Johnny Got His Gun Reviews
PS: I just got to know (via 'Search Results' here) that there's a remake to this, but I don't think I'd be checking it out now. However, if someone tells you that it's executed better than the original, it's only logical you go for the better one (unless you're one of those who heavily despises remakes).
Maimed soldier Joe lies in a hospital bed, tucked away in a linen closet to save space. His face is half blown away and tactfully covered, and his arms and legs have been amputated. Blind and unable to speak, he has a limited interface with the world, and whatever trivial movements he makes are viewed as involuntary spasms. His identity is unknown to his doctors, and he is kept alive only as a medical curiosity.
He tries to make sense of the situation while recalling past events from his life, mostly focused on his gentle father (Jason Robards) and the girl he left behind. The hospital scenes are in black and white, while the flashbacks are in color. The color material also includes a few tepid fantasies involving Donald Sutherland as an unlikely, low-key Jesus Christ.
"Johnny Got His Gun" was the only film directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, best known today for being infamously blacklisted during the McCarthy era. "Johnny" was adapted from his own 1939 novel (other Trumbo credits include "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo," "Papillon," "Roman Holiday," "Spartacus" and "Exodus"). And yet surprisingly, his screenplay is more problematic than his direction: Joe's interior monologue is far too wordy and overelaborated to be realistic. There's always a sense of him adding extra detail for the audience's benefit. And Bottoms' performance is not so sharp, and this just doubles the text's clumsiness.
Watch for David Soul ("Starsky and Hutch") and Tony Geary ("General Hospital") in small roles, early in their careers.
To those squeamish, I would like to point out that "Johnny Got His Gun," written and directed by Dalton Trumbo, is not graphic. Rather, it is emotionally intense and powerful in addressing the topic of the disposability of soldiers during wartime head on. But it is not only those lives that are mourned but also those people who worked their entire lives with little reward like Joe's father(Jason Robards) who we first see at his funeral. The same can also be said of Kareen's father(Charles McGraw) who also provides unexpected kindness to the couple in such a cruel world.
Something of a meditative piece in certain places, the film has a tendency to take on a certain quietness and subtlety to its storytelling, and such a move would be more effective if it was more realized, yet as things stand, Dalton Trumbo's direction is neither thoughtful enough nor slick-paced enough for you to take the film's style for what it is, resulting in atmospheric dry spells, some of which are truly dulling. Trumbo dulls things down more than he probably should, and such an issue would perhaps not be so recurring if Trumbo had more material to meditate upon, rather than a script that he himself wrote whose excessiveness not only bloats meandering filler to the point of repetition, but also bloat material to the point of convoluting the narrative by juggling too many plot elements to feel consistent, or even focused in its progression. Dealing with the Joe Bonham characters' learning to make due with his new and horrible life, as well as with Bonham's backstory, surrealistic dreams and, just for good measure, confrontation with Christ himself (Donald Sutherland makes for quite the groovy, oddly '60s-looking Jesus in a WWI timeline), the film takes on a lot of interesting ideas, but in execution, Trumbo fails to keep controlled enough in his cinematic translation of his own novel's worthy story for the narrative to not feel overblown, repetitious and maybe even aimless. Perhaps all of the excessive layering would be more organic if the story concept was grander enough to be especially worthy of such ambition, for although this drama is certainly meaty, with plenty of layers that surprisingly feel pretty fitting (Seriously though, what was up with the Jesus segments?), the more the film struggles to flesh out its narrative, the harder it is to deny the minimalism of this subject matter, although that might simply be because much of the meat goes undercut by subtlety issues. Subject matter this devastating has be treated very delicately, because if dramatic storytelling gets carried away, the final product would be too much of an emotional challenge for you to feel the thematic weight, yet the route that Trumbo goes as storytelling is arguably just as questionable, as Trumbo actually stresses the thematic depth a touch too much, with anything from heavy-handed symbolic set pieces to sentimentality, both of which have moments in which they're not simply distancing, but cheesy as reflects of overambition. Really, at the end of the day, "ambition" is the key term which best describes this passionate meditation upon worthy subject matter, and such an overwhelming desire to compel results in plenty of realized inspiration, but once realization slips, the ambition leaves storytelling to buckle under the weight of its overly meditative atmospherics, overblown storytelling and subtlety issues, and plummet shy of its potential. The film is kind of underwhelming, and when you see just where the story could have gone, there's no denying that potential is lost, nonetheless salvaged enough for the final product to endear, sometimes grip, while at least keeping consistent in aesthetic value.
In order to reinforce its themes of distinguishing harsh reality and dreamy reality, the film really relies on Jules Brenner's cinematography, which is a touch dated, but still truly outstanding in its dynamicity, alone, gracing the hospital segments with a black-and-white color palette and emphasis on shadow that handsomely captures the subject matter's bleakness, the background segments with tastefully controlled color, and the dream segments with a heavy glow to lighting that is truly beautiful in its richness. Of course, most every segment in the stylish film is handsome, because if nothing else stands out in this drama, it's the intricately diverse and aesthetically striking visual style, so much so that the drama is almost worthy seeing just for you to observe just how playful it is with its style, or rather, how playful Dalton Trumbo is with the film's visual style. As director, Trumbo actually works pretty well with plenty of stylistic attributes, playing with the diversity of Brenner's cinematography in order to reinforce thematic and tonal dynamicity, and even with Millie Moore's snappy editing (Yeah, there are quite a few jump-cuts, but whatever) in order to add some entertaining flare, which isn't to say that Trumbo's thoughtful atmospherics are frequently too thoughtful for their own good, because even all of this heavily thoughtful storytelling wears down momentum to a dull point more often than it should, when it's realized, it immerses and moves. What further compels in this character drama is Trumbo's work with his performers, every one of which endears with his or her own distinctive portrayal, but none more so than then-newcomer Timothy Bottoms, whose grounded charisma sells the innocence of the lead Joe Bonham character, whose heavy emotional layers sells both overwhelming fear and great hope, both of which are instrumental in the selling of this film. Bottoms' solid lead performance is, of course, highly prominent in this intimate study on a man's struggles, both relatable and horrible beyond one's greatest fears, and it, combined with sharp style, inspired direction and even some clever writing, sees some powerful highlights in storytelling which is generally stands to do greater justice to a story that is itself still of limited weight. At its core, this story is kind of minimalist, and that applies sensitivity to engagement value that is, of course, undercut by the missteps within Trumbo's interpretation of his own narrative concept, yet at the same time, the basic idea behind this drama, on its own, holds too much intrigue to easily shake, being not only an interesting character study with plenty of nifty, almost surrealistic dreamy aspects, but a worthy portrait on the horrors of warfare that, despite its subtlety issues, carries plenty of water, thematically and dramatically speaking. Were there more consistency to inspiration, rather than sheer ambition, to the telling of this worthy tale, the final product would have rewarded pretty thoroughly, through all of the minimalist aspects, yet as things stand, the conceptual value and interpretation's heart prove to be enough to brink the final product at least to the brink of rewarding.
In closing, bland atmospheric spells steady a sense of momentum which is shaken enough by questionable structural pacing and a rather convolutedly overblown narrative that, alongside subtlety issues, reflect too much of an ambition to flesh out a story too conceptually minimalist for the final product to truly stand out, but through excellent and richly dynamic cinematography, thoughtful direction and strong acting - particularly by Timothy Bottoms - behind a dramatically and thematically solid story concept, "Johnny Got His Gun" stands as a highly flawed, but borderline rewardingly endearing study on the dark depths of struggle to which a human can sink.
2.75/5 - Decent
In other films dealing with the same underlying sentiments, the message and emotions are too widely distributed to a variety of characters that they sometimes appear to be too far-fetched, hence meager in overall effect. But in "Johnny Got His Gun", which beautifully reigns on the longings and memories of the titular character and wholly explores the landscapes of his entirety, Dalton Trumbo maximized the whole film and merged Johnny's personal struggles as an extreme amputee with his flinching anti-war sentiments. It ultimately came out as a spell-binding commentary not just pertaining to the sheer senselessness of conflicts, but also regarding the endurance of the soul.
Timothy Bottoms portrays the quadruple amputee Johnny with his trademark sad eyes and deadpan energy. Through his flashbacks and overlaps of fantasies and retained memories, he leads us through an unforgettably cerebral journey inside the psyche of an ordinary man who, as told to him even by his father (great performance by Jason Robards), is nothing 'unusual'. This is not a soldier whose life is filled with overachieving decorations or countless belligerence in the battlefield. He is a simple man with the same existential woes like other people usually have. But what separates him among others is his sense of 'hope'.
This film could have easily drifted into an unfathomable territory of pity and despair. But with Dalton Trumbo's attention to emotional balance, while enhanced by Jules Brenner's cinematography, "Johnny Got His Gun" surprisingly tiptoes between sets of spirited humor amidst its pessimistic undertones. But aside from all of these, the film is also quite articulate in its seemingly elegiac approach to religious 'faith'.
Eccentrically surrealist as it may seem to be, Donald Sutherland's 'Christ' is not shown as an omniscient observer but as a man of wisdom capable to immerse. He gambles with the soldiers, he fancies carpentry and he also signs checks. This can simply be a visual injection by Luis Bunuel who did an uncredited screenplay contribution to the film, but it is still subtly affecting in its approach.
"Johnny Got His Gun" fully suggests that in times of chaos, especially those created and prolonged by the follies of men, God does not merely watch from above but guides in close contact. But also as what the film's theme suggests, he is also imperfect in his own right.
There's a significant exchange in the film where the military doctor asks the priest to convince Johnny to put his faith in God. The priest, after seeing the poor condition of Johnny's physical predicament, tells the astute military doctor that he will not risk testing Johnny's faith against his (the doctor) stupidity. Johnny is a product of the military doctor's profession, after all. It's a conversation rooted out from situational desperation but it's quite obvious that the failure of the military doctor to reply to the priest's indirect accusation alludes to his acceptance of the generalized mistakes created by his occupation.
The film, although has raised some potent promises regarding the condition of men of duty like Johnny, is a bleak observation of casualties and the secretive tendencies of 'war' and its officials. And as if out of nowhere, it is evenly contrasted with the demonstrativeness of a 'freak show' on a traveling carnival. The latter may exploit, but it does not, in any way, take lives so relentlessly as the first.
Many films have shown emotional desensitization in the middle of violence and carnage. But "Johnny Got His Gun" does not put itself along those lines that may just evoke mindless, machismo-filled indifference; the film is, after all has been said, a liberating study of the maddening physical limitations of a man nowhere to retreat but his collective dreams and his conscious mind. It tells of the imminence of hopelessness yet it struggles for life. Dalton Trumbo and Johnny. They prefer the 'carnival' more.