Suffering in Silence: Johnny Got His Gun

Ok, let’s start out by acknowledging that Johnny Got His Gun (DVD 5654) is probably one of the most subtly terrifying movies that exists and is an incredibly powerful testament to the individual ravages of war. As the rather graphic trailer aptly explains, it is not the story of the millions that have died, but of one man who survived.

Based on the 1938 anti-war novel of the same name by Dalton Trumbo (who also directed the film), the story is told through the character Joe Bonham, a naïve but well-meaning U.S. volunteer who is severely injured by an artillery shell during World War I.

I had read the book once through a short-lived book club in college, but like many people growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, I was first aware of the movie through the Metallica music video for One, which features clips from the film throughout. Interestingly enough, Metallica currently owns all rights to the film as they got tired of having to pay royalties every time the video aired.

The film begins as brutally as any metal video, as three hooded and masked doctors peer over the injured Bonham as he awakens in a hospital bed, where he has lost his arms, legs, and face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). Tragically, his mind continues to perfectly function. Somewhat thankfully, the audience is never shown his horrific injuries, and Bonham always appears in his hospital bed covered with gauze or a cloth mask. As his mind begins to gradually function, the audience is subjected to much happier flashbacks of his time with an early love, his memories of his father and mother, and his comradery with other soldiers before his injury.

Several aspects make the film devastatingly poignant and outright psychologically disturbing:

First, is the fact that no one else realizes Bonham’s mind is functioning normally. It is assumed that he is basically brain dead, and he is being kept alive primarily for medical research. Second, Bonham only slowly comes to realize the extent of his injuries. It begins with noticing he cannot move his limbs, and silently wails at the doctors for removing his arms and legs. Later, it suddenly dawns on him that his whole face has been “scooped out.” He silently screams “Oh Jesus Christ, it’s me and I’m alive.” The scene slowly fades to black as Bonham’s anguish of not wanting to live in such a state echoes across the screen in a deliriously hazy view of heaven. Likewise, the happy flashbacks are cut with more depressing, fantastical drug induced visions of heaven and a magic Jesus, superbly played by a young Donald Sutherland. Finally, when the medical staff realize that Bonham’s mind continues to function, his pleas in Morse code of “Kill me, Kill me” are ignored. Just as one nurse fails at cutting off his breathing tube, a knowing doctor sedates Bonham and then turns off the lights before leaving the room. The final scene has Bonham left in the dark, slowly fading into a drug induced slumber repeating “S.O.S. Help me.”

Chilling anti-war material to say the least.

Now as a whole, Johnny Got His Gun is probably not the most memorable of WWI films. It has a distinct lack of war action and was written with a very specific anti-war aim. The film, also thankfully, was not based on a real-life case, but was supposedly inspired by an article Trumbo read about a Canadian WWI veteran who had lost his arms and legs. Published in 1940, just after the declaration of war in Europe, the pacifist novel became something of a rallying point for both the political left (of which Trumbo was an increasingly ardent member), and right-wing isolationists before the full discovery of the Holocaust.

Ultimately, the anti-war message almost overshadows any aspect of Johnny got his Gun as a WWI film per se. If the WWI footage from the credits was replaced with any other war footage, the film could equally serve as a warning about the devastation of any war and individual suffering of its victims, just as Joe Bonham’s drift between reality and fantasy correspond to the myth and realities of any war.

Posted in WWI on Film.