Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Director: Dalton Trumbo
Producer: Bruce Campbell
Screenwriter: Dalton Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo's novel Johnny Got His Gun was first published in 1939. 32 years later it was made into a movie, which he wrote and directed. In 2009, it's finally available on DVD. Any questions about the movie's contemporary relevance are moot. Trumbo's motive is to capture the sheer monstrosity and hopelessness of war and the damage it does to a person's soul. Those themes aren't vanishing anytime soon.
The movie, set in World War I, examines the plight of Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), a young American soldier who emerges nearly unrecognizable after an aerial attack. He has no arms and legs, and his face is an afterthought. What's worse, he can't speak, hear, or see. Making him more of an exhibit is that the army has no way to identify him. The doctors are curious, so they shove him in a room, close the blinds and the door, and keep him alive.
Joe may not be able to communicate, but he does have his thoughts (which we hear), and they terrorize him as he awakens from his slumber and gradually makes sense of his new pseudo-life. Gaining a rudimentary understanding of the new world is an exhausting mental journey that involves memories of his childhood, surreal visions, and even discussions with Jesus Christ (Donald Sutherland) and his dead father (Jason Robards). There are some parts of that journey that tax the patience; the movie would be a succinct masterpiece if 10 to 15 minutes of fatty mental anguish were eliminated. But Trumbo's message is barely diluted.
Jesus Christ is a well-intentioned nice guy and flawed card player -- "I can do almost anything but hit a 12" -- who has no solutions on how to break Joe out of his abyss. If you die on the battlefield, that's great. After all, says a corporal, "Death has a dignity all its own," so everyone wins. The story isn't so rosy for anyone who's living or half-dead. According to Trumbo, if given the opportunity your country will treat you how it deems fit. In the military's eyes, Joe isn't a person, but a medial experiment with a pulse. (At one point, he's shoved into the hospital's utility room.) It's only when a sympathetic nurse (Diane Varsi) reaches out to him -- touching him, putting a flower at his bedside -- that the poor bastard can even begin to feel remotely human. It also opens the door for unspeakable heartache.
Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood 10, clearly has little faith in any kind of higher power or organization. Humans can only rely on themselves. Basically, we're all Joe, screaming and yelling and pleading into the darkness. Johnny Got His Gun is a sobering, grueling look at us. It's why it's so difficult to watch, but also why it's so important after so many years.
The DVD has an array of goodies. There's an hour-long documentary on Trumbo, a 1940 radio adaptation with James Cagney, and Metallica's 1989 music video "One," which introduced the movie to a new generation. Of special interest to Filmcritic.com staffers is behind-the-scenes footage with commentary from Bottoms and our very own Jules Brenner, the film's director of photography.