Is Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun taught in schools any more? I remember finishing it in high school and being fairly rocked back. It may be one of those books — like, say, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or The Chocolate War — whose depressive, fatalistic sting strikes deepest when you’re in your teens. The emo years. A time when you can still be shocked and outraged at the unfairness of life.
Trumbo’s novel tells the story of Joe Bonham, a soldier in World War I who loses his arms, legs, and even his face when a shell goes off nearby. There he lies in an Army hospital bed, kept alive only because the government doctors want to see how such a grievously wounded man can survive. Unable to communicate, Joe frequently retreats into his own head, where dreams and reality are impossible to tell apart. Finally a kindly nurse traces a message on his chest, which he understands, and he figures out a way to talk back — by beating his head lightly against his pillow in Morse code.
The story ends on a thorough bummer note, leaving us with nothing except despair at what war does to men. But is there a movie in this material? Luis Buñuel wanted to try, but after his lease on the film rights ran out, Trumbo himself, who had never directed before (and never directed thereafter), took on the project. The result is affecting if sometimes rather clunky. The script often delves into the surreal, which at times comes across as meaninglessly baffling — my favorite example is the mustachioed gent at a Christmas party who says “I am the boss. This is champagne. Merry Christmas,” over and over again for no discernible reason. (Maybe this is Trumbo’s idea of the distilled essence of all office-party conversation.) Visually, Trumbo’s approach can be generously described as basic. The filmmaking has little flow or charge — essentially it’s a filmed play, and we seem to spend half the running time staring at the bandaged Joe (Timothy Bottoms), his stumps and ruined face cloaked by sheets, as we hear his thoughts on the soundtrack.
But the primal power of the story — a young man trying to find some sense in what’s happened to him — prevails. I don’t know whether Trumbo intended this, but Johnny Got His Gun reads as a strongly feminist fable. True, Joe’s back-home sweetie (Kathy Fields) is a bit of a drip. But once Joe is in the indifferent care of the government, only the nurses truly have compassion for him; only the nurses make sure the shutters are left open so he can feel the warmth of the sun, or try to make him feel emotionally comfortable. The final nurse, the one who traces the message on his flesh, also kisses his forehead and, I think, masturbates him at one point. The women in this film soothe and represent love and peace. The men — including Joe’s father (Jason Robards), who tells a young Joe that he’d be happy to sacrifice his only son in order to preserve democracy — treat Joe like so much meat. They don’t want to know that there are still thoughts and feelings under all those bandages.
Some of the flights of fantasy do succeed. There’s a nice bit with Jesus Christ (Donald Sutherland) playing cards with a group of soldiers who are destined to die (among them are David Soul and Tony Geary); later, Jesus the carpenter builds a cross while floating suggestions past Joe, who rejects all of them because they depend on having a body or eyes or a mouth. There’s no solace in God for Joe. When it comes down to it, he wants one of two things: He wants to be put to good use as a freak-show symbol of the meat-grinder of war, or he wants to be put out of his misery.
The resolution is kind of perfect; it’s not pleasant, but neither is war. Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun before World War II started, and he made the movie in the middle of the Vietnam War. I doubt he thought his book or his film would stop the creation of more Joe Bonhams, but he probably just wanted you to know they exist. For future reference.