Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 1971
Directed by
Dalton Trumbo
111 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Johnny Got His Gun

Dalton Trumbo's anti-war film which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival (it tied with Milos Forman’s Taking Off ) is a trenchantly unremitting portrait of the tragedy of war told through the story of one young soldier during World War I, Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms making his screen debut), who as the result of a mortar shell explosion has lost his arms, his legs, and most of his face.

Trumbo, adapting his own novel for his only feature film credit as a director is not the most sophisticated of helmers, his skills presumably being more verbal than visual, but his film, which clearly had little commercial potential even in the heady anti-Vietnam days of 1971, is not only exceptionally anhedonic by American movie-making standards but harrowing in its contrast between the limbless and masked torso of his emblematic protagonist and the flashbacks to happier days when Joe was an eager young man working in a bakery, supporting his mother and sisters after the death of his father (Jason Robards) and in love with a local lass.  Of course he enlists, like so many millions of his generation did, because it’s the right thing to do with no concept of the terrible fate that awaits him

Whether there was a need for Jesus Christ (played by Donald Sutherland) to get a guernsey is questionable but in general Trumbo effectively uses a mixture of flashbacks and fantasies to, as it were, bring Joe to life, the army doctors, who do not even know his name, assuming that he is completely “de-cerebrated”. Only after a passage of some years does a sympathetic nurse (Diane Varsi) realize that Joe is conscious.

The main device however that Trumbo relies on to bring home Joe;'s humanity is his voice-over. Initially this appears rather contrived, the sort of cheap expedient oft-used in B-movies (of which Trumbo penned more than his fair share) but the sheer horror of Joe’s present situation is so compelling that one comes to accepts it in all its pathos.

To his credit Trumbo doesn’t try to wrap up his story in any cathartic way.  Indeed Johnny Got His Gun offers virtually nothing in the way of the usual scopophilic pleasures of cinema but it is a remarkable declaration of war on war.




Want something different?

random vintage best worst