Johnny Got His Gun (1971, dir. Dalton Trumbo)
Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland
Here we have a film directed by the author of the novel on which is based. This author, Dalton Trumbo was investigated by the FBI as a result of the novel’s publication, and later blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. While blacklisted, he was given his widest recognition as the screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. And it was during the twilight of the Vietnam War he decided to adapt his controversial novel. While on the surface, the film is condemnation of war by how it treats the men on the frontlines, Trumbo is expanding his theme to comment on the fragility of life and man’s right to die with dignity.
Joe Bonham (Bottoms) is introduced as a body under a sheet. He’s not dead, but was shredded by shrapnel from a mortar shell fired on the last day of World War I. The doctors maintain an unrealistically upbeat outlook and have Joe put in a utility room so as not to upset the other wounded men. We learn who Joe is through the meanderings of his consciousness now in this eternally paralyzed state. The horror of Joe’s condition is unfolded to us gradually: first they take his arms, then his legs, ultimately he learns his face has been scooped out. All that exists is a screaming mind in a paralyzed frame.
As Joe tries to make sense of this in his mind, he returns to moments with his late father (Robards) and consults with a Jesus of his own invention (Sutherland). His memories begin as real events in his past and morph into surreal fantasies about his loss. One of the most touching moments of the film comes early on. On Joe’s last night before shipping out, he and his teenaged girlfriend decide to have sex for the first time. This scene is played with such beauty and tenderness. Every nervous movement is captured perfectly, and the scene aches with a bittersweet sense of how these characters are experiencing such great joy, a joy that inevitably will die.
The genius of the film is that it never takes political sides. In essence, it truly supports the troops, because it is all about them. Joe is a child who was sent off by old men who use their children to fight wars. He did his duty and suffered great wounds. And now, with no future besides being a lump of meat locked in a closet, he is denied a basic right to have his life ended. Joe eventually figures out a means of communicating with those around him, only to find his new voice stifled and the realization that the people around Joe, because of their own fears of death, want to simply forget that he ever existed.