Friday, December 9, 2011

The Best Movies I Have Never Seen Before: Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Johnny Got His Gun ***
Directed by: Dalton Trumbo.
Written by: Dalton Trumbo based on his novel.
Starring: Timothy Bottoms (Joe Bonham), Kathy Fields (Kareen), Marsha Hunt (Joe's Mother), Jason Robards (Joe's Father), Donald Sutherland (Christ), Alice Nunn (Third Nurse), Marge Redmond (First Nurse), Jodean Lawrence (Second Nurse), Diane Varsi (Fourth Nurse).

Dalton Trumbo was one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood history, despite the obvious handicap of being blacklisted by the McCarthy hearings in 1947. While blacklisted, Trumbo continued to work under assumed names – and saw two of his screenplays (from The Brave One and Roman Holiday) win Oscars. He eventually received an Oscar for The Brave One in 1975, one year before his death, and 19 years after it won the Oscar, and in 1993, the Academy finally awarded him an Oscar for Roman Holiday, even though by then he was dead. He only directed one film in his career – based on his own novel Johnny Got His Gun in 1971. Trumbo wrote the novel based in WWI in 1939, on the eve of WWII, and made the film during the height of the Vietnam War. It is relevant no matter what war it is about because it makes the point that all wars are wrong. The great Luis Bunuel had wanted to direct the movie, but for various reasons, it never happened with him at the helm. So instead, Trumbo took over. The result is not a great movie – it bares all the flaws that many first time filmmakers have in trying to accomplish too much, and being weak visually, but its impact remains immediate and painful. As long as wars continue to rage, the film will remain relevant.

The film stars Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham, who on the last day of WWI, gets hit with an artillery shell that blows off his arms, legs and face, but miraculously he survives. The doctors believe that he is a vegetable, and he is a fascinating patient – by all rights he should be dead, but he isn’t. So they keep him alive. What they do not know is that Bonham’s mind still works, although he has no way to communicate with anyone else, and cannot hear or see them. He lives in his dark world with nothing to keep him company. The army doesn’t even know what his name is.

The movie is made up of flashbacks to Bonham’s life before the war – with a strict father (Jason Robards), sympathetic but weak mother (Marsha Hunt) and loving girlfriend (Kathy Fields), surreal fantasy sequences (that apparently, Bunuel had a hand in writing), that include Bonham as a sideshow freak, and a Christmas party, and his present, lying in the bed with nothing. The only thing that keeps the present bearable are a series of four nurses, who treat him kindly. While the doctors and the army think he’s a vegetable, and so they needn’t worry about him, these four women take care of him, and treat him with dignity.

The scenes in the present are shot in stark black and white, and while Trumbo could hardly be called a gifted visual stylist, the images are memorable, mainly because of what is being shot – namely Bonham wrapped in bandages, with his face covered. A haunting moment where his bloody bandages are cut off, and fall to the floor, is subtle, and yet more effective than something more graphic would have been. The past and the fantasy sequences are shot in color, but it is color that looks drained and fuzzy – these were happier times than the present, but still not particularly happy.

For the most part, the performances work. Bottoms, would along with this film starred in Peter Bogdanovich’s masterpiece The Last Picture Show, seemed on the edge of greatness that he never quite achieved (the last time I saw him on screen was as the drunken, oblivious father in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in 2003). Here though, he captures the young man who went off to war because it was the right thing to do, and now wants nothing more than to die. Robards is fine as his father, who believes in America, and democracy, and even though he cannot say what precisely America is fighting for, believes his son should be fighting for it. Donald Sutherland is in fine form in a small role as Jesus Christ, in Bonham’s fantasy sequences, who offers no real guidance.

There are far too many moments in the film that do not work for Johnny Got His Gun to be a great film – the worst example is of a strange Christmas party, with a man saying over and over again “I’m the boss, this is champagne, Merry Christmas” for reasons that I could never figure out. I also think that the film at times gets too preachy for its own good – hammering points home again and again until it becomes redundant. But having said that, I do have to admit that there are moments in Johnny Got His Gun that are unforgettable and haunting – ones that will likely stick with you forever. Johnny Got His Gun is not a great film, but it contains greatness in parts of it.

Note: The heavy metal bank Metalica was apparently a big fan of the book and movie, and wrote one of their best songs, One, in 1987, based on them. The music video for that song is included in the DVD, and at 8 minutes long (it is a long song), incorporates many of the best moments from the film. I actually think the 8 minute version on display in the video is more vivid and effective than the longer movie. The band apparently bought the rights to the movie outright, which is why it took so long to make its way to DVD.

No comments:

Post a Comment