100 years has passed since WW1. Somehow, that anniversary isn’t mentioned in the popular media nearly enough as it should. Some people called WW1 “the war that’ll end all wars” and they were terribly mistaken. In relation to the other war films, especially the ones about Vietnam or WW2, WW1 is somehow in the background like the big war that everybody knows, but about which nobody talks. Maybe it just wasn’t as interesting as the other wars mentioned above, with all regard to the fact of how really interesting the war by itself can be. Dalton Trumbo made wonderful film with “Johnny got his gun”, that I believe it is really a masterpiece, and I’m wondering how did I miss it until now. Dalton Trumbo is a man who has written “Spartacus” and “Papillon”, both film about freedom of the body in extraordinary circumstances, but in “Johnny got his gun” body is irrelevant, nonexistent. “Johnny got his gun” is a film about freedom of the soul and soul is something that, in theory, cannot be caught, cannot be abused, and cannot be imprisoned. Dalton Trumbo argues that theory and gives us Johnny. Johnny is a young man with a lot to accomplish in his life, his love awaits for his return, he is to marry her and live happily ever after. That fairy tale reality is something that keeps Johnny going, but his reality is so far from fairyland as it gets. He is wounded by mortar grenade and he has no legs or hands, he doesn’t have anything to move with and the army thinks of him as a body that is non-cerebral, without conscience. Man without conscience is not alive, although he breeds, and he should be preserved to help the army possibly save some other poor soul that is wounded in the hell of the war. But, the army is wrong and Johnny, although he has no extremities, is alive and conscious. He thinks and he realizes, he dreams and he questions all aspects of his unfortunate destiny. His recollections of the times past are moving and in them he encounters his dad, and the Christ (played very well by Donald Sutherland). His questions are questions of perspective. During the film Johnny becomes sentient about what’s left of him. To emphasize, he has no arms, legs, face, voice or ears. Communication with the outside world is almost impossible. Human psyche, when there is no one to talk to, starts to talk with itself. And the questions as well as the answers it gets, are true wonder of human nature. Timothy Bottoms as Johnny, in the recollection part of the film is bit of naïve fellow, but a fellow we, as a viewers, are inclined to empathize with.
Questions that Joe is asking are universal questions, but it seems that nobody has an answer to them:
How? WHY? Where do I go? What do I have to do?
The reason nobody has an answer for Joe is that the answer is really trivial, and not necessary. Maybe even it doesn’t exist. From Joe’s point of view any answer anybody can give to him is just preaching to the choir, nobody is in his situation, nobody has ever been and because of that nobody can understand it. “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do”, said Bob Dylan in his legendary song “Masters of War” but here, in this movie even Jesus doesn’t know what to say. In this case Joe’s suffering is much greater than anything even he can conceive. That is maybe the greatest accomplishment of Dalton Trumbo. He made great anti-war film but in his center aren’t nations or genocides, aren’t holocausts and exterminations, in the center of this wonderful narrative is just – one man. One simple, loving and caring young man whose sole purpose of existence is to serve. To God, Country and American Way. Or perhaps…? What is the purpose of war? What is the purpose of existence, life itself? Joe asks that questions bravely but the point is that he’s seen more in his hospital bed, without ears, eyes and voice, than most people in their entire fully functional lives. When it seems that all hope is lost, one empathic sister will make a change and Joe will find a way to communicate. His utter belief in the human good is incredible. Even in the state he’s in he still trusts that the people in general are good, and that their reactions to his words, to his “voice from the grave” will be as caring and thoughtful as he is. When communications breakthrough is finally achieved, his ideas are rejected, and the army officer shuts his windows, that simple ray of sunlight in Joe’s gray surroundings. Ray of sunlight is only contact with the outside world that’s left for Johnny and when even that last thread of humanity is lost, all that Johnny can do is to find the only means of escape that he has at his disposal.
Is Johnny a freak?
Does anybody wants him to be anything else but a disposable showcase for future generations??
Was it worth it?
All the answers will be served for you in the end of this brilliant masterpiece. Enjoy! Think things through. “Johnny got his gun” is great anti-war epic, which should be watched in human rights classes, again and again. “Masters of war” should watch it too but it isn’t like they even care. How many Johnnies do you know? Everybody can be a Johnny with a gun, but in this case one huge strength of the film is that Johnny’s gun is his soul and his imagination. It’s a pity that Dalton Trumbo directed only one film. He’s truly one of the greatest writers of the movie industry, but in this movie we can see how great director he could’ve been. Film couldn’t make me cry for a long time. “Johnny got his gun” has that unique ability because of the shock it produces near the end of the story.
Joseph Conrad and Francis Coppola traveled through the “Heart of Darkness” and “Apocalypse Now” to make an anti-war epic; but Dalton Trumbo topped that with journey into the human individual. Similarities are obvious, although the films are completely different in genre and technique. Somehow, “Apocalypse” is amalgam of Conrad’s novel and this movie. But here the main character kicks in. He answers those questions above and becomes his own horror, but slim chance for escape still exists. When Johnny dies, Johnny will be free at last. While Kurtz is freed (killed) by Willard, Johnny will be free when he dies too; but in the real life killers like Willard don’t exist. While Kurtz is abomination terminated by the army, Johnny is abomination preserved by that same army. While Kurtz is mentally gone, Johnny is physically gone. Death means freedom for both of them. Death is their mean of escape. For Kurtz, horror was worth it. For Johnny, it wasn’t enough. They’re both freaks, because war can’t produce anything else. It’s in the nature of war to produce freaks. Different freaks they are, but they’re freaks still. Windows and doors are shut and the light doesn’t go through. Everything is in the shades of dark and gray. Johnny got his gun, but only when the guns are silent, curtain falls down. When the guns are silent, mutilated casualties like Johnny can talk. While Kurtz is general in his monologues, Johnny is individual. Johnny’s “Apocalypse” is personal and in that regard much more terrifying than Coppola’s.
Because silent abandonment in the dark is the greatest “horror, horror” of them all.