Johnny Got His Gun Review

The early 1970’s are often regarded as a golden age of American cinema. Among the films often celebrated are films such as Catch 22 and M*A*S*H. Although glaringly anti-war, both these films used humour as a vehicle for delivering the films central messages; war is futile, horrific, anarchic and often banal. Both films managed to avoid direct reference to Vietnam by using other wars as the setting, but the spectre of Vietnam is always lurking in the background. Johnny Got His Gun was released in the same era, and uses a similar technique, but this film went straight for the jugular, focusing squarely on the horror of war, without the comedic element that made the other films more palatable to the public psyche.

Johnny Got His Gun concentrates on the horror of war at an individual, more personal, level. It is the story of a soldier, Johnny, who is horribly maimed during WW1. He loses all his limbs, his sight, hearing, taste, smell and speech. He becomes, in essence, a piece of living, breathing and thinking meat. By some ‘miracle’ he survives and becomes a source of wonder for the medical community and a growing embarrassment for the military.

Those of you inclined towards music of a more metallic nature might remember this film as the centrepiece of Metallica’s promo video for the single ‘One’ released in the early nineties; A powerful video it was and the film is certainly no less powerful. Told mainly through flashback and the thoughts of Johnny, it often degenerates into fantasy as Johnny tries to come to terms with his position. This technique generally works quite well, and often it is intentionally difficult to tell what is real and what is fantasy. Make no mistake, this is often a harrowing film. War in the trenches has seldom looked so horrific and grotesque as it does here, but the true horror comes from the effect it has had on Johnny’s body and mind. The end of the film, when followed to its logical conclusion, is chilling.

The cast give tremendous performances. Timothy Bottoms is able to convey real emotion even when covered with a sheet. Jason Robards gives a solid performance, but the real star turn is from Donald Sutherland. His portrayal of Christ, during Johnny’s more fantastical flashbacks, is a film stealer. His Christ has all the grace you would expect, but Sutherland plays it with a hint of malevolence that festers just under the surface.

The film was directed by the books author, Dalton Trumbo, and perhaps here lies the reason for its biggest flaw. The film is often to literal in its portrayal of Johnny. Some of the scenes go on for a few beats too long and a sense of boredom occasionally filters through. It could be argued that this was intentional, that it was some way of forcing the audience to engage with and confront Johnny’s position. A point open to debate, but one cannot help but wonder what a director such as Kubrick would have done with such material.

A powerful film, though, Trumbo’s skill as a director cannot be denied. Often, the camera remains focused on Johnny’s oddly bandaged face for an uncomfortably long time, forcing us to gaze upon the horror that society has created. He handles the pre-war flashbacks in a muted ‘Norman Rockwell’ fashion, that has a hint of approaching doom. This clashes sharply with the clinical coldness of the hospital scenes and the matter-of-fact horror of the war sequences.

So, then, a flawed masterpiece, Johnny Got His Gun is a true oddity of American cinema. I would have no hesitation in recommending this film to anyone who was interested in the portrayal of war in the cinema or just cinema of a more unusual nature.

Picture

Presented in 1.77 anamorphic widescreen. A fairly good transfer. It can look a little soft in places, perhaps intentionally during the colour sequences, as the Black and White images look a little sharper. There is, however, a lot of grain throughout and this is often noticeable when there is a lot of white on the screen, which, considering much of the film is set in a hospital, is considerably often. Not too bad altogether, though, but this is one that suffers on a screen over 36”.

Sound

Plain vanilla mono. Perfectly adequate, however, with clearly defined vocals and effects. There is no real need for a 5.1 mix here.

Subtitles

Aye, now there’s the rub. Johnny Got His Gun comes complete with burnt-in French Subtitles. Quite large ones, too, and often obscuring a good quarter of the screen. If this sounds too much for you to bear, you would strongly be advised to await a different release of the film.

Extras

Nothing on the disc except and interview with Pierre Rissient, as far as I can tell, he was Trumbo’s assistant on set, but could be wrong as my French is not all that fantastic.

There is also a lovely, 64 page B&W booklet with a wealth of information such as cast and crew details, a letter sent to William Faulkner from Trumbo, interviews and Trumbo’s response to the House of Un-American Activities. (Trumbo refused to assist during the 1950’s communist witch hunt, was blacklisted as a result and spent much of his time in exile). Unfortunately, all these good things are in French. A good excuse to brush up, though.

Conclusion

Never released on video or DVD here, and long deleted on video in the US, this French release is something of a cause for celebration. A true oddity in the American canon of anti-war cinema, it sits uncomfortably with others in the genre due to sheer seriousness and individuality of its theme. A must for anyone interested in war cinema and highly recommended for anyone with a taste for the unusual. Be warned, though, this is no easy viewing and it is often quite harrowing. And beware the burnt-in subtitles. Available from Amazon France

Film
8 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
7 out of 10
Extras
2 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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