Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

“I’m just like a piece of meat that keeps on living.”

Johnny Got His Gun Poster

Synopsis:
A WWI veteran (Timothy Bottoms) without limbs, face, or ears finds renewed hope when a kind nurse (Diane Varsi) attempts to communicate with him.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his review of Dalton Trumbo’s adaptation of his own 1939 novel, Peary provides some interesting historical context, noting that while the “film won several awards at Cannes,” it “died at the box office in the U.S.”, given that “those viewers who found it as devastating as the novel and became emotionally attached to it were far outnumbered by those who found it morbid and pretentious” (c.f. New York Times reviewer Roger Greenspun’s opinion that it’s “a mess of cliched, imprecise sentimentalizing and fantasizing … [and] a stultifyingly bad movie.”) Peary goes on to conjecture that perhaps audiences in 1971 weren’t interested in anti-war films that didn’t deal specifically with Vietnam, and notes that “today, when so many films glorify war, Trumbo’s pacificism can better be appreciated”.

Indeed, as a fan of the novel, I believe Trumbo does a remarkably effective job translating his seemingly unfilmable first-person narrative into a frightening cautionary tale. By interspersing color flashbacks and fantasy sequences into his real-time b&w horror story of doughboy Joe Bonham — who became a “basket case… as the result of an explosion” on the final day of WWI, but retains full consciousness — Trumbo avoids miring the film in relentless gloom. Particularly intriguing are those fantasy sequences in which Bonham chats with an “ineffectual” Jesus Christ (Donald Sutherland), who agrees that his case is pretty hopeless. (Apparently these scenes were inspired by Luis Bunuel, Trumbo’s first choice to direct the film.) The movie’s final moments are truly chilling — be forewarned.

Note: This would make a compelling double bill (for viewers up to the emotional challenge) with Julian Schnabel’s similarly themed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Memorable imagery
    Johnny Got His Gun Imagery
  • Donald Sutherland as Jesus
    Johnny Got His Gun Sutherland
  • An undeniably bleak and powerful narrative
    Johnny Got His Gun Bleak

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful anti-war film.

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One Response to “Johnny Got His Gun (1971)”

  1. A must, at least once – but with some reservations:

    ~mainly cause it’s a hard film to watch/experience and the average ff may not be up to it. In a way, it’s kind of relentless. ~which, of course, brings home the point.

    ~and, yes, anti-war messages are always urgent. Not that they will ever stop wars. But the messages should be there all the same. They still carry weight.

    Personally, I find the total helplessness of the protagonist almost beyond unbearable. Yes, this is not unlike a horror film in its main aspect: being alive yet dead. I recall reading the book in high school, never imagining that a film could be made of such material. Which is no doubt why Trumbo had to do it himself. He actually does a fine job overall. His vision is at root realistic, yet he flies off (fittingly) to the surreal and the poetic.

    A genuine cri de coeur. Man will never learn the total, miserable folly of war. This film serves as an aftermath nightmare.

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