Dalton Trumbo set his novel Johnny Got His Gun in a gruesome corner of the first World War. In the years between 1938, when he wrote it, and 1971, when he adapted it into his only directorial effort, Trumbo temporarily withdrew the novel in deference to the second world war, then watched his successful screenwriting career get sidelined by imprisonment and blacklisting, thanks to his refusal to cooperate with HUAC. The blacklist faded, and Trumbo’s career revived. Wars came and went, and though years divide the story’s conception from its adaptation, the simplicity of its grim story has a sadly timeless quality. The film, which bears many marks of the Vietnam era, isn’t against any particular war, it’s against war itself. By immersing viewers in the horrors of one man’s suffering, it forces them to consider the implications of sending soldiers out to fight for a cause.
Trumbo portrays that suffering thoroughly. Eighteen-year-old Timothy Bottoms plays an American kid who enlists to fight for democracy in the trenches of World War I. There he loses his arms, legs, sight, hearing, and ability to speak. Presumed brain-dead, he’s kept alive for some vague instructional purpose by doctors who don’t realize he’s still very much aware of his surroundings. To cope with his impossible situation, Bottoms descends into nostalgia and hallucination, and the film goes with him, alternating between gauzy reminiscences about a childhood in Colorado and California—a background the character shares with Trumbo—and nightmarish visions of freak shows, philosophical exchanges with Jesus (Donald Sutherland, interpreting Christ as a neurotic hippie), and conversations with the dead, whose company he yearns to join.
Trumbo originally conceived the film as a project for Luis Buñuel, who helped him develop it, but ultimately didn’t direct. Traces of the Buñuel film that might have been remain in the surreal asides, but Trumbo’s occasionally blunt direction makes it hard not to wish Buñuel had stuck around. Tender scenes with Jason Robards as Bottoms’ dad give way to a carnival-esque excursion, and the tonal nightmare maybe mimics Bottoms’ experience too well. But what Trumbo loses in gracefulness, he gains in his unwavering commitment to capturing the particular hell on Earth into which Bottoms falls. Keeping the post-injury Bottoms buried under sheets and a mask, Trumbo spares viewers the full gruesomeness of his physical state, but hides nothing of the mental toll. The film refuses to treat war as an abstraction, focusing instead on one bloody mess that used to be a man.
Key features: A thorough but pedestrian making-of, a neat 1940 radio adaptation starring James Cagney, and the music video to Metallica’s Johnny-inspired “One,” which repurposes footage from the film.