Sunday 19 July 2009

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Director: Dalton Trumbo
Stars: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland

Here's one that I've been wating to see for a long, long time. I first came across it as a Metallica fan because their song One was based on it. Actually I should retract that. The story as I remember it is that they apparently wrote it out of their own imaginations, then when it came time to put their debut video together were told about the film, so they got hold of a copy and integrated material from the film with footage of them jamming the song in the studio. It's a great song, a great video and a great story. How believable Metallica's version of how they came to it is utterly open to question.

So I worked backwards as I do. It turned out that I found Dalton Trumbo's novel pretty easily but the film remained elusive until now. I devoured the book in a single sitting. It's a raw and powerful thing, with all the impact of a shot in the gut; a lot of readers have had their opinions shaped merely by reading it, which of course was always Trumbo's intention. Trumbo was a novelist who was a staunch pacifist and Johnny Got His Gun is not his only work that speaks to the concept. He also wrote a novel called The Remarkable Andrew, in which the ghost of Andrew Jackson cautions the US not to get involved in World War II.

He was also a screenwriter, one of the most prominent in Hollywood, but who was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for being a member of the Communist party. For not cooperating with Congress, he served eleven months in a federal penitentiary, and then moved to Mexico with his wife, who had also been blacklisted. However like many he continued to work through fronts and pseudonyms, thus utterly circumventing the whole point of the thing in the first place.

I've always found it fascinating that the US hated what these people stood for so much that they had to banish them from their country, only to then reward them for their work without even realising it. Trumbo won two Oscars during his exile without the Academy knowing it: for The Brave One under a pseudonym and for Roman Holiday through a front. Only years later was acknowledgement given and names corrected. Before he was blacklisted he'd only been nominated, for Kitty Foyle. So the country was so desperate to stop Trumbo speaking that it locked him up and exiled him yet it apparently agreed with what he had to say. Stunning.

He didn't win anything in the States for this film, needless to say, but it won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. It's a pretty simple story, as all the best are, and once we've got past all the overt militarism of the credits with their drum rolls and stock footage of wartime leaders, charges and marches, we're treated to the huge explosion that is the direct cause of the point of our film. Joe Banham, played by Timothy Bottoms in his film debut, the same year as The Last Picture Show, is a US soldier, who huddled in a foxhole during World War I, is hit by an incoming shell.

The US Medical Corps retrieve him but can't do anything more than keep him alive because there isn't much of him left. He has no arms and no legs. He has no eyes, no ears, no mouth. Most of his brain is damaged except the medulla oblongata that keeps the blood pumping through his veins. He has become what they term a decerebrated individual and the medics see him 'as unthinking, as unfeeling as the dead until the day he joins them.' They wheel him into a utility closet to keep him away from the gawkers and because he can't tell the difference anyway. But we wouldn't have a story if that was the case.

Our boy Joe wakes up. He can think and he can reason, but he can't communicate. He spends his time analysing what he can feel and trying to turn that sensory feedback into an understanding of his surroundings and give him a virtual picture of his world. When not doing that, he lives in flashbacks and imaginations. The flashbacks revisit the important moments in his life and fill in his back story to us; the imaginations involve him trying to find his place in the world and fathom what he means to it. The two merge on occasion, with surreal effect, probably through the use of sedatives and other drugs, and it isn't surprising to find that Luis Buñuel was involved.

And it's the questions that Joe asks himself that the film asks us too. This is very much a film that deliberately aims to ask us the sort of hard questions that we normally ignore because we don't see them as important as those that we deal with every day. Most obviously, it asks us about war, of course, and pacifism. Trumbo's idealistic views of pacifism can easily be seen in the fact as a kid in Colorado, Joe keeps a number of pets and the cat, rat and baby chicks all live together peacefully, but not all of it is quite so overt. Joe dreams of freakshows and speaks to the difference between freaks created by God and those created by man.

Religion is a central theme, to the degree that Jesus Christ himself appears a few times in Joe's imaginings, in the able form of Donald Sutherland, already a huge star, as one of a number of means that he tries to use to find a direction. The implication, of course is that Jesus is a fictional construct that the rest of us use to find our own way but serves no deeper purpose. It isn't surprising to find that these are the scenes written by Buñuel.

Trumbo also ties religion to politics: not which party to vote for but what structures they should support: things like capitalism and democracy. Trumbo also ties religion and politics together, pointing out in the words of Joe's father, 'for democracy any man would give his only begotten son.' Jason Robards plays his father, in a bizarre role given that he spends the entire film in flashbacks or imaginings, made still more bizarre because even in those flashbacks he spends most of it dead. He's a ghost who helps provide better direction to Joe because he has a stronger connection to his father than to Jesus.

It asks about humanity and what it means. By stripping the central character of everything that we would recognise as human, but then spending the entire film demonstrating his humanity, we can't fail to think about that question too. So it asks us about humanity, about the sanctity of life and death. What makes someone human? Can it be quantified? All those topical ethical issues about the right to live and the right to die are at the heart of this story, written as far back as 1939. There are points here with the utmost poignancy that simply cannot be ignored.

The most fascinating question of all may be the one that Dalton Trumbo never wrote about because of the time he wrote. The source novel aimed to encapsulate all the horror he could imagine of war into a single man, based on a real life incident. Apparently early in the thirties he read an article about the Prince of Wales visiting a man like Joe Bonham in a Canadian hospital for military veterans.

And It's certainly a horrific story, one that only becomes more horrific in memory: it sticks with us and resonates within our minds, helping to shape our own questions of life as we progress through it. Yet what's missing is the horror that the second great war brought us, the one that began two days before Trumbo's novel was first published. If Trumbo saw so much horror in World War I that he felt drawn to write this novel, what must World War II have shown him?


Robert said...

I read the book as a teenager and it really made an impact on me. I have never seen the movie but I have always wanted to. There are a couple of quotes that I will always remember.

"Death has a dignity all its own."

"He is not the product of my preofession. He is the product of yours."

Please tell me you found this on DVD?

Hal C. F. Astell said...

It's a very quotable movie. Metallica used most of the best lines in the One video, but there are plenty of others too.

Unfortunately I don't have the DVD, though I'd love to have one, especially for the special features if anyone's made any. I found this in the end on TCM.

I believe it was shown as part of a set of films about World War I. I was happy to finally be able to see The Big Parade too. With other films like The Steel Helmet and Ill Met By Moonlight being shown too, it's been a busy month for war films for me.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

Perhaps the most hideous, loathsome, sickening, horrifying, nauseating, solemn, sombre, stark, morbid and depressing film ever made.

Unknown said...

My name is Antonio Arias, it was a very sobering day first hearing this in basic training. I recently purchased it on DVD and what was horrific to me is it they kept him alive, forbidden his request, and kept him like some kind of guinea pig