Shout! Factory // 1971 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // April 8th, 2009
"S.O.S. Help me!"
Dalton Trumbo published his book Johnny Got His Gun in 1939. The first printing was successful, despite the book's anti-war sentiment being at odds with the political climate. Sometime after, it became part of the high school reading list, where in some schools it remains to this day.
The premise is profoundly moving: a young soldier lies in a hospital bed, having lost his arms, legs, and face. All he can do is remember a life he'll never again enjoy and wonder about a world in which war robs so much.
While there was talk for years of turning the book into a film -- including discussions with Luis Buñuel -- it wasn't until the early 1970s that the project got off the ground. Trumbo himself directed it, his first -- and only -- film. Johnny Got His Gun was released in 1971, won some awards at Cannes, and had a modest theatrical run. Now, it's getting its first DVD release courtesy of Shout! Factory.
Is Johnny Got His Gun a forgotten classic or a forgettable, post-Woodstock relic?
World War I soldier Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms, The Paper Chase) is horrendously injured by a bomb, losing his limbs, his face, and all senses except touch. The doctors believe that the only part of him that was not injured was the area of the brain that controls involuntary functions like heartbeat and respiration, which is why he is still alive. They believe that in addition to his senses, Joe has lost the ability to think and feel.
Unfortunately, they are mistaken. In a cruel twist of fate, Joe's mind is intact. He is aware of his condition and what's going on around him. He can still think and feel and dream and reason.
What he cannot do is communicate, and since the staff believes him to be little more than a vegetable, they make no efforts to interact with him. Until one day, a nurse decides to trace a Christmas message on his chest -- and Joe responds using Morse Code.
Johnny Got His Gun is a book that would probably have been better off not being filmed. Its power is in its premise, and Trumbo's sensitive and perceptive prose makes Joe not just "every soldier," but something of every one of us.
The film is very faithful to the source material -- after all, it's Trumbo's vision of Trumbo's novel. Unfortunately, Trumbo's evocative writing, with words and phrases jumbled and run together to replicate Joe's thoughts, just doesn't translate well to film. What was so haunting and powerful in the book -- the deeply felt passages on memories and dreams, the terror as the boy realizes his condition, the frustration over the senselessness of war, his struggle to communicate -- becomes droning and overwrought. By offering such a literal interpretation, Trumbo sucks the vitality out of his work. This could be any Vietnam-era youth-targeted film. Virtually every anti-war slogan or cliché is trotted out here; the only one I didn't note was the old saw about "have our toughest guy fight their toughest guy."
Worse are the heavy-handed sequences featuring Donald Sutherland as Jesus and Jason Robards as Joe's father (going on about the meaning of "democracy"). Despite a memorable, Buñuel-inspired shot of Jesus driving a train, all the Sutherland-as-hippie-Jesus scenes come off as a clumsy attempt to be artsy and relevant. Robards is fine when he's not spewing platitudes and propaganda, but those moments are few. Joe's "dreams" about priests and professors too old to fight yet who still speak nobly of war drive home points that were obvious in the opening seconds, and Trumbo shoots these scenes with a film-schoolish stylization.
In the book, we hear about Joe's injuries from Joe's point of view, never getting a graphic or clinical description, and the image is more terrible because it's left to our imaginations. For the film, Trumbo makes the right decision to not let us see Joe's mutilated face and body, showing instead a bandaged and sheet-covered form in a hospital bed. Strangely, even though everything else was blown off, Bottoms' floppy brown hair remains intact and nicely styled on top of his head, seriously diluting the visual impact. Over the course of the 106-minute film, the long black-and-white shots of Joe's sad form become numbing. He becomes less tragic and more amorphous.
In his debut, Timothy Bottoms makes a suitably affecting Joe. He's far better in the flashback and fantasy scenes than he is voice-overing Trumbo's near punctuationless speeches. Bottoms' performance is a run-up to his classic sensitive-boy turn later that year in The Last Picture Show.
The technical presentation is middling at best. The transfer is soft and abounds with nicks, small scratches, and reel change markers. It's adequate, but it would have benefited greatly from some restoration, as it looks more like VHS than DVD. Audio is a flat, two-channel mono track. It's clear enough, though a little uneven. The dialogue is occasionally difficult ot make out, and the lack of subtitles is a real liability.
Where this disc excels is with the supplements.
The centerpiece is an excellent, hour-long documentary, Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood. With input from his son Christopher, actors William Schallert and Marsha Hunt, and others, this is an informative and comprehensive piece on a talented man who became one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, blacklisted because of his affiliation with the Communist party.
Next up is a recent interview with Timothy Bottoms, along with some recently unearthed behind-the-scenes footage from the film with commentary from Bottoms and director of photography Jules Brenner.
A 1940 radio adaptation by Arch Oboler runs about half an hour and stars an impassioned James Cagney. In this version, poor Joe has been in bed wounded for 22 years (!) and has just recently gotten a nurse who attempts to communicate with him. While much of this focuses on the expected horror of Joe realizing the extent of his injuries, it doesn't cop out on Trumbo's anti-war sentiment, surprisingly political for a radio program broadcast over NBC as the conflict in Europe and Asia was inspiring heated debates about neutrality, isolationism, and intervention.
We also get Metallica's video for the song "One," which features scenes from the film. This video led to a re-emergence of interest in the book in the late '80s.
Finally, there's a digital reprint of an article from American Cinematographer, the theatrical trailer, and a reprint of the poster.
Given that there's around 90 minutes of supplemental material in addition to the 106-minute film, I wonder why Shout! Factory didn't just make this a two-disc set. Certainly, the already-weak transfer isn't helped by having all this additional material crammed onto a single disc.
A powerful premise does not a great film make. I don't know that any filmmaker could have successfully adapted Trumbo's book, but Trumbo's adaptation is sledgehammer obvious and over-sentimental, with "hip" touches that seem pandering. I know this film has its fans, and I realize the theme -- war is horrible -- is important, but taken as a whole, Johnny Got His Gun is just so much claptrap.
War is hell. Extras are good. Tech is marginal. Film is guilty.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Radio Play
* Mini Poster
* Music Video
* IMDb: Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood