The United States of America
Editor’s Note: About two months ago I came to the realization that the vast majority of films that I have featured on this site were American. I swore to myself that for the next three months, or 12 reviews, I would review only non-English speaking films. I kept this promise to myself for six weeks. However, I feel obligated to break this agreement with myself, as I have recently found an American film that I am nearly desperate to share with you all.
There are certain images that stick with you as a film-goer. Whether it’s King Kong swatting at airplanes from the top of the Empire State building or Antonius Block’s game of chess with Death, movies have provided some of the most endearing and memorable scenes and images over the past century. And from these, the war genre is one of the chief providers of moments and scenes that penetrate our subconsciouses. The scenes are almost too numerous to count: Paul Bäumer reaching for the butterfly, Elias reaching his arms to the sky as he is gunned down, Charlie Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion storming the beaches at Normandy, Sir William Wallace leading the charge at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. They are visceral, exciting, and graphic. They push the boundaries of both cinematic technique and what audiences are willing to tolerate. And yet, there is another war film that never gets mentioned anymore. It also creates one of the most haunting images in the war genre…but it doesn’t have any gore. There isn’t any swearing or graphic violence. The image is of a broken man, lying on a hospital mattress that he will never leave. He is not so much a man as a shell, trapped in a destroyed body that will be his prison for the rest of his days. This is the true face of war. This is the reality of Johnny Got His Gun.
His name was Joe Bonham…or at least it used to be. Before the war he had a family, a young sweetheart, and a full life ahead of him. Now, he is a nameless patient in an Army hospital. Ordered on one of the last days of World War One on pointless and suicidal mission (to bury the body of a dead soldier who was stinking up the trenches in the middle of No Man’s Land), Bonham was hit point-blank with an artillery shell. That lifeless hunk of metal robbed Joe of his arms, his legs, his eyes, his ears, his nose, and cruelest of all, his mouth. Unable to communicate his name and with all possible means of identification eliminated, Joe has become a nobody; a hunk of red meat perpetually trapped to drift between consciousness and his imagination.
It isn’t long before Joe can sense when people are near him. He can feel the vibrations of footsteps, the touch of nurses changing his bandages, and the cold touch of the doctors. Because of his inability to communicate, he is unable to beg for mercy when they stitch up his arms and legs, permanently transforming him into a caricature of humanity. When he twitches about to get the attention of the orderlies, he is diagnosed as suffering from a seizure and is promptly drugged back into a state of hallucinogenic stupor.
In his dreams he finds refuge and sadistic reminders of the life that he once had and the life that has been stolen. He dreams of his last night with Kareen, his girl, where they peel off their clothes and nervously crawl into bed together, both terrified and exhilarated of their first and last physical communion. He dreams of his childhood when his father tells him that it is the young man’s job to die during war. Why can’t it be the older men who start them, he asks. The father has no answer. He dreams of Jesus, shepherding a fresh batch of dead soldiers onto a train bound for God knows where. The soldiers ask why Joe is allowed on, as he is still alive. Jesus puts his hand on Joe’s shoulder, bears a grim smile, and answers that he’s okay. And in one of the film’s most devastating scenes, he dreams that Jesus is the conductor of the train, hanging out the engine window and bellowing in a cry of frustration, pain, and anguish at his task that melts into the sound of the train whistle.
After a period of sustained sensory deprivation, the brain will start to fire wildly and desperately create images and sensations to occupy itself with. So for poor Joe, who has been stripped of his senses, soon there is little to no difference between what is real and what is a figment of his imagination. The only beacon of sanity that he finds is the touch of a kindly nurse who eventually figures out that he is conscious. She removes the bandages from his chest and slowly starts to write letters with her fingers on his broken body. First an “M.” Then an “E,” followed by an “R.” Then another “R.” He slowly spells out the message: Y-C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S. That’s it! It’s Christmas Day! His soul swells with refrains from abandoned carols and hymns as he desperately nods what remains of his head. Merry Christmas, nurse! God bless you! God bless you!
And what’s this? Other doctors have begun to notice his movements are not random spasms! Joe starts to spell out “S-O-S” in Morse code on his pillow. Miraculously, they start to respond. One wonders what a man who has been trapped within his own body would want to say first after such an ordeal. Joe has one request: to be taken around the country in a glass case so that people will learn about the horrors of war. But no…the officer in charge can’t allow that. It would be bad for morale. People might actually think that the army isn’t as glorious as it is said to be. Joe’s request is denied. And so, Joe is left with one final option. He starts to furiously spell out “Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.”
The army’s response to Joe’s desperate appeal is shocking in its cruelty. The ending is one of the most heartbreaking and enraging conclusions possible. It is a testament to the blind-headedness that plunged the world into the two worst wars in human history where false pretenses of honor and good sportsmanship by the armed elite spelled death for countless young men and women.
Johnny Got His Gun was directed by Dalton Trumbo, a two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of film industry professionals who were blacklisted due to their refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activites Committeee (HUAC) in 1947 for supposed Communist influences. Working largely from exile, Trumbo accrued a massive body of published screenplays. His films included Gun Crazy (1950), Roman Holiday (1953), The Brave One (1956), and Spartacus (1960). Johnny Got His Gun was based off his own novel of the same name published in 1939. Based off the ordeal of a real life Canadian soldier, the book was a massive success, gaining the attention of left wing and anti-war circles.
But for all of its brilliance, Johnny Got His Gun is not without its flaws. The film has some serious pacing issues, particularly in the second act, where the plot comes to a grinding halt in order to explore the depths of Joe’s hallucinations. Also, every now and again the audience is beset by a poor line reading that could have benefited from additional takes. Most of this can probably be explained to Trumbo’s directorial inexperience. He never quite seems to understand that in the cinema, it is more important to show, rather than merely tell. All of these criticisms can best be summarized by explaining that the film feels like Trumbo was more concerned with putting a literal translation of his book on the silver screen instead of interpreting the story in a manner that best suits the cinematic, and therefore visual, idiom.
But for its roughness, Johnny Got His Gun is one of the most powerful anti-war films ever made. More and more these days, I find myself willingly shying away from using such absolutes as “the best ever” or “the finest example of.” Such claims seem dishonest and can suggest a lack of film-going experience. But I don’t hesitate to use such language here. Johnny Got His Gun is a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and soul-shattering film. It has almost no gore or combat footage, and yet it stands tall with other anti war films like Paths of Glory (1957) and The Deer Hunter (1978). It forces the audience to confront the true face of war: a bandaged, bloody mess of wasted dreams, potential, and lives.
And in case you are wondering, no, they never do show what Joe looks like under his bandages. Some would ask why? I would respond, would it matter?
The following is Metallica's One, a song directly inspired by the film and its book.