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Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) lies in a hospital bed after suffering horrific injuries in WW1. Armless, legless and faceless, Joe is declared a vegetable by medical staff. Slowly he becomes aware of his situation and desperately attempts to communicate. Unable to speak or write, he recalls life with his father (Jason Robards) and the solitary night he spent with his girlfriend (Kathy Fields). His delirium also brings forth fantasies of his encounters with Christ (Donald Sutherland). With only a nurse apparently able to understand his cries, Joe declares his wish to be placed in a freak show, as evidence of the horror of war.

Review by Richard Kuipers:
The only film directed by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus, Kitty Foyle, 30 Seconds Over Tokyo, Bill Of Divorcement, Gun Crazy), Johnny Got His Gun is a flawed but nonetheless fascinating product of the rising anti-war sentiment in the US at the time of Vietnam.

Set in WW1 and somewhat reminiscent of Paths Of Glory (1958) in its depiction of bright-eyed, idealistic young men being slaughtered in the barbary of the trenches, this rarely-seen item can be viewed as the important, independently produced precursor to the more commercially viable studio productions (eg Coming Home, 1978) made in the wake of America's inability to secure victory in Vietnam. The drama is filmed in sharply contrasting styles.

The appalling reality of Joe Bonham's present situation is shot in stark black and white, with his interior monologue criss-crossing over the observations of various generals, doctors and nurses grappling with the state of the mutilated patient before them. Colour-drenched flashbacks and fantasy sequences are interspersed; some recalling his childhood, others depicting Joe's experiences in combat.

The most striking sequences are those in which Joe engages in philosophical discussions with Jesus Christ (a well cast Donald Sutherland). Appearing physically as his former self but occupying the emotional state of his now-destroyed body, Joe asks the son of God how best to deal with the trauma he is suffering. When Christ suggests he close his eyes and say 'I'm not going to have nightmares', Joe replies 'but I don't have any eyes'. Trumbo, who spent 10 months in gaol during the anti-communist witch hunts, uses these circular discussions and the commentary of authority figures at the hospital to launch a scathing attack on religion, science and politics. In relation to the still-breathing body of Joe Bonham, these institutions are inadequate at best and monstrously inhuman at worst in their inability to rationalise their conspiracy to twist a human being into Joe's present shape.

What emerges is a potent portrayal of war as it is fought on fronts away from the battlefield and, above all, a deeply affecting humanism that flies in the face of the narrow ideologies imposed on the everyman like Joe. Trumbo's dialogue is sometimes awkward (a legacy of adapting his 30 year-old novel too literally) and some of the performances are stiff and stagey, but the conviction with which this is made marks it as required viewing for serious film lovers. It hardly matters that this disc has no special features. The pure power of its story-telling and themes is all that's required. The sparkling letterboxed print looks terrific and the two-channel soundtrack is crystal clear.

Published September 16, 2004

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(US, 1971)

CAST: Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, Kathy Fields, Diane Varsi, Marsha Hunt

DIRECTOR: Dalton Trumbo

RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.85:1; Dolby Digital 2.0

SPECIAL FEATURES: None. Subtitles: None

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Umbrella Entertainment/The AV Channel

DVD RELEASE: May 21, 2004

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