Director: Dalton Trumbo
Writer: Dalton Trumbo
Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, Diane Varsi, and Kathy Fields
Dalton Trumbo’s 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun, is an adaptation of Trumbo’s 1939 novel of the same name. It’s an anti-war film that flew under the radar when it was first released, despite some decent reviews. It wasn’t until Metallica used footage from the film as part of the video for their single, One, that the film started to gain a cult following.
Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) is injured during the First World War, which leaves him with no legs, no arms, no eyes, ears, mouth, or nose. He’s unable to communicate with the world around him and it stuck in essentially a broom closest in a hospital, kept secret from the world at large. The hospital attendants don’t even know his name. Joe can’t do anything except slowly fall back into his own mind and his memories start to blend with fantasy until he isn’t sure what is real anymore.
Visually the film is stunning. The reality sequences with Joe in hospital are all shot in black and white, with a minimalist set, which is essentially just Joe under blankets and with a facemask on throughout. You ever get any look at his injuries. Then the film moves into flashbacks which are shot in colour, as well as some fantasy sequences where it’s not quite real, and the colour is more vibrant and dreamlike.
The actual premise is also really interesting. The idea of being stuck inside your own body, laying there knowing that the world is around you, but not knowing what time or day it is, is genuinely scary. You’re put into the mind of Joe as days turn to months, with his narration telling you what’s going through his mind as he tries to figure out ways to communicate. It’s incredibly effective at putting you in his mind and getting its anti-war message across.
The cast are fantastic, especially Donald Sutherland who leaves a lasting impression as Christ in some of Joe’s dreams. It’s also filled with great memorable sequences, such as a Christmas party that’s a mix of dream and memory, that creates and unsettling and uncanny feeling as Joe’s boss repeats himself over and over again in the background of the scene.
The film manages to keep you engaged completely for the most part, although it does feel majorly too long. The premise and plot would work a lot better as a short film, rather than dragging it out to ninety minutes. It becomes tedious as it goes on, and the fact that the Metallica video gets the same point across in just under eight minutes, says everything.
Johnny Got His Gun is a really fascinating and interesting film. It’s far from perfect, but it’s something completely different and it really gives you the sense of claustrophobia and fear that Joe must be going through.
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