Sight & Sound: Johnny Got His Gun

by Tony Nigro

Movies rely wholly on sight and sound.  I’m not going to win any big academic awards for saying that, but it’s something I must remind myself of when dealing with a film like Johnny Got His Gun.  It’s like when there’s a mass power outage and you realize how much you take electricity for granted: You could make a phone call, but your phone is cordless; you could use your cell phone, but local towers are out; you could get some cash, but all the ATMs are down.  I could tell you how to better adapt a story set in the mind of someone who is deaf, dumb, blind, and limbless, but it wouldn’t be a movie.

Yet in 1971 Dalton Trumbo did just that, writing and directing a film version of his tremendous 1939 novel.   For the last couple decades it’s been hard to find and known more as the better parts of the music video for “One,” by Metallica, who bought the distribution rights and for a while did absolutely nothing else with them — just another step on a long path of fucking up since Cliff Burton’s death.  In April of 2009, the film finally became available on Region 1 DVD.

As anti-war novels go Johnny‘s got a hell of a lifespan, surviving bans and a handful of wars (and Metallica).   Set entirely in the head of one of so many FUBAR soldiers, it’s rich and gripping and heartbreaking enough to make you miss the fact that there isn’t one comma in the whole book.   Not one.

Unfortunately, less can be said for the film.   Although Wikipedia claims Luis Buñuel was interested in directing, the film doesn’t swim in the pool of New Hollywood counterculturalism as much as it sits on the edge dipping its toes in the water.   Obviously propelled by sentiments about the Vietnam police action, the film has its heart in the right place but always seems to fall short, and surprisingly so.  Hell, Donald Sutherland’s in it!  As Jesus!   That’s got 1970s written all over it!

Perhaps the film is missing the irrational spark of the drug culture, or youth culture, or the other cultures of the day that Trumbo spoke to but wasn’t really a part of.  Or maybe he missed out conveying the power of the novel that we can most relate to — that of human senses and communication.  And maybe that has all to do with the medium.

Is there a way to convey being deaf, dumb, blind and quadriplegic on film?  Sure, show a deaf, dumb, blind quadriplegic in action, as it were.  On film, the best way to get inside that person’s feelings would be to show his or her facial reactions, the face being the best conduit for sympathy.  The face of Johnny‘s protagonist Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), however, is horribly disfigured — either too much for the audience or for the film’s budget — and by virtue of the original story is covered anyway.  So we’re left with the lesser option of voice over, which is a literary device, the kind of device that makes me wonder why I didn’t just reread the book.  Other than to see Donald Sutherland play Jesus.

Then there’s the question of narrative perspective.   Films afford different options than books when it comes to perspective; you have to get into Stan Brakhage’s heady closed-eye vision stuff to really get outside the box.  The Johnny film gives its audience something the book doesn’t: the point of view of the outside world, of people besides deaf, dumb, blind Joe Bonham.  This cements reality more than in the book, seen best when doctors speak and Joe doesn’t hear them, or in Joe’s rat hallucination.  The rat incident in the book could be real or not, as could anything else Joe tells us, which makes the novel at times a delirious read.

This then complicates Joe’s memories/hallucinations we see played out, making them perhaps the most interesting part of the film.  When his father (Jason Robards) speaks to young Joe about his fishing pole and democracy, reality gets bent only as it could in a 1970s American film.  It serves the anti-war message, but what about the overall emotional purpose?  The most powerful parts of the novel (for me) are Joe’s cries of how he can no longer function as a human being, how he can’t communicate or keep track of time.  It’s what makes his struggle so great, and war so dehumanizing.

That is to say, Joe Bonham was stuck in a blackout with a cordless phone, and in a film without sight or sound.

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