 Mar 1984

“Now that the war is through with me
I’m waking up, I cannot see
That there is not much left of me
Nothing is real but pain now”
—Metallica, “One”

Who would have imagined that a heavy metal band – albeit a celebrated one – would reintroduce to the world perhaps the most searing indictment of war ever committed to celluloid?  In January 1989, Metallica’s promo clip for “One” debuted on MTV. An angry power ballad which evolves into a raucous speed-metal romp, its video featured extensive footage from a nearly forgotten ‘70s drama titled Johnny Got His Gun, easily the penultimate achievement of the late screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.

Johnny Got His Gun is not merely a touchstone work of the now-mythologized “New Hollywood” era, when a few lunatics took over the Tinsel Town asylum, but a rare instance of a celebrated author adapting his own book to film … and over three decades later! Two unfortunate circumstances may account for that great elapse of time. First, Trumbo was a reluctant member of the “Hollywood Ten”, a group of left-leaning filmmakers whom the studio bosses threw to the wolves during devastating ‘50s anti- Communist witch hunt, which made it virtually impossible for him to helm a picture. Also, with the Cold War at its “rah-rah” apex in the postwar years, few films critical of wartime sacrifice or military secrecy made it on to the production slate.

Johnny Got His Gun is based on Trumbo’s acclaimed 1939 novel, about a World War I veteran, Joe Bonham, bereft of sight, hearing, and speech, maimed to the point of helpless, Helen Keller-like incapacitation, and his struggle for sanity. In a sad serendipity, the book was released – unwittingly – on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, thus lending the tale an unforeseen immediacy.

The film opens to the rat-a-tat-tat of martial drumming, then an extended blackness, during which we hear Joe’s puzzled inner monologue, as a team of physicians – eerily resembling mad scientists – speak bluntly about his woeful condition. This sequence, shot in unfiltered black-and-white, may remind one of that creepy, Orwellian Twilight Zone episode, “Eye Of The Beholder”, where doctors and nurses skulk about the hallways, speaking in neutral tones, in a noirish, curiously empty hospital. Trumbo uses the scene – and numerous similar ones—to create the impression of an unfeeling military-medical bureaucracy more concerned with saving face than saving lives.

In fact, one physician plainly states that there is “no justification for his continued existence”. Why don’t they kill him? Joe himself ponders this, even imploring them to do so, but it’s out of the question. They consider it inhumane to take a life in such a literal, decisive manner, though, tellingly, they refuse to see war on the same terms.

Joe is played by then-rookie actor Timothy Bottoms, fresh out of Santa Barbara High School, and an embodiment of a certain sun-kissed, beach-combing Southern California archetype promoted by the Beach Boys and their surf-rock brethren in the ‘60s. One can almost imagine Bottoms riding the waves at Broad Beach with Dennis Wilson, and Bottoms’ blond-haired brother would later play Lance, the surfer-turned-soldier, in Francis Coppola’s maniacal Apocalypse Now.

Here, Bottoms’ Joe is a wet-behind-the-ears Midwestern boy, still fumbling sexually with his girlfriend, and taught by his stern daddy (Jason Robards) that “for democracy, any man would give his firstborn son.” Robards milks rueful laughs in a wickedly satirical bit in which young Joe, after inquiring about what “democracy” actually means, is told by Pop that it’s “got somethin’ to do with young men killin’ each other. Clearly, Trumbo directs this line at politicians and military brass who stir up patriotic fervor in a rush to war, serving up younger, fitter men as cannon fodder.

Trumbo shifts aesthetic gears frequently in Johnny Got His Gun, using both color and black-and-white photography to signify differing moods and places, reminding us of the studio era, when color was reserved for musicals and adventure epics, while films intended as realist drama were generally shot in two-tone. Joe is so addled with morphine to dull his physical pain that he begins to hallucinate, these daydreams an increasingly absurd series of vignettes which take on an icy, black-humored, Kubrickian demeanor.

In one, Joe finds himself the featured attraction of a ramshackle Old West traveling carnival, his own father the smarmy barker. He also fantasizes that he’s back on the front lines, with Jesus Christ (Donald Sutherland) there to tend the troops and predict future casualties, although reluctant to denounce the carnage itself. Our Savior makes several such appearances, and one can only muse that it would have been impossible to present such blasphemous sarcasm to a mass audience before the ‘70s. Theaters might have been torched.

After Joe is quickly tucked away from public sight in a dank utility closet, his dreams become more frequent, and we notice an absence of non-diegetic music in the film. Trumbo bathes us in quiet, never allowing a score to telegraph emotions or command the audience. Would that more of Hollywood’s current output emulated such spare, un-manipulative storytelling.

Joe also experiences some tender moments – and even erotic stimulation - at the hands of a sympathetic and seemingly amorous nurse, the only real companion in his neurologically detached state. Out of left field, Joe flashes back to an odd situation in which he and Robards share a bed, and his father embraces him in a manner suggestive of romantic intimacy, not mere familial attachment. I can’t say what to make of this scene, but, if not a dream sequence, it certainly hints of an emotional complexity in their relationship not immediately apparent.

Shout! Factory went gonzo with extras in this DVD release, and we’re the lucky recipients of their largesse. For starters, there’s a hourlong documentary on Trumbo, hosted by his filmmaker son Christopher. He divulges several probably obscure facts about his dad, among them: Trumbo wrote most of his material while relaxing in the tub, the infamous blacklist created a black market for top-shelf writers, and that President Ronnie once reportedly labeled said blacklist a “hoax”?, foreshadowing Mel Gibson’s paterfamilias, who made similar statements about the European Holocaust. Trumbo also based the childhood sequences in Johnny Got His Gun on his own small-town upbringing, and his final project – never completed – was a dramatization of the life of Ishi, the last survivor of the Yahi Nation, of Northern California.

A new interview with star Tim Bottoms is also present. Bottoms, still surprisingly youthful, does slightly resemble America’s former Prez, G.W. – whom he spoofed mercilessly in the forgotten Comedy Central sitcom That’s My Bush – with more than a hint of Dallas stalwart Patrick Duffy. It’s a shame that his career amounts to promise unfulfilled, but Lady Luck has exercised a fickle temperament in guiding his choices.

Finally, there’s behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Bottoms and ace cinematographer Jules Brenner, the 1940 radio adaptation of the story, featuring the pugnacious James Cagney, an appreciative essay about the film from American Cinematographer, Metallica’s aforementioned video, which ambassadored Johnny Got His Gun to Generation X, and the original theatrical trailer, a sober montage of black-and-white military snapshots, leaving all to the imagination, as nary a second from the actual movie is shown.

Trumbo chose to retain his original WW I setting for Johnny Got His Gun – instead of contemporizing the story with a Vietnam backdrop—for various reasons, perhaps chief among them the difficulty of securing financing for any project which depicted that conflict. The public would not see any mainstream films regarding the Vietnam War until 1978, years after the debacle concluded. These films – Coming Home among them – came in a wave during the waning of the Carter Administration, and were followed by a second spurt in the late ‘80s.

I don’t know if we’ll see any more pictures about the Iraq disaster, as those released so far have reliably tanked. However, as war remains with us, Johnny Got His Gun remains stubbornly, sadly contemporary. Horribly maimed soldiers – those who survive - will still arrive on the homefront, perhaps not as theatrically mangled as Joe Bonham, but irrevocably harmed nonetheless In fact, it’s been said that the producers of the early Hollywood horror pictures were inspired by unsettling accounts of disfigured veterans returning from the First World War.Johnny Got His Gun’s Joe Bonham is a stark, bracing reminder of such horror in a way that Frankenstein’s monster could never be.

Johnny Got His Gun


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