Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Now here's an anti-war movie. When I found out Dalton Trumbo made a film in 1971 out of his own novel, my first thought was how the hell did he pull that off. Not only is this one of the most disturbing, sobering, and saddest stories ever written, there are the built-in limitations of the setup that make me wonder how does any filmmaker pull it off. Well, Trumbo did.

Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), a young, idealistic soldier in World War I, somehow survives a direct explosion from a mortar shell, but his limbs, eyes, mouth, and face are gone. The doctors, believing him brain dead and keep him alive to learn what they can. With only dreams and memories to sustain him through the years, Joe struggles to hold on to his sanity and find a way to reach out to the hospital staff.

What is there I can add? Forget all the ideologies, politics, and reasons cooked up to justify conflict. Here's a character who embodies on the most extreme personal level the cost of war. Even though he survived the blast, Joe's life is completely destroyed, as were the lives of countless other young men. The fact he's aware of his condition and conscious makes Joe, to paraphrase him, the army's dirty little secret. Dead men piled in the mud tell no tales, but an armless, legless survivor can reveal the ugly face on war, even though he himself doesn't have one anymore.

The flashbacks, memories, and dreams are in color while the present reality is stark black-and-white. I'm normally opposed to so many flashbacks in a movie, but given there's not much a narrative drive to begin with and how overwhelming the movie would be if it was entirely in the hospital, it works. The greatest accomplishment of the film is how Joe manages to come off as a fully rounded character through the voice over and flashbacks. You feel awful for him but root for him to find some way out of it even though you know he's doomed.

While there are brief moments of hope and memories of happier times, the tone of Johnny Got His Gun is overwhelmingly grim and despairing. Even in his dreams, Joe is haunted by freaky and disturbing images. His conversations with Jesus (Donald Sutherland) offer no reprieve, he feels he abandoned the girl back home, and his conversations with his father (Jason Robards) are filled with regret.

Make no mistake, Johnny Got His Gun is not a pleasant movie-going experience, but a more accurate and disturbing picture of the horrific cost of war you will not find.

I tried to find the music video of the Metallica song "One," which is inspired by the book and features clips of the movie. But you'll have to accept just the song.

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