#908. Johnny Got His Gun (1971, Dalton Trumbo)

screened Friday, January 9 2007 on VHS in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #740 IMDb

Dalton Trumbo is best known as one of the most accomplished members of the Hollywood Ten, the prominent group of screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the House Un-American Activities Committee trials for suspected Communists. He is the winner of two Academy Awards, both under a pseudonym. After four decades as a screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo produced and directed his one and only feature film, Johnny Got His Gun, an adaptation of his most famous novel, winner of the National Book Award and still taught in classrooms today.

The premise of Johnny Got His Gun is unforgettable in its starkness: an American GI is horrifyingly injured during the vicious trench warfare of World War I, losing his limbs, face, eyes, mouth and hearing. The story depicts his mental state as he comes to recognize his condition and his desperate attempts to communicate with military hospital staff, who are ordered to keep him alive solely for the sake of military biomedical research.

From these online excerpts of Trumbo's novel, one can discern the unique style Trumbo uses, a narrative voice that slips from third person to first person as it describes the protagonist's state. This unstable perspective reflects the protagonist's literally disembodied sense of self, languishing in a state of broken humanity. The narrative has a feverish stream of consciousness flow clearly influenced by Joyce, and achieves an emphatic grandeur in giving voice to the hero's desperate attempt to articulate its way back into being.

For his film adaptation, Trumbo preserves this voice for the most part, using extended voiceovers that provide the narrative with its momentum. Timothy Bottoms' young, expressive voice offers a stark counterpoint to the mostly static black-and-white shots of his character's body lying dormant in his bed, his face shrouded in a mask (one of the most chilling visages - or lack thereof - in cinema, up there with the girl in Georges Franju's Eyes Without a Face [TSPDT #308]):


The hero's stream of consciousness routinely veers into flashbacks, which the film enacts so that we can see what the hero looked like before his injuries. We learn that he had a sweetheart that he left behind - though not without one night of fun provided by, of all people, the girl's father ("She ain't a whore though" he says as he escorts the hero into her room - I'd embed this clip but YouTube doesn't allow full frontal nudity). The hero also flashes back to memories of his father (Jason Robards) who exhorts him to live up to his patriotic duty to protect democracy, even as he cannot offer an answer as to what democracy really is ("I believe it has something to do with young men killing each other"). There's some Freudian bit involving the hero losing his father's prized fishing pole shortly before enlisting, leading to a strange homoerotic moment where father consoles son with a naked embrace in their tent.

These flashback sequences at times veer into surreal fantasy, such as this one where a group of doughboys play cards with Jesus (played by Donald Sutherland) knowing that they are all going to die:


As can be seen from these clips, the film has a rough low budget quality. At times the flat, conventional enactments of Trumbo's prose combined with the canned quality of the dubbed soundtrack recalls the low-budget adaptations of short stories produced for classroom screenings I watched as a child. The film is as blunt about its anti-military agenda as one would expect of its premise -- the officers who order the hero to be kept alive are as one-dimensionally villainous as one could expect (one of them walks on crutches to symbolize his own spiritual crippledness). The fantasy sequences, as exemplified by the Jesus clip embedded above, don't feel like they've taken their ideas quite far enough, and at times seem to divert too much from the overall momentum of this nearly two hour film, but mostly they are still compelling in their weirdness.

But the film's most dominant feature is Bottoms' voiceover, and it is the film's biggest liability yet the occasional source of its greatest strengths. At times Bottoms' aw-shucks cornhusk narration can be a little too open-eyed all-American and gets grating after an extended period. Maybe this is Trumbo's way of keeping his protagonist from being too sympathetic, but it's still annoying at times. If anything he relies on the voice too much to literalize the hero's feelings, and it becomes overbearingly excessive where some resourceful cinematography might otherwise be able to establish more emotion through visuals.

But when the voiceover offers a contrapunctal effect, helping to dramatize the gap between the hero's inner sense of realty and what's around him, the film is brutally effective. The first embedded clip illustrates this vividly. The following scene, involving an angelic nurse's act of mercy, pits the film's overdone literalism head on with the dialectic opposition with word and image. Somehow they combine to present an emotionally overwhelming moment which sends the film to its agonizingly climactic final act: [youtube]dBCNQC7a6FM[/youtube]

All in all, it's a crudely executed film, but for that reason has an essential, primal quality to it, not unlike the best B-movies, which I suppose this really is (despite it winning the Grand Prix at Cannes). If only it were shorter and didn't have the nude sex scene, I could see this movie being the staple of every left-wing high school teacher in America.

As something that amounts to more than a postscript, I should definitely mention the strange turn of events around the ownership of the film that happened in the late '80s, involving the metal supergroup Metallica. As I watched Johnny Got His Gun, the image of Bottoms' box-masked face brought back vague memories of similar images playing on the Jumbotron during a Metallica concert I attended back in 1992, when they performed my all-time favorite Metallica song, "One." Sure enough, a visit to the Johnny Got His Gun entry on Wikipedia offered this fascinating nugget of info:

The music video for Metallica's 1988 song "One" included many clips and dialogue from the movie of Johnny Got His Gun. Instead of enduring a long and arduous negotiation for rights to the film, Metallica decided to buy the movie outright, in order to use it in their video.

I'm not sure if Metallica still owns the movie, but it may explain why the film is still unavailable in the US on Region 1 DVD (a Region 2 Disc was issued in the UK a couple years ago). I promptly retrieved the video on YouTube and watched it. If you intend to watch the original film, beware of spoilers in this video. All the same, I think the song and video make for a very interesting and entertaining interpretation of the film. In fact I think I prefer it to the movie! (And I love how they start headbanging right when Bottoms figures out how to communicate by banging his head in Morse Code)