No Concessions: “Johnny Got His Gun,” Then and Now
As a Popdose writer, I believe in a separation between church (current theatrical releases for this column) and state (DVD reviews, usually of older films). But every so often I come across a disc that crosses that barrier and strikes me as relevant to today. Such a one is the welcome Shout Factory release of Dalton Trumbo’s own adaptation of his National Book Award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun, which appeared as the Vietnam War was raging in 1971, vanished, and has reemerged as America is engaged in two long wars.
To be frank, this is no lost masterpiece waiting to be uncovered. A great film it’s not. It’s not even a good movie, and one of the conscientious, well-chosen extras on the DVD unintentionally upstages it. But the subject, pacifism, is a rare bird in the American cinema, right up there with atheism. And with an onslaught of fantasy violence about to hit is all summer long at the movies it seemed timely to consider its message.
There are a lot of films that pay lip service to peace, while indulging in the blood and guts right up till the fadeout. Pacifism, however, is reserved for the other, the pure, religious people separated from us rabble. Think of the nice Amish folk whom Harrison Ford tries to goad into action in Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), or Gary Cooper’s upstanding Civil War-era Quaker in William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion (1956), who pushes a cannon onto a battlefield—an incident not in the novel on which it’s based, but added by the filmmakers, who feared the characters might be too alien to American audiences if they just sat out the conflict. Unless it’s a clever gimmick—like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator reconstituted as a low-tech rustbucket ordered not to kill, but allowed to kneecap a whole lot, in the sequel—Hollywood has never been much for giving peace a chance.
For all its humility, Friendly Persuasion—said to have been Ronald Reagan’s favorite film—is a movie steeped in the ugliness of its era. Until 1996, when his credit was finally restored, it bore no screenwriting credit, because its writer, Michael Wilson, was on the notorious Hollywood blacklist. Bizarrely, his credit-less effort received an Oscar nomination—and Trumbo won that year’s Best Story Oscar for the bullfighting picture The Brave One, which was credited to a pseudonym. It was the second blacklist Oscar he’d won in that category, after 1953’s classic Roman Holiday, which was attributed to a front. Such was the rabbit hole that Wilson, Trumbo, and other blacklistees tumbled into as the House looked for reds under every bed.
In the Cold War years, Trumbo (1905-1976) was a poster child for the alleged un-American activities that politicians were rooting out. It was a different story in 1939, as Johnny Got His Gun, his signature novel, was published, just as Germany was invading Poland and the Second World War was in the air. He based the story on an account he’d read of a soldier left terribly disfigured in the Great War, the one that didn’t end all wars. His protagonist is, literally, an average Joe, Joe Bonham, who in keeping with the rallying cry of the day “got his gun” and did his duty, only to be left armless, legless, blind, deaf, and dumb by an exploding artillery shell on the last day of the war in France. Joe is stuck in the limbo of an army hospital, not dead but all but cut off from the living, until he and the young nurse who cares for him figure out a way to communicate. But the brass aren’t at all thrilled with what he has to say, as Joe, who embodies the horrors of war, has had ample time to contemplate the injustice done to him and all soldiers.
Johnny Got His Gun was a novel attuned to its time; indeed, it beat out The Grapes of Wrath for the National Book Award that year. Sentiment toward keeping the U.S. out of the war was strong. Needless to say, it fell out of sync, and Trumbo decided against reprints for the duration of the conflict, during which he joined the Communist Party USA, an affiliation that lasted from 1943-1948. By then, he was living large off the proceeds of his Hollywood career. He had hits including Kitty Foyle (1940), an Oscar nominee for adapted screenplay, and the more-propagandistic-than-pacifistic Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), about the Doolittle Raid that followed Pearl Harbor. Those two Oscars he won in exile didn’t put bread on the table, and he and his family struggled until he was credited for the 1960 blockbusters Exodus and Spartacus, which broke the blacklist. His principles, contradictions, and unflagging sense of humor are all on display in last year’s affectionate docudrama Trumbo, which was based on a 2003 play adapted from the writer’s correspondence.
Frugally produced, the film of Johnny Got His Gun, his only directorial effort, sprang from his desire to do something about the Vietnam War. It’s very much a movie of its post-Easy Rider (1969) generation, with a with-it use of black-and-white for the hospital sequences and color for the flashback and fantasy sequences, including conversations with a hippie Jesus played by Donald Sutherland. (Jesus, who weeps for the war dead, doesn’t know what to make of the undead Johnny: “You’re a very unlucky young man and I think it rubs off,” he explains.) The movie is half-experimental in style, which means it’s perpetually half-irritating; Luis Bunuel, who had an interest in directing, might have taken it into full-blown surrealism, which I’m not sure would have fit with the parable-like nature of the story but would have been more committed. Much of the acting is uncomfortable—Diane Varsi, an Oscar nominee for 1957’s Peyton Place, claimed this as her favorite credit but is as inanimate as Johnny in their scenes. The disc comes with an excellent documentary that has everyone expressing pride in the picture, but Trumbo and a largely neophyte crew didn’t really know how to get the book off the page. (Trumbo plays an orator, positioned in front of tennis players, in one scene; TV stars-to-be David Soul and Tony Geary have small parts.)
Other than Joe’s plight, and the message, the film is memorable for its fresh-from-high-school lead, Timothy Bottoms (pictured, with Trumbo), who gives urgent, un-actorly readings of Joe’s thoughts (“I don’t know whether I’m alive and dreaming or dead and remembering”) from underneath a tent of sheets and the reliable Jason Robards, in a few scenes as his father, who loves him but puts country first (“For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son”). And it has been remembered, despite a twilight period to rival Joe’s. By 1971 the counterculture was in retreat at the boxoffice, leaving Johnny to go against the grain of one of the cinema’s most violent years. Dirty Harry (with a killer who wears a peace sign), A Clockwork Orange, and Straw Dogs were all in release, and The French Connection strong-armed the Best Picture Oscar from Bottoms’ follow-up credit, The Last Picture Show, and Fiddler on the Roof. Johnny received savage reviews (“stupefyingly bad” tsk-tsked The New York Times) and the film disappeared. Still, John Lennon was a fan. So was Metallica, and how: It bought the movie outright to use generous clips from it for its 1989 video “One,” which broke the band on MTV, and is included on the disc. I assume we can thank them for returning Johnny intact to DVD, in a decent transfer.
Johnny comes to us in a time of transition. As Bottoms notes in an interview segment, it’s debuting at the start of the Obama administration, a hopeful time (though maybe not for his career, which saw him play W. several times during both terms). It would be nice to think that the movie, flaws and all, might get us to think a pacifistic thought or two, and consider laying down our arms. I know I’ll be thinking about it as I watch the summer’s blood-and-thunder blockbusters. I’m no war wimp when it comes to movie mayhem, but “violence creep” is all around. PG-13 movies really push the envelope (I don’t see anyone in “wound” mode in the new Terminator movie, which is determined to be as balls-out as the presumably more family-friendly ratings allows) and R-rated movies break right through it, as the Motion Picture Association of America frets about sex. These portrayals have a wearing effect on the psyche. Johnny Got His Gun is the balm.
And in one respect the DVD is cathartic. The problem with the film is that there’s little filmic about it, with a principal who’s hidden from view for the bulk of the running time. I understand it’s worked as a short play, which debuted in 1982 (with Jeff Daniels winning an Obie Award as Joe) and was filmed last year, with Benjamin McKenzie, of TV’s The O.C. and Southland, in the lead. But to judge from the disc’s best extra, a half-hour radio broadcast from 1940, we’re better off not seeing Joe at all, and imagining a lonely terror that turns to bravery in the face of so much cruelty and indifference. I thought I’d do something else when it was playing, but the pull of James Cagney performing it was too strong, so I switched off the lights and let it absorb me. He brings the full force of Trumbo’s story right into the room, and lands every blow. You’re a stronger man than I am if it doesn’t reduce you to tears.