Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo, 1971): USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden. Viewed on DVD.

DVD releases are funny things.  Films best forgotten are pushed out left, right and center, while more deserving titles languish beyond the reach of the public.  Thankfully, every now and then, art gets the better of profit and a classic emerges from the past.  Written and directed by Dalton Trumbo, one of the infamous Hollywood 10, Johnny Got His Gun is such a classic.

Set during World War I, the film is the story of Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms).  An unremarkable boy, from an unremarkable family, he volunteers to fight in the name of democracy– a concept he doesn’t comprehend, but whose importance he understands.  Sent out into no-man’s-land on a pointless mission, he is struck by an artillery shell.  Medical science overtakes common sense and, against all odds, the limbless, faceless Joe is kept alive, as the doctors hold on to the mistaken belief that the unidentifiable boy is brain dead.  Without limbs, he cannot move, and without a face he cannot see, hear, smell, taste or speak.  He is utterly trapped within his own flesh.  Slipping between the world of dreams, and the reality of the hunk of helpless meat within which his conscious mind is trapped, Joe rails against his condition, searching for a way to connect with the real world, especially the nurse who cares for him.  Comparisons with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are impossible to ignore, and this film measures up well to Julian Schnabel’s lauded creation.
Joe’s hallucinations tend towards the abstract and the surreal.  While they generally lack the overt visual effects of Easy Rider’s hallucination sequence, as the film progresses and the years pass, their content begins to suggest a drug-induced trip–no surprise given the sedatives that Joe receives.  He begins by reliving the events which occurred before he left for war, apparently quite clearly, but by the end of the film he is arguing with Jesus (Donald Sutherland) and seeing himself as the center of a freak show.  The two worlds also begin to merge and affect each other; a nurse’s attempt to provide Joe with a little pleasure in his life through masturbation turns into a joyous emergence from a body of water, an idea that his dead father provides gives Joe the key to communication.  When trapped back in reality, Joe’s voice can be heard by the audience, often screaming ineffectually at those he senses surround him.  The claustrophobic sense of isolation reminded me of that created by 1978s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but when divorced from its science fiction setting, it is all the more frightening.
One of the most distinctive elements of Johnny Got His Gun is the use of color.  The film switches between black and white and color cinematography to separate Joe’s dreams and hallucinations from his tortured reality.  However, in defiance of convention, the dream world is in color and the real in black and white, highlighting the reality of Joe’s imagination and the artificiality of his physical existence.  Once you get used to this reversal of convention, it is very effective.  Black and white isn’t being used because it makes the film seem ‘arty’ and ‘serious’, it is being used to tell us something.
When Roger Ebert reviewed this film on its original release, he commended it for being a war movie that didn’t ram its message down the audience’s throat.  Although the futile death and destruction that occurs during war is certainly highlighted, the need to defend the world is not ignored (though the responsibility and price of that defense is foisted upon those without the education to understand it entirely).  Like the other, more popular classics of the late 60s and early 70s, from Bonnie and Clyde to The Godfather, this film still holds the power to affect the audience that it held on its release.  In keeping with the best films of the period, there are no trite solutions and no unjustified happy ending.  The victories, when they come, are flags on sandcastles, quickly washed away by an unrelenting tide, just as they should be.  This is certainly not a “feel-good” film, but the same could be said of many of the very best films that have been produced.  You may not come away smiling, but you will come away thinking.
The disc, which will be released on April 28th, is also packed with extras, from information on Trumbo and interviews with the film’s star through to Metallica’s video for One, an early track which heavily featured clips from the film and which was my introduction to it.  It’s nice to see extras done right for a change.  Johnny Got His Gun will make a worthy addition to the collection of any fan of 1970s American films.

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