Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971) has been praised and vilified—to excess in both cases. It suffers from Trumbo’s decision to direct the film himself, which resulted in a certain clunkiness. The film needed a true visionary at the helm. At the same time, it’s almost a small masterpiece in its own daring, unrelenting way.
There is, I fear, a tendency to lionize and romanticize Trumbo because of his status as one of the Hollywood Ten, a victim of the shameful McCarthy witch-hunts. This means that he’s sometimes granted a degree of greatness that isn’t readily apparent in his work. However, there is greatness in Johnny Got His Gun, even if it doesn’t come together to quite form a great movie.
Trumbo occasionally noted that Johnny Got His Gun wasn’t “exactly” an anti-war work, and that’s true, since it’s not exactly pro a lot of things. It could certainly be considered anti-religion, too, and it has issues with aspects of family life, as well. But it very much is an anti-war work. And though it deals with WWI (almost to a fault, since jingoistic mottos like “making the world safe for democracy” are peppered throughout the screenplay), its connection to Vietnam is inescapable considering the year in which the film was made—even though Trumbo’s novel dates back to 1938 and has its roots in the then-prevalent hard-leftist stance to stay out of WWII. (The Hitler-Stalin pact was still intact.) The film, however, is meant to speak to its own time.
The premise is a difficult one. Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) is a soldier who, after a shell explosion, wakes in a hospital bed and finds he has no arms, no legs, no voice, no face, no sight and no hearing. Despite the medical officials’ claim that he has “complete cerebral disconnection,” he’s actually perfectly lucid in his mind and finds himself trapped in this isolated limbo. The bulk of the film is made up of flashbacks, fantasies and dreams. Some of this works—Joe’s encounters with an ultimately ineffectual Jesus Christ (Donald Sutherland) verge on the brilliantly bitter—but some of it fall prey to Trumbo’s lack of cinematic skill. Some of the flashbacks are just plain clunky. Some of the fantasies are so heavy-handed that they seem silly—occasionally like very bad ersatz Fellini.
Problems aside, there’s a cumulative power to the material and an idea that’s impossible to ignore. Joe’s desire to be killed seems much more sane and humane than the army’s insistence on keeping him alive—even after they learn (through his ability to communicate in Morse code) that he’s conscious of his existence. And his alternate desire to be shown as a sideshow freak—a man-made freak to caution against war—certainly would serve more point than their desire to shove him into a closet so that no one ever sees him, but, of course, that isn’t going to happen. The ending is one of the most chilling in film—almost dispelling the film’s obvious weaknesses.