The too-much-information age is a strange thing indeed. Take for instance Shout! Factory’s long-awaited DVD release of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, which takes place mostly inside the mind of wounded WWI vet Joe Bonham, a deaf/dumb/blind quadruple amputee. Smoothly and effortlessly the film weaves back and forth in time, from the present, B&W hospital setting (seen from third-person POV) to Joe’s colorful memories of the past to the trapped soldier’s vivid fantasy world. Adapted from the legendary screenwriter’s own award-winning book, Trumbo’s sole directorial effort was a film I’d never gotten around to seeing, so I was pretty thrilled when I noticed that the DVD contained a slew of bonus features. In addition to Robert Fischer’s 2006 doc Dalton Trumbo: Rebel In Hollywood, there’s a 2009 interview with star Timothy Bottoms, and the music video for Metallica’s “One” (a metal homage of sorts to Johnny). As if that weren’t enough, there’s also behind-the-scenes peeks with Bottoms and DP Jules Brenner providing commentary, the 1940 radio adaptation of Johnny (the book) starring James Cagney, a 1971 feature article from “American Cinematographer,” the original theatrical trailer and, oh yeah, a replica of the original poster! It’s like an all-in-one, film junkie overdose kit.
Which would be great, save for one giant spoiler, which I could have avoided had I not been so geeky that I watched the extras first.
You see, I had no idea Buñuel, who Trumbo first met when they were both in exile in Mexico, was originally slated to direct Johnny. I only learned this by viewing Fischer’s highly insightful documentary. And yet, knowing this little tidbit, I could no longer watch Trumbo’s flick with a blank slate mind. Every frame suddenly became imprinted with the question, “What would Buñuel do?” (Though I guess that’s preferable to “What would Julian Schnabel do?”) And this included an actual Buñuelian image of Christ on a locomotive, played by a damn sexy Donald Sutherland, who had two days to film between Klute and his next pic. Trumbo was only inspired to adapt and direct the book himself after Buñuel didn’t happen and the Vietnam War did.
But back to the film, which gets off to a sensational start, opening with marching music set to patriotic WWI footage (Teddy Roosevelt orating grandly, military parades, etc.) that runs directly above the credits. The last title fades, followed by an explosion—to black screen and heavy breathing. Though Trumbo penned his novel in the years leading up to America’s involvement in WWII, there’s no mistaking Johnny for a quintessential 70s flick. And herein lies the problem, and perhaps also the reason the film itself faded into semi-obscurity. By connecting the bloody historical past to the (Vietnam-era) present, Trumbo followed directly in the footsteps of some maverick directors who were doing likewise—but who had a firm grasp of visual language in ways that Trumbo (who understood the written word) did not. After all, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde hit theaters in 1967 while Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch came out in 1969. Not to mention the nefariousness of military institutions had already been addressed—in B&W to boot—in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove all the way back in ’64! By the time Trumbo’s onscreen lead wonders to himself, “What kind of doctor would cut a man down to what I am now and still let him live?” the rhetorical question seems less prescient or timely than passé.
Yet the movie remains an interesting combination of Trumbo’s “realistic” Hollywood style sprinkled with elements of Buñuel and Fellini surrealism (and most likely would have been a classic had Buñuel been at the helm pushing the envelope). The bold contributions from DP Brenner and production designer Harold Michelson make the directing seem nearly timid, though Brenner assures in the doc that Trumbo knew exactly what he wanted. The film’s “three colors” motif came directly from the script. Trumbo desired a heightened “color of memory,” a gauzy “color of fantasy” for when Joe was being drugged in the hospital, and a B&W “color of reality” (which was actually de-saturated color stock since Kodak was moving away from B&W by the 70s). Several sequences especially have a Buñuel feel, from soldiers playing cards with Christ before being called to their deaths (“All aboard!” the Jesus train), to Joe’s recollection of leaving his girl at the railroad station, which split-screens into an explosion to the tune of a shrieking bomb.
And Johnny stays grounded through the director’s Oscar-caliber writing, and in the heartfelt performances by a then unknown Timothy Bottoms (a natural who went directly from high school to Johnny to Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show) and Jason Robards as Joe’s wry and witty, Trumbo-esque dad. Scenes straight out of the director’s own life (the house where Joe’s dad dies is the actual house where Trumbo’s dad died) merge with scenes straight out of the director’s head (like the “diatribe with the tennis players” in which Trumbo himself plays the orator) to the point where the line between fantasy and reality disappears for the audience as it does for Joe. Or as Sutherland’s carpenter Christ notes, at night your dreams control you, whereas in the day you control your dreams. It’s a sentiment the blacklisted Trumbo wrote, believed, lived and breathed.