JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971/2009)

June 27, 2009 - 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM

Directed by Dalton Trumbo

“Johnny Got His Gun” presents the story of 18-year-old Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), who brushes off the urgings of his girl-friend Kareen (Kathy Fields) to “just run away” rather than ship out (WW1). Once in the French trenches, he quickly loses his own company and throws in with some British troops. One fearsomely rainy night, he’s sent out to bury a German soldier who had died caught in the barbed wire above their trench and whose rotting body had begun to stink. A direct shell hit on the way back from this errand injures Bonham horribly and irreparably. A military doctor, Col. Tillery (Eduard Franz) declares Bonham “completely de-cerebrated” by his injuries but worth keeping alive, secretly, for research purposes. But Bonham’s in there, walled up in the remnants of his body. Tillery later reappears – white-haired now and a general – the only mark of how much time has passed before Bonham’s breakthrough Morse Code communication with the “fourth nurse” (Diane Varsi), who first inscribes a message on his chest with her finger as he frantically nods his head.

There are plenty of Trumbo films out there to sample – critical and box office successes alike – including a couple Oscar-winners (ironically both of those scripts credited to “fronts” during the 13 years Trumbo spent black-listed and couldn’t work openly in Hollywood films). But “Johnny Got His Gun” was part of Trumbo for a long time. Based on a news clip he’d seen about a British soldier with devastating injuries from the trenches of World War I, Trumbo’s 1939 novel kept the time frame but shifted young recruit Joe Bonham’s story to the US military. And after he’d published the novel, Trumbo saw combat intimately in the South Pacific as a war correspondent. Trumbo’s son Christopher says that making the film was “the best response he could manage to the carnage of the war in Vietnam.”

Trumbo was a young man when he wrote “Johnny Got His Gun,” just 33. It’s nice to have this film back at a time we still need it, along with the knowledge that he didn’t come to think better of his youthful excess.

Full Review by Nancy Keefe Rhodes at