42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

“How can you tell what is a dream and what’s real when you can’t even tell when you’re awake and when you’re asleep?”–line from Joe’s internal monologue in Johnny Got His Gun

DIRECTED BY: Dalton Trumbo

FEATURING: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland

PLOT:  Joe is an ordinary young man with a sweetheart back home who goes to Europe to fight World War I and is blown apart by an enemy shell. The accident leaves him limbless, deaf, and blind; the doctors assume he is brain dead, but keep him alive in hopes of learning how to cure similar brain injuries in the future. Left alone in a hospital bed with only his own thoughts for company for years on end, Joe drifts in and out of memories and dreams, while during his lucid moments he struggles to find a way to communicate with the outside world.

Sill from Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Dalton Trumbo wrote the novel “Johnny Got His Gun” in 1938; it won that year’s National Book Award for “Most Original Novel.”
  • Trumbo became a sought after screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s. He joined the American Communist Party, and in 1947 he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee (the “McCarthy hearings”). Along with 9 others (the “Hollywood 10”), Trumbo was held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify on the grounds that he believed the First Amendment protected his right to political association. Trumbo served several months in prison and was later blacklisted by Hollywood. While the blacklist was in effect he wrote the script for The Brave One; the screenplay won an Academy Award, but no one showed up to the Oscars to claim it. The person credited for the screenplay was actually a producer’s nephew.
  • Luis Buñuel, whom Trumbo had met while in a self-imposed exile in Mexico, was originally set to direct the adaptation of the novel. The two men went so far as to collaborate on a screenplay. When the deal fell through, Trumbo decided to direct the film himself. The image of Christ driving the locomotive was one typically Buñuelian touch that made it into the final product.
  • Johnny Got His Gun tied for the Jury Prize (second place) at Cannes.
  • The movie inspired the popular Metallica song “One,” and footage from the film features heavily in music video (included on the DVD).
  • There is also a 2008 version of Johnny Got His Gun available on DVD, which is actually a film version of the stage play.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Jesus Christ howling out the window of a locomotive engine as he drives doomed doughboys to the front.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The bizarre flashbacks and fantasies Joe endures for years on end as he lies in a nightmarish paralysis. His dreamlike reveries—including conversations with Jesus and imagining himself as a freakshow exhibit in a carnival traveling though a barren desert—are never gratuitously weird, but always relate tightly to his psychology and to the antiwar theme.


DVD trailer for Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

COMMENTS:  It’s difficult to imagine a more nightmarish scenario—to be paralyzed in a hospital bed, unable to speak or communicate, presumed “decerebrated” and brain dead, limbless, blind, deaf, only able to move your head a few inches (which the doctors interpret as an involuntary reflex), left alone with your thoughts and memories for years on end, with no way to pass—or even mark—the time. There’s enormous pathos and metaphorical power in the thought of this poor piece of thinking meat, trapped inside himself. “He’s upset—understandably so,” muses an army general with wicked understatement. At one point, Joe finds a pathetic scrap of comfort by reminding himself, “At least my teeth don’t ache.” Adapted and directed by Dalton Trumbo from his own novel, a minor classic, the emotionally charged raw material had the potential to be fashioned into one of the great movies. That makes it all the more of a shame when the film version of Johnny Got His Gun ends up as a “coulda, shoulda been great” movie.

The blame for the movie’s failure to convey the novel’s full power falls squarely at the feet of Dalton Trumbo, a rank amateur at the age of 66, directing his first feature after a successful (if troubled) career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Uneven is the key word here: powerful scenes alternate with yawningly mundane sequences. The screenplay makes high drama out of the minimalist, black and white scenes in the hospital—where a snap of the head and a nurse’s touch carry heartbreaking significance—then lulls the audience to sleep with the color flashback scenes, where Trumbo doesn’t know what to do with the wider palette. Veteran actors Donald Sutherland and Jason Robards, professionals who know how to do their jobs without coaching, give stellar performances, but Trumbo is clueless on how to coax subtle interpretations out of the younger actors, lead Timothy Bottoms not excepted. It’s frustrating to watch a movie with such great ideas come achingly close to greatness, then fail to scale the heights.

The bad scenes and bad acting go together in Johnny Got His Gun, just as the good scenes correlate with the good actors. The first flashback sets up a young-lovers’-last-night-together scenario with an unexpected, but believable, twist. Unfortunately, Kathy Fields and Timothy Bottoms blank-faced, stilted performances fail to convey the erotic wistfulness of the bittersweet rendezvous. Fields is distractingly bad, but poor Bottoms—who’s since developed into a decent actor—is not yet ready to carry a film with this level of emotion. Pressed into action at the tender age of eighteen, he does his best to carry the film, but he doesn’t yet have the tools to deliver a nuanced performance; he inevitably over-emotes, diluting the impact of Joe’s internal howling and sobbing. He’s frequently asked to deliver embarrassingly earnest dialogue that would stymie a vet, and his gormless readings fall flat. (Compare James Cagney’s professional assay of this character in the radio dramatization of the novel, included as a bonus feature on the DVD, to see how much a seasoned thespian could have added to the role of Joe). Thankfully, Bottoms’ performance is largely a voiceover monologue, since in the flashback and fantasy scenes his face is as incapable of conveying emotion as Joe’s eyeless shell of a head.

Robards, appropriately laconic as Joe’s dead father, has several good moments; his sequences are also better written. His highlight comes in Joe’s fractured memory of a childhood discussion with his distant dad. The conversation starts out with an unbelievably frank confession by the father that he loves his fishing pole more than his own son. As the dialogue continues, Robards becomes the mouthpiece for author’s cynicism; when his son asks him what democracy is, he confesses “I was never very clear on it myself, but like every other form of government, it has something to do with young men killing each other.” The misremembered scene improbably concludes with the father begging his son to embrace him to hold off the chill of death. It’s a scene which, in its obvious historical inaccuracy, is much more affecting than Joe’s straightforward memories; more psychological distortions like these would have made the other flashbacks more interesting.

If Robards is good, Sutherland steals the show as the Jesus of Joe’s mind. His appearances are all too brief, but he makes for a complex and fascinating messiah. Sutherland conveys a Christ who’s deeply compassionate, to the point of being eternally melancholy over the suffering of others that he feels intensely but is powerless to stop. He tries to comfort doomed souls by becoming one of the guys, playing blackjack with the boys before they ship out to the front. In the film’s best-scripted sequence, Jesus, speaking from his carpenter’s shop in between timber deliveries, tries his best to give Joe advice on reconnecting with reality, only to be met by a series of unanswerable objections from the disembodied soldier. Finally, the visibly troubled Savior is forced to admit that he can’t offer a person in Joe’s position any comfort, and he sadly turns his back on the supplicant. The scene is one of the bleakest visions of futility ever written, and it should clue the viewer in that this story will not end happily.

And bleak indeed the ending is: Joe ends up not only with his body shattered, but his faith in God annihilated and with no hope of finding meaning in his remaining life, waiting only to slip away to the peace of the grave. Though trotted out in an era of pacifist sentiment at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and prominently displaying the counterculture’s two fingered peace sign in its advertising, it’s clear that this incarnation of Trumbo’s Johnny, produced three decades after the original novel, contains no youthful idealism, only the vinegar wisdom of an old man. In the 1940 radio play, Trumbo was willing to end the story with Joe railing against the Masters of War, still irrationally hopeful that, if people could only see the example of his faceless torso, war itself would end. The movie version ends at a later stage of fatalistic acceptance, with the protagonist sunk (having no arms or legs, he can’t even wallow) into despair. Nearing his own death, Trumbo philosophizes and expands his story from a parable about the horrors of war into a fable about the terror and absurdity of existence itself. In his dreams, Joe’s Christian Scientist mother wonders why her son is obsessed with determining what’s “real,” telling him that even waking life is a dream. His father reminds him that Joe is not unique; every man dies alone. Religion is graphically shown as impotent to console him. The more one thinks about it, Joe, that helpless bit of thinking meat, seems increasingly less a metaphor for the horrors of war, and increasingly more a metaphor for the horror of living and dying in a Godless universe. That’s a hefty and bitter last meal to swallow, and it’s no wonder that legions of fans preferred to see Johnny Got His Gun as a simplistic protest against the futility of the Vietnam War.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ is a stultifyingly bad movie… Although [the flashbacks] are all wholly conventional in content and manner, they are all, in the ways they are photographed and staged, wholly grotesque—like the work of a Norman Rockwell who couldn’t draw. The various nightmare fantasies, though as conventional (mostly neo-Fellini) are somewhat less grotesque, as if the director’s imagination in aiming for the outlandish had fallen instead among the more comfortable old properties on a studio backlot.”–Roger Greenspun, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…it’s a damning indictment of war, obviously, and a strange one at that. But it’s also a metaphysical examination of what it is to be human – the absence of limbs and features in no way extinguishes Johnny’s imperishable humanity…”–Channel 4

“…affecting if sometimes rather clunky. The script often delves into the surreal, which at times comes across as meaninglessly baffling… But the primal power of the story — a young man trying to find some sense in what’s happened to him — prevails.”–Rob Gonsalves, Efilmcritic.com (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Shout! Factory Press Release – Johnny Got His Gun: Shout! Factory’s press release about the DVD

Johnny Got His Gun – Google Books: Read excerpts from the novel

DVD INFO:  Thankfully, Johnny Got His Gun was rescued from a decades-long video limbo in 2009 by Shout! Factory (a company that usually specializes in releasing cult TV series). Among the extras included on the excellent release (buy) are the hour-long documentary “Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood,” an interview with now middle-aged star Timothy Bottoms, behind-the-scenes footage narrated by Bottoms and cinematographer Jules Brenner, a reprint of an American Cinematographer article on the film, and the original theatrical trailer. The disc also comes with a fold-out reproduction of the original poster. The most popular extra will likely be the complete Metallica video for “One,” but the real treasure is a 1938 thirty minute NBC radio play version of Johnny Got His Gun, a monologue read by Jimmy Cagney. Cagney’s performance is excellent, and this version puts an intriguingly different spin on the same material.

About 10 seconds of frontal nudity are missing from this cut; Shout! Factory explained that this omission was because the best master they could acquire was an edited European release print.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Chris.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “42. JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)”

  1. This is the most horrifying non-supernatural movie I’ve ever seen. Particularly memorable is the scene in which Johnny’s nurse realizes he’s not a vegetable when she fondles him, and notes his sexual response -then whacks him off! Oh God! What a scene! It surely inspired the nearly identical scene in the Aussie horror movie, PATRICK (1978 and 2013 remake).

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