"Darkness imprisoning me
All that I see
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell"
-Lyrics from "One" by Metallica
Dalton Trumbo had always wanted to be a writer. Despite some early setbacks, including the death of his father, Trumbo succeeded wildly. He became one of Hollywood's highest paid screenwriters thanks to his work on films such as "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and the Oscar-nominated "Kitty Foyle," starring Ginger Rogers. That would all come crashing down in 1947 when Trumbo became one of the "Hollywood Ten," a group of writers and directors blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities. They found themselves out of work and ostracized by their peers. They weren't alone. Some like Jules Dassin fled the country and continued their careers in Europe. Others such as Elia Kazan and actors Lee J. Cobb and Sterling Hayden acquiesced to Senator McCarthy's committee. They named names and wormed their way back into Hollywood. Trumbo packed his bags and moved his family down to Mexico. He would continue to write under pseudonyms ("Gun Crazy") or allowed other writers to take credit for his work ("The Brave One," "Roman Holiday"). It wasn't until Kirk Douglas hired Trumbo to write "Spartacus" and demanded that he receive credit for his script that the blacklist effectively ended.
One of Trumbo's earliest successes was his 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, which was inspired by an article he read involving the Prince of Wales visiting a wounded soldier who had lost all his limbs and senses. It was, ironically, that very book that put Trumbo on the FBI radar as it attracted the attention of numerous anti-war protestors as well as Communist and Nazi sympathizers. Trumbo would sit in the director's chair for the first and only time in 1971 to adapt the novel for the big screen. The final product would win the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year.
Timothy Bottoms, who would go on to star in "The Last Picture Show" and as George W. Bush on Comedy Central's "That's My Bush," made his feature-film debut as lead character, Joe Bonham. Trumbo based much of Joe's back story on his own life. Like Trumbo, Joe's family moved from Colorado to Los Angeles. His father passed away and Joe worked in a bakery to support his mother (Marsha Hunt who was also blacklisted by HUAC) and sisters. Joe, fresh-faced and idealistic, is drafted to fight in World War I. He bids farewell to his girlfriend Kareen (Kathy Fields) and goes off to defend his country. It has been drummed into his head that it is his duty to defend democracy though nobody in the film seems to know what ‘democracy' even means.
A series of dumb luck events tragically change his life forever. An enemy soldier's body is caught in a barbed wire fence; his odor begins offending an officer. Joe and a few other grunts are tasked with taking him down and burying him, after all any soldier is due the dignity of death. Just as they're laying the man to rest, a mortar shell rips through the night. Joe dives for cover into a foxhole only to catch the worst of the blast.
Joe awakes in a military hospital and slowly comes to the realization of his horrific fate. Joe has lost both his arms and both his legs. He no longer has the ability to see, hear, or speak. He is a self-described "piece of meat" trapped forever in darkness. The doctors, nurses, and military officers believe that poor Joe is brain-dead and cannot feel or comprehend the predicament he is in. They treat and tend to him more out of obligation than any other reason. Some even see Joe as a unique case for research and study. When the hospital staff sees they are running out of space for patients, they coldly wheel him into a utility room. He'll never know the difference, they say. But, Joe is alive in there, screaming for someone to listen.
Joe's one escape is within his mind where he fashions himself a surreal fantasy world loosely based on his own memories. At first, we are watching flashbacks of Joe's previous life such as his last, tender night with Kareen or the father-son talks he had with his dad, played by the amazing Jason Robards. As time progresses, these dream sequences become increasingly strange with Robards leading a carnival caravan through the desert, shouting for those around to come see the "armless, legless wonder of the 20th century." Trumbo had originally developed the movie adaptation of his hit novel with Luis Bunuel attached to direct. Bunuel eventually dropped out, but some of his uniquely idiosyncratic touches can still be seen through the scenes involving Donald Sutherland as Jesus Christ. This Jesus drives a train full of dead soldiers to their ultimate destination in the afterlife. When Joe approaches him for a solution to his terrible circumstances, Jesus has none. He is as "unreal as every other dream that never came true."
The film also stars the late-Diane Varsi as a young nurse touched by Joe's plight and shows the most compassion out of anyone else in the film. Even when it dawns on them that Joe's mind is fully functional and aware, they are too concerned with orders and procedure to give Joe the tender mercy of death.
Most folks probably don't even know who Dalton Trumbo is, let alone ever heard of his novel or the movie version. But, I'm wagering that many of the folks will have seen clips of the picture as they were used by Metallica for their very first music video. The second single from their album, …And Justice For All, was the song "One" which was inspired by the tale of Joe Bonham and scenes from the film are used throughout the video which got heavy airplay on MTV back in 1989.
The video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. The picture quality looks very clean for a film over thirty years old. There is some grain, the colors aren't as sharp as they could be, and some scenes look a bit flat.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital stereo 2.0. The sound is adequate, but not very crisp. Dialogue still comes in clearly.
Dalton Trumbo: Rebel in Hollywood (59:11) is a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, his life, work, his blacklisting, and the production of his film. Members of the cast and crew are interviewed along with Trumbo's son, Christopher.
Interview with Timothy Buttons (10:28) is a recent interview with the film's star who talks about working on the film and how it remains relevant to this day.
There is also an eight minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage of Dalton Trumbo on the set with commentary by Bottoms and cinematographer Jules Brenner. You'll also get a half hour radio adaptation of the novel starring James Cagney, a reproduction of an article from American Cinematographer, the music video for "One," and the film's theatrical trailer.
"Johnny Got His Gun" will not be an easy pill for many to swallow. Some sections of the film come off as a bit overly melodramatic. However, the film's final scene will haunt you to the core. It is the sort of image that will be difficult to shake out of your mind's eye.
In his review of "Johnny Got His Gun," Roger Ebert wrote, "I've never much liked anti-war films. They've never much stopped war…" Over three decades later, that statement certainly rings true. "Johnny" may not end world conflicts anytime soon; it should be seen as a thought-provoking treatise on the treatment of the brave men and women who fight overseas. The lives of those caught up in someone else's war are real human beings and not just statistics you see on the news in between bites of your dinner.