Film Review #197: Johnny Got His Gun
Director Dalton Trumbo
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Josan Robards, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi
In 1971, at the age of 65 and the height of the Vietnam War, screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo decided he would take up directing. He had talked with his friend the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel about the project and for a while was going to have him direct Johnny Got His Gun – apparently the shot where Donald Sutherland (as Jesus) leans out the cabin window of a troop train locomotive carrying new recruits off to war, crying into the wind with his long silk neck scarf blowing back, was Buñuel’s idea – but Trumbo wound up doing the job himself.
There are plenty of Trumbo films out there to sample – critical and box office successes alike – including a couple Oscar-winners (ironically both of those scripts credited to “fronts” during the 13 years Trumbo spent black-listed and couldn’t work openly in Hollywood films). But Johnny Got His Gun was part of Trumbo for a long time. Based on a news clip he’d seen about a British soldier with devastating injuries from the trenches of World War I, Trumbo’s 1939 novel kept the time frame but shifted young recruit Joe Bonham’s story to the US military. And after he’d published the novel, Trumbo saw combat intimately in the South Pacific as a war correspondent. Trumbo’s son Christopher – also a screenwriter and author of the simply new theatre’s current local stage production about his father’s black-listing (which contains an account of some of that war-time reporting) – says that making the film was “the best response he could manage to the carnage of the war in Vietnam.”
Long unavailable in the US on DVD despite the exposure given it by the metal band Metallica in their 1989 music video, One, the film has been popular in Europe since a 2004 DVD release there. Now Johnny Got His Gun has been digitally restored, released here just last month on a new DVD with an array of enticing extras. Whether due to the impending DVD release of a stage version of the novel or that of Christopher Trumbo’s work about his father, we should be glad we can now see this film.
Johnny Got His Gun presents the story of 18-year-old Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), who brushes off the urgings of his girl-friend Kareen (Kathy Fields) to “just run away” rather than ship out. Once in the French trenches, he quickly loses his own company and throws in with some British troops. One fearsomely rainy night, he’s sent out to bury a German soldier who had died caught in the barbed wire above their trench and whose rotting body had begun to stink. A direct shell hit on the way back from this errand injures Bonham horribly and irreparably. A military doctor, Col. Tillery (Eduard Franz) declares Bonham “completely de-cerebrated” by his injuries but worth keeping alive, secretly, for research purposes. But Bonham’s in there, walled up in the remnants of his body. Tillery later reappears – white-haired now and a general – the only mark of how much time has passed before Bonham’s breakthrough Morse Code communication with the “fourth nurse” (Diane Varsi), who first inscribes a message on his chest with her finger as he frantically nods his head.
Except for the very graphic early passage necessary to tell the story and provide Bonham’s last direct apprehension of the world, there’s little dwelling on the extremity and horror of trench warfare, and little recollection of it from Bonham himself. There is a surrealistic poker game with Jesus on the way to the front for recruits who know the time and circumstances of their coming deaths. The best line here is Jesus’ own self-delighted aside after he manifests a stiff drink for one nervous boy – “I used to do that at weddings!” – which lays the groundwork for his later confession that he’s entirely a trick anyway.
Yet Johnny Got His Gun is deeply compassionate and, horrific as the trenches might be, suggests that yearning for what they take away is worse. Bonham doesn’t have many nightmares about the war itself. Instead, we hear his voice-over in the hospital scenes as he discovers his predicament – what remains of him is mostly shrouded – and we accompany his mind, unlatched from its anchor, during vividly detailed flashes of his past and Fellini-like imaginings of what’s ahead. As Bonham’s father, Jason Robards appears in both realms with a range to match. He’s gruffly tender when he enfolds Joe in a hug on their last camping trip together after Joe loses his prized fishing pole, braying as the carnival barker who hawks tickets for “Joe Bonham, Self-supporting Basket Case” from a dilapidated wagon that crosses what I presume to be Death Valley. Bonham’s last and only night with Kareen is equally affecting.
Trumbo was a young man when he wrote Johnny Got His Gun, just 33. It’s nice to have this film back at a time we still need it, along with the knowledge that he didn’t come to think better of his youthful excess.
Okay, how to see this? Onondaga County Library has two copies of the new DVD, one in the Fayetteville branch, the other in Solvay. No Blockbusters in the CNY region presently carry Johnny Got His Gun (nor plan to). Just the movie is available in Instant Play format from Netflix, but not the new DVD’s extras. These include a new interview with actor Timothy Bottoms, an hour-long profile of the filmmaker (Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood), a 1940 radio adaptation with Jimmy Cagney as Joe Bonham, Metallica’s 1989 music video One, the original trailer and some making-of footage with commentary by the film’s DP, Jules Brenner.
A shorter version of this review appears in the May 28, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly & is posted on the paper's website, cnylink.com. Meanwhile, see the excellent stage production of Christopher Trumbo’s play, Trumbo, presented for the second performance by simply new theatre, inc., this Saturday, May 30 at 8:00 PM at the Civic Center’s Bevard Room downtown. Ticket information at simplynewtheatre.com. Read Nancy’s review from this week’s Syracuse City Eagle on http://www.cnylink.com/ – go to Entertainment.