[19 March 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The life and uneasy times of Dalton Trumbo - scribe, novelist, screenwriter, director, and notoriously unrepentant member of the Hollywood blacklist of the ‘40s and ‘50s - are so fascinating, so full of the American Dream and its rancid, reciprocal nightmares, that it’s almost impossible to judge his art without them. For many Trumbo is the ultimate rebel, a man who stood up to McCarthy and his witch hunt heathens and suffered mightily for his art. For others, he was the unfortunate victim of a sanctimonious Senator with a mandate from an equally reactionary public. It cost Trumbo 11 months in prison (for contempt of Congress) and two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday, and The Brave One).
Even his most important effort, 1971’s Johnny Got His Gun, was undermined by the still brewing gap between Vietnam-era patriotism and counterculture protest. By the time of his death in 1976, his work was actually being mocked and marginalized. Michael and Harry Medved even nominated Donald Sutherland’s work as Jesus Christ for one of their ultimate dishonors in the infamous Golden Turkey Awards book. But thanks to Metallica, who raised awareness of the big screen adaptation of Trumbo’s own National Book Award winner with their video “One”, a new generation of fans have grown curious about the maverick’s only stint behind the lens. Thanks to Shout! Factory and their new, near definitive DVD version of Johnny Got His Gun, a veiled motion picture mystery is finally revealed for all the world to see - and it’s a glorious sight to behold.
Gun centers on young Joe Bonham. In anticipation of his being drafted into the First World War, he volunteers. After spending a night with his girlfriend Kareen, he heads off to Europe. One night, a stray artillery shell explodes in his bunker, and Joe is literally blown apart. He loses both arms, both legs, and most of his face. Barely living, a team of Army doctors decide to turn Joe into a kind of uneasy experiment. In a sealed off part of a military hospital, they keep the vegetative soldier in a kind of isolated limbo. What they don’t know is that Joe is still alive INSIDE - thinking, feeling, desperate to communicate - but unable to do anything other than move his head. As his mind sorts through the memories of his past, he’s desperate to explain his plight to the outside world. Sadly, it doesn’t look like anyone cares to - or knows how to - listen.
Though some could argue over its heavy-handed obviousness and lack of subtlety, Johnny Got his Gun remains a very strong, very disquieting cinematic statement. It gets under your skin and slowly burrows into your personal principles. Trumbo has often said that his is not a purely anti-war film, and he’s right. The pointlessness of combat is stressed early and often, but the movie moves beyond the boundaries of such a discussion to include thoughts about such big picture issues as the meaning of life and the quality of same. Considering that Trumbo first wrote this material back in the early 1930s, it’s some far reaching stuff. But thanks to the tenuous time in which the movie was made, there is an aura of subversive rebellion that just can’t be shaken.
As the star and sole significant character onscreen, Timothy Bottoms has an arduous task indeed. Add to this the fact they he must play many of his scenes from behind a surgical mask which covers his entire face, and connecting with an audience would seem almost impossible. Yet thanks to Trumbo’s words, plus his own inner ability to channel sense memory, Bottoms is brilliant here. As a matter of fact, the scenes where he is confined to a bed have more passion and power than the moments of “reality” we witness. It’s as if Trumbo purposely made the color sequences (reflecting the photographic aspects of the past) slow and deliberate in order to add emphasis to Joe’s current plight. The switch between the two cinematic schemes is crucial to Johnny Got His Gun‘s success. Without them, the past wouldn’t be so pastoral, the present so painful or important.
Indeed, what Trumbo appears to be saying with Johnny is that the human will is stronger than almost anything - except the human mind. As Joe lays in his critical state, doctors and nurses divining ways to make him part of their professional career arc, he discovers that life is not worth living if there’s no purpose. Fantasy sequences suggest that our hero could be part of a traveling freak show, his hideous façade reminding mothers not to send their children off to war. At the same time, however, we get the stern men of science who are convinced that Joe is simply inert. When they learn otherwise, their reaction is almost as shocking. While it’s hard to get away from the absurdity of battle, and the reasons for Joe’s predicament, these passages represent Johnny‘s main thematic resonance.
Shout! Factory should be commended for rescuing this film from cinematic obscurity and giving it a new, necessary polish. The visual elements are excellent, clean and crisp with only an occasional lapse in quality or completeness. There are some image continuity issues toward the end, and we see a few bits of splicing damage here and there. But considering the rarity and unusual nature of this film, the 16x9 letterboxed presentation is excellent. Even better, the DVD is loaded with wonderful added content, the most important of which is an hour long documentary about Trumbo’s time in Hollywood, making Johnny. With input from the man’s son, cinematographer Jules Brenner, and actress Marsha Hunt, it’s quiet revealing. There’s also some rare behind the scenes footage featuring commentary, a new interview with Bottoms, a look at the original trailer, a copy of Metallica’s “One” video, and an audio only presentation of James Cagney (!!!) as Joe in the 1940 radio adaptation.
Yet there is still a cloud of unfair ridicule surrounding Johnny Got His Gun, a reputation unearned by legitimate critical means. Some will still point to Sutherland and smirk (though he’s actually very good as the ‘70s ideal of an emotional Messiah) while others will see the blatant drum beat of the film’s ‘War is Hell’ sentiments and shout “so what?”. Truth is, time out of the limelight has not been kind of Trumbo’s labor of love. Without actually seeing it, assumptions have become assertions - and then facts. The reality is something far more complicated. While it’s not a work of real visionary power, Johnny Got His Gun‘s ideas will literally blow you away. This is not a mess or misstep. This is a minor masterpiece.