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Joe, a young American soldier, is hit by a mortar shell on the last day of World War I. He lies in a hospital bed in a fate worse than death --- a quadruple amputee who has lost his arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth and nose. He remains conscious and able to think, thereby reliving his life through strange dreams and memories, unable to distinguish whether he is awake or dreaming. He remains frustrated by his situation, until one day when Joe discovers a unique way to communicate with his caregivers. Written by
One of the finest uses of motion picture film I have ever seen.
Johnny Got His Gun is a motion picture based on a 1938 anti-war book that used World War I as the setting. It should be noted that Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), author of the book and director of the movie was a brilliant Hollywood screenwriter who also wrote the scripts for several Academy Award winning movies such as Exodus, Roman Holiday, Spartacus and The Brave One. He was one of the big 10 blacklisted in the 1940s by Hollywood and essentially forced to move to Mexico. He had joined the Communist party in 1943, thinking that it was all about caring for fellow human beings and ensuring that working people are paid fairly rather than being turned into semi-slaves. He was not terribly interested in the political agenda of the American Communist Party and dropped it in the mid 1940s to instead put his efforts into unionization. However, during the McCarthy era, the fact that he really had little to do with communism didn't matter. He was targeted by McCarthy, and imprisoned for a year for standing on his 5th Amendment rights by refusing to testify before McCarthy's committee. One must wonder if this book had something to do with why he was targeted in that immediate post WWII, rabidly pro-war and anti-communist culture.
This film is graced by several stars and minor players who were relative unknowns in 1971 when the film was released. They included not only Southerland, but also Timothy Bottoms, Tom Tryon, and David Soul. Additionally, some pretty well known actors such as Alice Nunn, Marsha Hunt, and Jason Robards had parts in the film. These excellent actors brought their considerable skills to what was essentially a low-budget anti-war film made and released during the Vietnam war. Strangely (at least to me), the movie wasn't a hit with the anti-war crowd during the very early 1970s--perhaps because the depiction of the terrible injuries suffered by the protagonist were just too real to those threatened with being drafted.
This is clearly an anti-war film because it shows the horror of war in the person of Johnny Bonham, a soldier whose body was blown apart by an explosive. All Johnny was left with was a horribly damaged body--essentially just a head and torso. He was left with none of the physical senses humans use to communicating with other people no eyes, ears or tongue. In the normal course of events, doctors would have let him die of his horrific injuries. However, in this case they used him as an experiment to see how well/long they could keep an essentially "dead" body alive. The doctors assumed his injuries were such that he had no consciousness and no ability to suffer. How wrong they were! In a surrealistic format, the film goes back and forth from a black and white present, to a color past showing Johnny's memories, and back to the present in which Johnny has discussions with Jesus Christ (played by a young Donald Southerland).
To this viewer, it was the beauty of human compassion demonstrated first by a nurse supervisor and later by the young nurse who cared for Johnny that resonated. When we first see Johnny as a patient, he is "stored" in what looks like some kind of utility room, with no light, no air, and no human contact other than the minimum necessary to provide physical care. The nursing supervisor (sort of a battle-Axel type) comes in and demands that the window be opened so he can have the light and sun on his face and some fresh air. When the other nurses start to protest that he won't feel these things, she shuts them up with a words to the effect that she would not stand for treating any patient with less than excellent nursing care. (Being a nurse myself, I recognized immediately the nursing standards she was demanding although her words would probably not be understood in that context by a non-nurse). That brusk nurse supervisor's demand that even this terribly disabled person be treated with respect and concern was a tiny, but powerful scene in the movie, because it communicated the essential worth of all people, no matter their station or condition.
Later young nurse gives Johnny sensitive and kind care to, even though she has no idea that he has any mental awareness. The brilliance of her caring for even this, the least of patients, shows what human beneficence should be in this world. And it showed especially what being a nurse should mean. To me, the many shades and colors of human feeling for other people, and the importance of human caring--even under the most drastic of circumstances, was a key element of this film. To that extent, the message of about how humans should and should not view and interact with each other was even more powerful than the anti-war message.
I would recommend that anyone who can see this film treat themselves to a truly amazing experience. I've only seen it twice, and saw much more in the film the second time than I saw the first time. My guess is that if I obtain the DVD and see it several more times, additional layers of meaning will emerge. The film is that deep and that complex in its many forms and shades of meaning.
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