Johnny Got His Gun

Johnny Got His Gun


Reviewed by: David Haviland

There are moments in Johnny Got His Gun, which reminded me of the old movie parodies in The Simpsons, with Troy MacLure and little Timmy. In one scene a young boy watches his father cleaning his prized fishing pole:

"Daddy, what is democracy?" he asks, wide-eyed.

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"I don't know, son. It seems to have something to do with young men having to go out and kill each other."

"But Daddy, what if I don't want to go?"

"Son, any man would be proud to give up his child's life for democracy."

The film tells the story of Joe, a First World War soldier, who wakes up in hospital to find a landmine has cost him all his limbs and most of his senses. Totally cut off from the world, he drifts in and out of dreams and memories. Through this device the film conveys his youthful idealism and the senseless reality and waste of war.

That the film is so close to parody is partly a mark of its sincerity. It's an adaptation of director Donald Trumbo's own anti-war novel, written in Thirties, which reached a new audience with the Vietnam protests of the Sixties. However, its po-faced approach doesn't transfer well to film and compares poorly with more humorous satires, such as Catch 22 and M*A*S*H.

The problem is that this isn't a remotely cinematic story. The hero is only likeable in that we feel sorry for what's happened to him, but there's no dramatic potential in a man who can't move, or communicate. The anti-war message is simplistic and heavy handed and some of the fantasy scenes appear laughable, particularly those with Donald Sutherland as a kind of hip, easy going God.

Trumbo's own story is much more interesting. He was one of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to testify at the height of the McCarthy witch-hunts. After a spell in prison, he moved to Mexico, where he wrote under pseudonyms and won two Oscars for Roman Holiday and Spartacus.

Johnny Got His Gun was the only film he directed, but he'll be better remembered for his excellent screenplays and principled example.

Reviewed on: 18 Nov 2004
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A soldier rendered limbless and almost senseless by war, remembers moments of his past.
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Director: Dalton Trumbo

Writer: Dalton Trumbo

Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, David Soul, Diane Varsi

Year: 1971

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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