Full disclosure: My first book was about Dalton Trumbo, the writer-director of Johnny Got His Gun, and in the course of writing the book I became acquainted with Trumbo’s son, who also worked on the picture. Therefore, I’m not completely objective, so some of the virtues I see in Johnny Got His Gun may not be quite as visible to casual viewers. Adapted from Trumbo’s own novel, a legendary antiwar story originally published in 1939, Johnny Got His Gun is an impassioned personal statement about an important theme. That said, the movie is challenging because of problems that stem not only from budgetary limitations but also from Trumbo’s inexperience behind the camera—even though he’d been working in Hollywood since the mid-1930s, Trumbo did not attempt directing until this project, which he made when he was 65. And while it would be heartening to report that Johnny Got His Gun represents one of the great cinematic debuts of all time, it’s more accurate to say that the picture is interesting because of its intentions. It must also be said, of course, that the narrative is not inherently cinematic.
Set during World War I, the tale concerns an unfortunate Colorado youth named Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), who suffers horrific battlefield injuries. In the “present day” scenes, Joe is an armless, legless cripple; he also lost his ears, eyes, and mouth. What remains of Joe’s body lies in a French hospital bed, and doctors spend endless amounts of time trying to determine why Joe remains alive. Yet while the doctors believe Joe to be unaware of his circumstances, his mind is still active and his sense of touch allows him to develop a sort of communication—he can respond to taps on his body, and can in turn lift his head back and forth to send Morse code messages. The “present day” scenes are intercut with plaintive flashbacks to the life Joe lost—his relationships with his father, mother, and girlfriend.
Many previous attempts to film Johnny Got His Gun ran aground, but as he neared the end of his incredibly colorful career, Trumbo decided to adapt the book himself. (Determination was nothing new for Trumbo; he’s the screenwriter credited with breaking Hollywood’s anticommunist blacklist, of which he was an early victim.) Some of Trumbo’s directorial flourishes work better in concept than in practice, like shifting between color, black-and-white, and an intermediary muted color scheme; the device has intellectual heft but little emotional impact. Further, Trumbo’s lack of visual panache exacerbates the claustrophobic nature of the story—a more experienced director could have “opened up” the material without harming the spirit of the piece. The worst shortcoming, however, probably involves Trumbo’s weak attempts to apply a Fellini-esque veneer to certain dream sequences. Yet the underlying story is so powerful, and the key performances are so heartfelt, that Johnny Got His Gun packs a punch.
Bottoms delivers incredibly sensitive work when performing onscreen in flashbacks and when voicing narration during the “present day” scenes; the psychic pain his character experiences from start to finish is harrowing. Jason Robards brings palpable world-weariness to the role of Joe’s father, and cameo player Donald Sutherland offers a sly interpretation of Jesus during a memorable hallucination scene. To his credit and detriment, Trumbo honored the unrelentingly grim tone of the novel, which means Johnny Got His Gun has integrity to burn but is also a tough picture to sit through. Nonetheless, Johnny Got His Gun is a fittingly idiosyncratic statement from one of the 20th century’s most irrepressible voices.
Johnny Got His Gun: GROOVY