Luis Buñuel, whose contribution to the script survived his withdrawal from directing the project, appears to have been of two minds about the film Johnny Got His Gun that Dalton Trumbo himself directed during the Vietnam War. Buñuel found Trumbo’s film “overlong and overintellectualized,” but also felt that it “has the same power” and “disturbing quality” as Trumbo’s antiwar novel on which the film is based and which first appeared on the verge of the Second World War in September 1939. Buñuel was correct, of course, in both regards. The film, for whose script Trumbo received exclusive official credit, took two major prizes at Cannes, including the prize of the international critics.
A completely dark screen is held in complete silence for several heartbeats—an encouragement for the viewer, who is sitting in a darkened theater, to identify with Joe Bonham, the 17-year-old boy whose close encounter with a mortar shell in the First World War has left him, his doctors and nurses believe, brain-dead. (The background the boy is given suggests that Trumbo also identified with Joe.) However, the interior monologue that we hear from the victim, a form of voiceunder and dramatic irony, tells us that Joe’s mind, at least, is intact; we see his current state—that is, we do not see it, for what remains of Joe is buried under swathes and sheets—in black and white, while his memories and dreams appear in color. Blind, deaf and unable to speak, Joe is as helpless as a newborn, and one by one his limbs are surgically removed—his screamed protests only we can hear—so that what is left of him can be medically studied. Joe finally learns to communicate through Morse-code head-knocks, but even his visionary encounters with Jesus help him not one iota.
Jason Robards, Jr., is wonderful as Joe’s father, whose prized fishing-pole—consider it a working-class Prospero’s wand—musters compensation for his failures to succeed in life, for instance, as a salesman trying to support his family. This Prospero “gives up” his “magic” by his son’s losing it; but Trumbo, here at least, shortcircuits sentimentality by having (upon the father’s death) a teenaged Joe apologize for its loss before we know its importance. Indeed, the phallic pole always was Joe’s to lose from the time, as a young boy, he asked his father which Bonham loved more, him or the pole, and Bonham answered (with a gleam only we can fathom) that the pole, being special, commands more of his heart. Joe immediately protests that he himself is “special,” offering as proof his determination, when he grows up, not to go off to kill in war.
One wonders: Did it make Joe feel better to declare his filial love to the corpse of his father? Regrettably, like so much that’s clunkish in this film, we may later be annoyed when Joe’s younger self, in the further-back flashback, refuses to throw his arms around his father although his father begs him to. But Joe’s remembering all this in his presumed vegetable state is a kind of catch-up of understanding. The neediness to which America reduced his father America (by seducing him to enlist, to make the world “safe for democracy”) has now reduced Joe, and he knows it. I itch, he remarks. Why doesn’t somebody scratch it?
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