Johnny Got His Gun; Dalton Trumbo, Sole Directing from One of Hollywood Ten

Most people know Dalton Trumbo as a screenwriter and as victim of McCarthy’s witch-hunting in the early 1950s’ he was one of the Hollywood Ten.  But Dalton also claims credit as director of one of the most powerful anti-war films I have seen, Johnny Got His Gun, his sole directing effort. The inventive black-and white and color movie is adapted from Dalton’s classic novel of the same title, published in the 1930s.

I recently revisited Trumbo’s book and film and found both works to be haunting and relevant. The movie is almost surreal and experimental, heavily relying on subjective voice-over narration. 

A truly touching and devastating tale, Johnny Got His Gun centers on one war veteran, who’s physically and metaphorically imprisoned inside his own war-ravaged body, with no arms, no legs and a face covered by a big mask. 

In the present sequences, Timothy Buttons is a wounded, battered man stripped of his sight, his limbs, and his voice.  What’s left (at least for a while) is his struggling spirit and inner voice that only we, the viewers, hear.

The film boasts a superlative cast, headed by Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards as his father, and Donald Sutherland as a Christ figure.

Bottoms plays Joe Bonham, a young, ordinary American soldier who’s hit by an artillery shell on the last day of World War I.  Sent to the hospital, he is a quadruple amputee, having lost his eyes, ears, mouth and nose. He remains conscious and able to reason, however, rendering him a prisoner in his own body. He tries to communicate to his doctors, via Morse code.

Joe’s wish is to be allowed to die, or put in a carnival as a freak show, to demonstrate to other the true horrors of war.  In the end, however, he realizes that the Army will grant neither wish, and will simply leave him in a state of living death.

The narrative alternates between scenes of reality, which are in black and white, while he is confined to the hospital bed, and fantasy sequences, shown in color, as he recollects episodes from his old, healthy civilian life.

We get to meet his shy girlfriend (Kathy Fields) and observe what would become the first and only time they make love.

Other characters include a young nurse (Diane Varsi), who senses his plight and tries to help him die against the wishes of his supervisors.

Interestingly, for Trumbo, the movie was not a message work, an anti-war film, but rather a stream-of-consciousness journey into Joe’s troubled as he wanders between past and present.

The film won the Special Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the FIPRESCI award.

Cast

Don ‘Red’ Barry – Jody Simmons (as Donald Barry)

Timothy Bottoms – Joe Bonham

Craig Bovia – Little Guy

Peter Brocco – Ancient Prelate

Judy Howard Chaikin – Bakery Girl

Kendell Clarke – Hospital Offical

Eric Christmas – Corporal Timlon

Dalton Trumbo – Orator (as Robert Cole)

Maurice Dallimore – British Colonel

Robert Easton – Third Doctor

Kathy Fields – Kareen

Larry Fleischman – Russ

Eduard Franz – General Tillery

Anthony Geary – Redhead (as Tony Geary)

Ed Gilbert – Priest (as Edmund Gilbert)


End Note

The musicvideo for Metallica’s 1988 song “One” includes clips and dialogue from the film.