Johnny Got His Gun (1971), dir. Dalton Trumbo

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Screening at the Norwich Radical Film Festival, with a Q&A with Timothy Bottoms

Dalton Trumbo’s name is a notorious one, surviving the Hollywood blacklist through false identities, and acting as screenwriter on classics like Roman Holiday (1953) and Spartacus (1960). Perhaps now, he’s notorious for being played by Bryan Cranston in Trumbo (2015). But Johnny Got His Gun is not a notorious name. It clings onto dear life, a true independent film, reduced down to a handful of copies, surviving through Metallica music videos.

Other independent producers from this period like BBS have had their work remastered by Criterion, but the digital print screened today was far from perfect. Scratches, desaturated colours, the hiss of a projector – perhaps I’m far too used to a film being clean. Standing alongside The Go-Between (1971) at Cannes, it feels as though one has survived in audiences’ minds for longer.

The late 1960s saw the genre of the war epic collapse. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), trying to depict Pearl Harbor in the image of The Longest Day (1962), may not have bombed, but only just made back its budget. Trumbo found his screenplay rejected by every studio, the effects of the blacklist still hurting. The wave of the early 1970s rejection of Hollywood as it was had begun. Trumbo did it himself. As Bottoms explained during the Q&A, the war had touched everyone. His grandad was a veteran; so was his uncle; so was his dad. He avoided the draft for Vietnam, instead preferring to be an actor. One viewer suggested it was Trumbo’s anti-Vietnam film.

Johnny Got His Gun was one of Trumbo’s last films. Somehow, I’m glad I didn’t ask Bottoms why he never directed another film.

“Because he was on the brink of death!”

Paradoxically, it also represents a younger Trumbo, adapted from Trumbo’s own novel he published in 1938, an introspection on a war gone past on the brink of WWII. Trumbo and Bottoms grew to know each other quite well over the film’s production: an elder, industry veteran and a young, 18 year old actor, fresh off theater roles. Other actors auditioned for the role, including Peter Fonda. But Trumbo was immediately taken with Bottoms, reflecting a sense of transition between teenagehood and adulthood, without being either.

As a breakout role, it’s a brave one. His face remains concealed for much of the film’s duration, and he never fulfils traditional character roles that would make a star. Bottoms split his time between this film and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), filming the latter in Texas throughout the week and flying out every Sunday to shoot this film.

To say anything negative about this film feels difficult, because it has been such a good time, and I’ve reunited with old, super-queer friends, took a selfie with Timothy Bottoms and uttered the words “fuck the gender binary” in earshot of him. I’ve drunk glasses of free wine and eaten super-fancy canapés.

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But ultimately, this feels like a film of ideas rather than something specifically designed to be a film in its initial inception. Its anarchic, freewheeling stream of conscious is atemporal. Joe clings onto memories, trying to work out what year or month it actually is, or when the last Christmas was. (Soon enough, that he hasn’t died of influenza). Joe doesn’t know what time it is. In a book, neither does the reader – pages pass by without a sense of how much time has passed, entranced within another world. We dip into another memory when we have the time to read another chapter. But in film, the viewer knows how much time will pass, and can check their watch. Books can achieve a much cleaner way of drifting between flashback and present.

We listen to Joe’s stream of consciousness narration, largely improvised during filming, drowning out all other sounds in the room. Yet it often becomes a case of stating the obvious. “There’s someone in the room! What is he doing to me?” Through the long takes, there is no separation between Joe’s world and the people looking after him in the hospital. Trumbo fails to find a visual style which can balance this internal world with the external world. Again, this is easier to pull off within literary convention. Joe’s narration invalidates the need to see the people operating on him from a vantage point where we can see what they’re doing clearly. Seeing the people operating on him invalidates the need to hear his narration.

It is these sequences which are the most gripping, and probably helped establish the film’s cult status. With its monochrome bandages, I can’t help but think of Suture (1993). With its introspection on the workings of the mind, I can’t help but think of Inside Out (2015). It even has a sense of Cronenbergian body horror. The first shot immediately grips the viewer, as we see three surgeons’ faces stare us down, with no discernible individualistic features.

It is truly unsettling to see the state of Joe. The film’s title is a misnomer. Johnny hasn’t got his gun; we never even see Joe use it. He’s an emaciated wreck. Without arms, without legs, blinded, reduced to an unheard voice and a body moving under a sheet. When we see his shirt unbuttoned, this effect is somewhat reduced, as we see there is still life and humanity within him. His life is a true nightmare. Deaf and blind, he lives within a sensory world of touch, smell and sensing vibrations through the floorboards. Besides limited communication, all he can do is turn inside of himself.

It’s this introspection which I find the most difficult part of the film to manage. I sense traces of the surreal touches of Easy RiderMedium Cool and Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). When it’s at its most metaphorical and bizarre, it feels at its best. It creates the sense of a jumbled mind, deteriorating as time moves on just as a physical film or a digital file does, shifting between memory and past without a clear linear structure. It shifts from clinical monochrome to historical epic full colour, creating a clear distinction – between fantasy and present day reality. Where we shift into the mind, we see amphitheatres and unicorns and junkyards and our protagonist as a sideshow freak in the middle of the desert, somehow in two places at once, to an invisible paying audience (ourselves) who interacts with the circus. Within the Christmas party, the boss repeats his words over and over, a complete caricature. It’s a world of the dream and the surreal, yet still with a tangible connection to reality.

Jesus (played, somehow, by Donald Sutherland) rides the train of death, as fellow soldiers feel resigned to their inevitable demise within the war. Later, we see him working as a carpenter, as Joe philosophises alongside him, whilst soldiers behind him push along a cross – ready for the graves of soldiers, and his own shooting range. The film’s honest exploration of spirituality feels welcome – something also seen somewhat in Easy Rider – and would probably be absent were the film made today. Ultimately he concludes there is no God who could allow his suffering to happen – but we never see him begin as a committed atheist; instead, we interact with his process of becoming comfortable with death, and reflecting on the religion he was taught as a child.

Yet other sequences, like where we see his young romance on the day before he leaves for war, as his girlfriend begs him to stay, feel unwarranted. The film does a good job at depicting home life, although the scenes with his father where he goes fishing and they talk about the meaning of “democracy” struggle to feel natural either. They’re good flashbacks in a book – but here, comedic romance where two parties are unsure what the other wants and whether to overstep boundaries, feels like it’s out of place. There is no soundtrack to distract us, and these scenes drag on and I sigh in my seat, as though I should not offend Timothy Bottoms, and I begin to question my own existential dread once more.

In the closing scenes, the film’s crucial element is found. Johnny Got His Gun becomes a shockingly timely euthanasia debate within the topic of disability, that more than probably stands far above Me Before You (2016). Should his desire to die be respected, when there is no chance of him regaining any agency outside of his mind, or should he be made to live on?

Another irony: his life is respected without question, with multiple people looking after him, only for one soldier. Soldiers can be killed in war, and their hallowed soul is given an unceremonious burial, with half-arsed hymns because it’s tradition, buried with a bit of soil thrown over as enemy fire still blasts overhead.

The soldier who narrowly avoided death is afforded, in some ways, the worse state.