Johnny Got His Gun is a 1971 anti war film, written and directed by Dalton Trumbo. Based on his novel of the same name, it’s one of the greatest political statements of the 20th century. Trumbo was without a doubt one of the greatest screenwriters of all time.Titles such as Roman Holiday, Spartacus, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, are some of his most recognizable works. He’s also one of the more tragic figures in American film history. Blacklisted during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, it would take years for him to be given full credit for his body of work.
I’m willing to bet you know of this film, and have seen certain segments of it. For my particular age group, it’s best remembered from the music video One, by Metallica. However, there’s a lot more to this film than just that. This is a story about the horrors of warfare, the absence of God, and the deterioration of the human mind.
The story is of a young soldier, named Joe Bonham. The latest casualty of the great war, his limbs and sight have been taken from him, while serving on the front line. Lying alone in his hospital bed, his mind wanders while his body lies still. Rather than rely on a traditional narrative, Trumbo tells the story using 3 different techniques: reality, dream, and flashback.
The reality of war hits the home front. Confined inside a small hospital bed, lies Joe, completely isolated from the world around him. These scenes are filmed in stark black and white. Trumbo lets the viewer gaze into a confined personal Hell. I’ve stated in previous reviews, that keeping a scene in a confined space, does wonders for building atmosphere. Here, it’s done perfectly. Just as Joe is confined to his bed, the viewer in confined to the screen. Hope and optimism, much like color, are conspicuously absent.
Joe’s mind wanders through a drug induced state. While this occurs, we’re introduced to a new theme: the absence of God. This is established by his encounters with Christ, played by Donald Sutherland. The first encounter is a game of blackjack with Joe, Christ and other dead soldiers. They openly discuss the means by witch their mortality will end, and Christ reassures them he will be there with them. The second encounter Joe has, takes place at a carpentry shed. While he discusses the futility of his situation in the hospital, Christ essentially abandons him, and his ordeal. These sequences are filmed in bright colors, to contrast with the scenes in the hospital room.
Another time, another place, one which we would rather be. A common feeling the average person has, quite often. We’ve been shown Joe’s current state, and we’ve been shown where his mind travels to. It’s his flashbacks however, that bring the previous two elements to the forefront of the viewer. Wether it’s a memory of a love he’ll never see again, or the time he spent with his father, the past brings the current situation to life. These are filmed with a earth tone color cinematography, very different from the dream sequences. The flashbacks do a really good job at explaining the events leading up to the present. They also remind both Joe, as well as the viewer, that happiness is all but a memory.
Johnny Got His Gun remains one of the darkest films of all time, and still retains its powerful message. It’s some of the best work from one of America’s greatest writers. In this story, the carnage of the battlefield pales in comparison to the suffering of an individual. It touches on the human experience, and the inhumanity of war.