“I’m having a nightmare and I can’t wake up.”
Based on the 1938 novel of the same name written by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun is an anti-war film directed by Trumbo himself in 19711. Johnny Got His Gun details the experiences of a young, fictional soldier named Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) who was seriously injured on the very last day of World War I. With this tragedy, for Joe, comes confusion, despair and several startling realizations as time goes on. At some points, things start to look up for Joe, only for those dreams to seemingly end as quickly as they began.
Johnny Got His Gun provides a harrowing depiction of not only the emotional harm that can result from war, but the physical harm as well and the possible consequences of each. In Joe’s case, his emotional harm seems to largely stem from his physical harm and the poor attempts made by the medical team that attends to Joe to regard him as conscious and feeling. Due to the severity of his injuries, Joe is made to be entirely dependent on near-constant medical care and attention. On a darker note, the medical staff where Joe is being taken care of do not understand Joe’s inner thoughts, as he is unable to verbally communicate and initially does not even understand what has happened to him. It felt as if with Joe’s vast physical injuries, his humanity was stripped away from him by others’ lack of true understanding and compassion, leading to the tragic ill-treatment of his injuries as a whole.
As for the stylistic choices in the film itself, when the scenes are centered in Joe’s present-day reality (post-injury), the scenes are shot in black and white. Joe’s lines are not delivered by him verbally, but rather through the style of Joe acting as a narrator for his own internal monologue. For the majority of the present-day scenes, Joe is able to broadcast his thoughts to viewers of the film, but not to those around him. On the other hand, when the scenes are focusing on Joe’s memories and dreams/imagination (pre-injury or free of injury), they are shot in color. This felt like a really interesting stylistic choice for this movie and worked effectively to distinguish the “settings” (so to speak) of the film and set the tone for each one respectively. The black and white scenes reflected Joe’s somber, solitary reality, while the color scenes seemed to be more hopeful for Joe, and frequently less bleak than the present-day.
Bottoms’ performance as Joe complemented the film nicely, even though there were moments that may not have felt as emotionally convincing as others. This minor complaint, however, does not really seem to impact the overall quality of the film. There are several (I mean several) emotional pockets dropped in throughout the film in which Bottoms offers up strong thoughts and feelings with his role as Joe. These pockets were often joined up with the performances of pivotal characters in Joe’s story, such as his father (Jason Robards), his girlfriend Kareen (Kathy Fields), and the smallest nurse that attends to him (Diane Varsi).
Overall, the film’s story had good pacing and although there were many switches between the present-day and Joe’s memories and dreams/imagination and his and others’ fluctuating emotional states, it was not a challenge to keep up with. Even if the acting could be more convincing at some points, the story and performances still managed to conjure up some strong emotions for me. Minor criticisms aside, Johnny Got His Gun was ultimately heart-wrenching to watch and provided a lot to reflect upon.
1 Source: IMDb