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JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Timothy Bottoms, Donald Sutherland, Jason Robards, Kathy Fields, Marsha Hunt, Diane Varsi
Director: Dalton Trumbo
Audio: English
Subtitles: English closed-captions
Video: Black & white and color, 16:9 widescreen
Studio: Shout Factory
Features: Documentary, Timothy Bottoms interview, behind-the-scenes footage, music video, radio adaptation, article, trailer, poster
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: April 28, 2009

S.O.S., help me, S.O.S., help me, S.O.S., help me...

Film *** ½

As a member of Hollywood elite, Dalton Trumbo suffered through an exceptionally turbulent career path, even by Tinseltown’s jaded standards.  The novelist-turned-screenwriter enjoyed early success but then was abruptly blacklisted and seemingly disappeared from Hollywood for more than a decade.  Trumbo eventually re-emerged in the twilight of his career but not before suffering through some severe indignations, especially for someone once regarded as one of Hollywood’s best screenwriters.

Early in his career, during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Trumbo was a much sought-after writer.  He penned the screenplays for such celebrated films as Ginger Rogers’ Kitty Foyle and the WWII thriller Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, among many others.  For a time, he was even the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood.  However, following the war, Trumbo became a victim of the rabid and growing anti-Communism fear engulfing the nation.  Never mind that Trumbo was not a communist; he still ran afoul of a congressional committee investigating Communism in the film industry, and for refusing to testify before the committee, Trumbo was subsequently blacklisted.  Hollywood shunned Dalton Trumbo, who was even imprisoned for several months, to add further insult to injury.

This major mid-life crisis might have been the death knell for lesser men, but Trumbo was simply too talented to be avoided entirely by Hollywood.  In truth, Trumbo continued to work in Hollywood (as did many other blacklisted members of the film industry) but was frequently forced to settle for substandard pay and the removal of any screen credit for his efforts.  Working under various pseudonyms and never getting official screen credit, Trumbo nevertheless managed during this difficult period to create some highly memorable screenplays such as those for Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday and the Oscar-winning The Brave One.

Trumbo’s fortunes eventually changed for the better by 1960, thanks in part to Hollywood A-star Kirk Douglas.  Trumbo had written the screenplay for Spartacus (1960), and the film’s star Kirk Douglas was determined to give Trumbo full screen credits for his work.  That same year, Trumbo also received screen credit for his work on director Otto Preminger’s Exodus.  For Trumbo, the dark spectre of the Hollywood blacklist was essentially lifted, and the luster had finally been restored to Trumbo’s career.  His subsequent final work in Hollywood would reflect a slightly darker and more political edge, a consequence of his difficult mid-career crisis, but these final years would also bring one of Trumbo’s most satisfying personal triumphs - his directorial debut for a film based on one of Trumbo’s own early novels.

Before becoming a full-time Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo had written several novels.  Among his works was the antiwar tale Johnny Got His Gun.  Originally published just weeks before the start of World War II, the novel dealt with a near-death soldier’s struggles to communicate with a surrounding world that had given up on him.  Trumbo had been inspired to write the novel after a meeting with a South Pacific war victim, although significant portions of the novel were autobiographical and drew from Trumbo’s own experience as a child and young man.

The National Book Award-winning Johnny Got His Gun would provide the template for Trumbo’s sole directorial effort.  Originally, Trumbo had hoped to persuade the famed surrealist director Luis Buñuel to make the film, but despite mutual enthusiasm for the project from both men, continual scheduling conflicts prevented any such collaboration.  Eventually, Trumbo decided to adapt his famous novel himself, and on a budget of about $1 million dollars, Johnny Got His Gun was filmed mostly around Los Angeles over a 42-day period.  Lending prestige and name recognition to the film were Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland, but the film’s protagonist, the crippled soldier, was to be portrayed by a young Timothy Bottoms, then an 18-year old high school graduate who had never acted professionally before. 

Despite its dark and pessimistic tone, Johnny Got His Gun proved to be a labor of love for Trumbo.  Over the years, it has even garnered cult status for its stark and disturbing anti-war overtones.  The film opens in the final days of World War I when an American soldier, Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), is critically wounded.  As a result of his severe injuries, Joe has been rendered a virtual vegetable - a quadruple amputee with no arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth, or nose.  Joe somehow survives his grave wounds, and his doctors decide to meticulously keep this now-unknown soldier alive for purely research purposes.

Joe’s would-be healers consider him utterly brain-dead, a slab of meat existing solely in a mindless, vegetative state.  Joe, however, regains consciousness and eventual self-awareness with intact mental faculties; yet despite this, he discovers that he is completely incapable of communicating with the medical staff in any meaningful way beyond jerks of his head, the sporadic motions of which are regarded by the indifferent medical staff as merely random spinal reflex actions.  In essence, to quote, it is “impossible for decerebrated individuals to experience pain, pleasure, memories, dreams, or thoughts of any kind.”

The situation is essentially a living nightmare for Joe.  Imagine a man, self-aware and alert, yet lacking in sight or speech, utterly “locked-in” from the outside world.  He cannot communicate pain or anguish; he cannot control the whims of his caretakers or comment on how they treat him.  Joe is truly a man who has no mouth and yet must scream.

Days pass, perhaps weeks or months.  Who can truly say how much time has transpired?  Beyond the sensation of heat from a nearby window, there is no way for Joe to mark the passage of time.

In his boredom (or perhaps eminent descent into insanity), Joe begins to contemplate the events in his life - brief romantic interludes, a strained relationship with his father (Jason Robards), horrific scenes on the battlefield.  His memories inevitably merge with daydreams and hallucinations, where the line between reality and fantasy begin to blur.  Bizarre, hallucinatory carnival sequences, seemingly displaced from a Frederico Fellini film, calmly drift in and out of Joe’s conscious thoughts along with dreams of card games about death and philosophical debates with even Jesus himself.

Small wonder that Joe begins to lose the ability to distinguish between whether he is awake or dreaming.  In his situation, who would not prefer the dream-state to the dreadful bleakness of the awakened reality?  How can anyone maintain a sense of purpose or rational thought when the reality is so far worse than the nightmare?  Far better to be comatose and unaware than to be awake and utterly helpless, unable to communicate even the simplest message or to express his emotions and thoughts with others.  Perhaps in time, death will bring a final dignity of its own, but Joe must live on in indeterminate despair of ever escaping from the prison of his own trapped mind and invalid body.

Johnny Got His Gun would prove to be Trumbo’s only major directorial effort but deservedly also the high point of his career renaissance.  Its highly claustrophobic ambiance suits the film’s overall dark tone, and its somewhat unpolished style and uneven pacing make the film all the more fascinating.  The film won the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival as well as multiple prestigious awards at other film festivals, too.

After completing Johnny Got His Gun, Trumbo worked on the screenplay for Papillon and was developing plans for his next directorial effort.  Regrettably, he was soon thereafter diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away in 1976 before realizing his plans for a second film.  But at least Trumbo lived long enough to come full circle in Hollywood and to see the restoration of his good name and reputation.

Video **

Johnny Got His Gun presents alternating “present-day” sequences in black & white with “past” sequences in color.  The video appearance of the color scenes is occasionally problematic, with faded colors, occasional bleed, and motion blur.  The color sequences have a video-tape quality to them rather than celluloid film.  Night sequences are quite grainy with loss of detail.  Strangely enough, the “present-day” sequences (originally photographed in color but printed in black & white for the film) fare better and appear fairly sharp, overall.

Overall though, the film still suffers from numerous dust specks, occasional frame damage, and large scratches.  The frame jitters at times, and details are generally soft with pale skin tones.  Still, one cannot expect too much from an old, independently-made film.

Audio **

Johnny Got His Gun is a dialogue-driven film.  The overall sound quality has a slight echo-like tonality to it; dialogue is occasionally drowned out by ambient background noise.  The audio balance feels uneven during noisy sequences.

Features ***

What is democracy?

Well...it’s got something to do with young men killing each other.

Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood is an hour-long documentary that explores Trumbo’s Hollywood years and his struggles to make his only film.  His son, Christopher Trumbo, narrates and discusses the film’s concept, the source novel, and his father’s life and Hollywood legacy.  Dalton Trumbo’s former colleagues and a few stars, such as cinematographer Jules Brenner and blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt, comment on the screenwriter-director’s career.

There also is a new interview with Timothy Bottoms (10 min.).  The actor recalls anecdotes from the film’s production and working with Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, and Dalton Trumbo.  Bottoms also fondly reminisces about falling in love with Diane Varsi, who plays a sympathetic nurse in the film.  Numerous clips from the film and rare production footage of Trumbo on the set supplement this interview.

Behind-the-scenes footage (8 min.) is included.  The archival production footage is silent but offers commentary from Timothy Bottoms and cinematographer Jules Brenner as both men discuss five fantasy sequences shown, mostly from rehearsal footage.

A very nice bonus treat here is the March 9, 1940 radio adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun starring James Cagney (30 min.).  This audio-only bonus is a reminder of the glory days of vintage radio plays, when the power of the human imagination created more lasting images than anything early television could have rendered visually.  This particular broadcast was a program from NBC’s Arch Oboler’s Plays, an anthology series that ran from 1939-1940.

A 1971 article from American Cinematographer offers production history and notes on the film as well as a few production stills and a listing of some of the film’s most prestigious awards.

In the late 1980’s, Metallica’s 8-minute music video for the song “One” introduce a new generation to this cult film.  Happily, this music video, which heavily sample clips from Johnny Got His Gun, has been included on the disc for our listening pleasure.

The original theatrical trailer offers clips of archival footage rather than actual scenes from the film; nevertheless, it is a highly-effective trailer that present an accurate sense of the film’s overall mood and dark tone.

Lastly, a small publicity poster is included as a package insert.

Summary:

Johnny Got His Gun is about as dark and somber as an anti-war film can get.  Its intriguing concept - the futile struggles of a not-quite brain-dead soldier to communicate despite his severe handicaps - makes this surreal film an ideal candidate for a midnight movie viewing.

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