Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

I’ve seen a few depressing war movies and the one or the other that affected me a lot, still I’d say the prize for most depressing war movie has to go to Johnny Got His Gun (1971 US). What a nightmare. If there ever was a movie which was completely unambiguous in its anti-war message, that’s it.

Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun was quite a success when it came out still no film director wanted to make it into a movie until Trumbo himself decided to do so. The result is unsettling.

Joe is a young man of 21 years when the US enter WWI in 1917. Patriotism and a feeling of duty, the wish to serve his country and democracy make him sing up. Once in France he is severely wounded, loses both of  his arms and legs and his face as well. They put him in a utility room in the hospital, his head covered with cloth. The doctor who is in charge declares that he is brain-dead. According to him he doesn’t feel or sense anything and isn’t much more than a vegetable really.

The scenes showing Joe in the hospital are black and white and they alternate with color scenes representing either dreams and hallucinations or memories. As the spectators soon realize, Joe isn’t brain-dead. He has a feeling for himself and slowly discovers the horrific state he is in. Together with him we realize at first that his arms are missing, then that his legs are missing too and later that there is only the top of his head and the brain left.

In the flashbacks we see his life before he signs up and in his dreams and hallucinations show how he tries to make sense, tries to find a meaning and some reason to live.

If it wasn’t for one nurse who is so shaken by compassion his live would be even more miserable than it is. She sees more than just a rump in him, moves his bed into the sunlight, touches him and tries to communicate with him.

The end is absolutely horrible. Joe finds a way to communicate with the people around him in using morse code. He tells them to expose him. As a warning, for people to learn. When the doctors see their mistake, that he isn’t brain-dead but knows what is happening to him, they lock him up, and deprive him of what little he had. He ends up as a secret and one can not even imagine what that means. Alone, abandoned and without the possibility to end his own life.

Johnny Got His Gun may be one of the most forceful anti-war movies ever but it’s really a very depressing movie. Not one I’m likely to watch again.

This was part of a watch along and I’m curious to hear other impressions or read other reviews.

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9 thoughts on “Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

  1. nem baj says:

    Watching it again after many years, I think it aged quite well. Of course, the big shock – when we discover Joe has lost his limbs, face, and all senses but touch – is spoilt, but the dreams / drug-induced dreams / conscious thinking structure still works fine. The sound editing is superb. And the main suspense is still there: will he ever be able to communicate? And what will happen to him then?

    However, the relation between the film and the subject of war appears quite thin. Sure, killing and wounding in large numbers is a necessity in war – some would say it’s even the purpose. Yet, Joe’s situation could have been caused, for instance, by a factory accident, and I’m not sure the movie would have been less gripping. The political rants could just the same have targeted industrialists instead of the military, ‘material progress’ instead of ‘democracy’, and of course the medical profession.

    There’s actually nothing in the movie specifically related to the human experience of war itself. Joe’s reasons for enlisting, for instance, are never touched – you’ll almost forget he’s a young adult male, with the aggressiveness and the craving for danger that generally go with it, along with the need for bonding. Apart from the line about “seeing Paris, France”, Joe is portrayed as much too ethereal to be true.

    In my opinion the lasting strength of Johnny Got His Gun has in fact little to do with its purported anti-war stance. It’s a brilliant freak tale about what it is to be alive, to be human, for ourselves and for others. The sensual realm, the imaginary world, acting, thinking, desire, reason, speech, faith… I guess that’s what Luis Buñuel saw in it. In that respect, I consider it to be a great work of cinema.

    • I find it very anti-war. I agree, the missing arms and legs, it could have been a factory accident but the facila wounds are so typical fro WWI. It’s not surprising that the two war movies which affetced me the most were both WWI movies. This one and La Chambre des officiers… That was awful as well.
      I cannot even say whether I found it was well done, as I’ve seen it for the first time so I was just horrified.

  2. the war movie buff says:

    I was very skeptical when this movie ended up being chosen for the watchalong, but I have to admit it has affected me more than almost every war movie I have seen recently. It is very depressing, but also very thought provoking. Your review is spot on, but I have a few things I would like to add.

    1. The acting is not strong. Timothy Bottoms as the lead is adequate. Jason Robards as his father is good, as is Diane Varsi as the nurse.
    2. The flashbacks/dreams are non-linear and intriguing. His relationship with his father is a bit inconsistent with him starting as uncaring, but later being a good father.
    3. The Jesus segments are heavy-handed, but generally the movie is not as bludgeoning as you would expect. The movie does have some religiousity, but is not violently anti-religion.
    4. His father defines democracy as young men killing each other. Young men don’t have homes so they go out and kill each other. For democracy, any man would give his son. Trumbo is unstable here.
    5. I liked the way the dreams were not surreal, but looked like dreams look (at least the ones I have).
    6. The voice over gets stronger as the movie proceeds. In fact, the movie itself gets stronger over time.
    7. The script is a bit corny at times.
    8. I, of course, can’t truly imagine what he is going through (although you can’t help but imagine), but I would think he would not have remained coherant.
    9. Kudos to Trumbo for making the film. He does a satisfactory job directing.
    10. The movie caused me to refelct on the fact that with modern military medicine, we are saving wounded in Afghanistan who might be better off dead and I wonder if they are given the choice.

    I disagree with Nem’s interpretation. I find the movie is specifically anti-war. However, the book hammers the point more. The book spends a lot of time hammering at the theme that there is no motivation that justifies dying for your country (ex. make the world safe for democracy, the homeland, liberty, etc.) I’m not sure I agree with this. Some wars have to be fought and that means someone has to die.

    Thank you, Caroline.

    BTW now that I’ve seen the movie there is not a chance in Hell I will read the book (although I did read an extended excerpt).

    • I agree, I found it ant-war as well. Very WWI, as I wrote in my answre to nem baj.
      I’m surprised this affected you as well. Usually you’re less affected than I am. But boy, this is a depressing movie and like you I was thinking- how often do they asave people who would have been so much better off dead.
      Truly nightmarish and I can’t blame you for not reading the novel now.
      Still, I’m glad I saw itas it shows that you can make a deeply affecting movie without showing anything really gruesome.
      I suppose if it hadn’t been for the watchalong I might have been a wimp and stopped watching half way in…

    • nem baj says:

      I didn’t write the movie wasn’t intended to be anti-war: it certainly was. Nevertheless, hammering is not substantiating; here, the anti-war stance isn’t substantiated. Actually, the film attempts to use our strong emotional reaction to Joe’s medical condition to make us receptive to a political thesis. That’s very manipulative – although not more than so many war movies (particularly U.S. ones, although of course not exclusively) showing an opposite political stance.

      My view here is that one can easily disregard the thesis (and the trick), regardless of whether one agrees with it. Johnny Got His Gun is still a great movie beyond the scope of war. It raises many questions about what it means to be human*. Incidentally, that’s also the reason why Spartacus is still watchable today…

      (*) The nurse’s first attempts, if not to ‘communicate’, but at least to convey some form of love to Joe through opening the window, touching and kissing, made me think about Almodóvar’s Hable con ella.

      • Yes, I see what you meand he does hammer and manipulate but maybe the message still gets heard better like this? And I also agree that it says a lot about what it means to be human. I had to recover from watching it first to give it more thought. All the episodes in the hospital are pretty amazing. Also the falsh backs but the dream sequences didn’t work that well for me.
        I didn’t make a connection with Hable con ella. I’ve got it but haven’t seen it yet.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I didn’t watch it, but it reminds me of a recent film, Source Code. The premise is different but if you’ve seen it, you’ll probably understand the connection I’m making. Don’t want to say too much in case people haven’t seen it and I spoil it.

    • I’ll have a look, thanks. I only hope it’s not as nightmarish. i couldn’t take another one like this just yet.

    • nem baj says:

      Interesting connection, Guy. There’s actually a dream sequence in Johnny where a scientist claims that in the future they’ll be able to put even the most damaged soldiers back into service. 🙂

      But Source Code avoids the grotesque, whereas Johnny feasts on it. The former is more like a puzzle, while the latter is more like a fun fair.

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