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Johnny Got His Gun

cast: Timothy Bottoms, Kathy Fields, Marsha Hunt, Jason Robards, and Donald Sutherland

writer and director: Dalton Trumbo

115 minutes (12) 1971
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by John Percival
Directed by Dalton Trumbo and based on his own novel, Johnny Got His Gun is the story of a young American soldier, Joe (Timothy Bottoms), who is severely wounded by a landmine on the very last day of World War I. Lying in a hospital bed he comes to realise the full extent of his injuries, Joe is a quadruple amputee who has also lost his eyes, ears and mouth. Conscious but unable to communicate Joe tries to reason what has happened to him and attempts to let the doctors know his wish to be put on show in a carnival as a demonstration of the full horrors of war.
   Johnny Got His Gun is the only film Dalton Trumbo directed and represents the extent of his antiwar feeling, his has written a number of famous classic movies such as Roman Holiday, Spartacus and Papillon. Heavy metal band Metallica introduced this film to a whole new generation by using it as the basis for their song, One, and that was one of the main reasons why I wanted to see it.
   It is a nightmare idea, not being able to move or communicate while trapped inside a useless body. Joe slowly discovers the extent of his injuries and tries to deal with them through a series of dreams and recollections of his past. As his real life is more horrific than his worst dreams, his current state is presented to us in black and white with the voice in his head swinging between terror and curiosity. His dreams are in colour and are a mixture of personal memories and fiction, each trying to help him come to terms with what has happened. In the most bizarre of these Donald Sutherland appears as Christ taking the souls of the dead soldiers to Heaven but unable to help Joe escape his 'living death'. Each person in his dreams seems to represent a different part of his personality, Christ is his ability to reason, his father a sense of duty, his girlfriend represents love, and his mother sentimentality.
   He is in perpetual care at a hospital where nurses feed him through a tube, but his room is kept locked and hidden away from prying eyes. The locked door is marked 'Utility Room' on the outside. Not really fitting for a soldier wounded in battle. At one point a nurse, who is moved by his plight, tries to make him more comfortable but when she fails and tries to end his misery, she's caught trying to kill him.
   The antiwar sentiment is highlighted by the pointlessness of how Joe was injured. It was the last day of a war that had been won, his sacrifice was for nothing, but he is denied the glory given to those who died on the same battlefield. His father describes democracy as a form of government where young men are required to kill each other and that every father would give his only son for democracy. The acting and the filming is pretty much typical of the 1970s and the harrowing nature of the film is lightened somewhat with humour and the obligatory scenes of a sexual nature. Timothy Bottoms does manage to deliver some very emotional performances whilst being mostly covered by white sheets. Our views of the covered face, moving in torment provide an unsettling reminder of the true cost of war.
   Johnny Got His Gun is definitely an often-overlooked 1970s' antiwar movie but it does not preach the message, as is so often the case. Behind the main theme there is a startling analysis of personality separated from flesh. Joe is forced to look within for answers while trapped and isolated in his body. The use of imagery and voiceover to accomplish this is both haunting and compelling. The film stands alone on the DVD and is not accompanied by any extras at all. For fans of the genre it is a must, but to others who are open to an unusual film, which they will talk about for weeks, then this is worth a look.

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