I love movies. I guess if I were an intellectual I’d say I love films. Well, whatever you call them I love them. I admit to liking the old ones better than many of the new ones, and not long ago we started watching Turner Classic Movies and I discovered the enchantment of silent movies.

So here I am, adding yet another page. So many books/plays have been made into movies that I thought it would be interesting to review both.

Enjoy. Come back soon.
First up, because the DVD has just been released, is Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
Johnny Got His Gun
by Dalton Trumbo

Publisher (July 1, 2007) Citadel
ISBN-10: 0806528478
ISBN-13: 978-0806528472
Available hardback, trade paperback, mass market, audio

First published in 1939, on the eve of America’s entrance into WWII, Johnny Got His Gun may very well be the most powerful anti-war novel ever written. It is the novel that caused Trumbo to be dragged before Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in the 50’s, which ended with Trumbo’s being blacklisted and forced to become an expatriate. He eventually wrote again, brilliantly as always, but under assumed names for many years.

Johnny Got His Gun is savage, a horror story beyond anything Stephen King could dream up because the story is so horribly, devastatingly simple: a boy goes blithely to war, is wounded, survives mutilated but alive. Johnny Got His Gun distills the obscenity of war, the ultimate horror, when the young were sent to fight for ideas and ideals they vaguely understood, on the command of the old men who led the world. Between 1917 and 1970, when Trumbo wrote the introduction to the edition I have, not much changed. And at the risk of injecting my own views here, I don’t see that much has changed since 1970 except that women are now also combatants and the methods of killing are even more horrific.

The hero of the story is a boy named Joe. The title of the book comes from the first verse of “Over There,” George M. Cohan’s drum-beating, super-patriotic song for war as grand adventure:

Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Take it on the run, on the run, on the run,
Hear them calling you and me,
Ev’ry son of liberty.
Hurry right away, no delay, go today,
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad,
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy’s in line.

The boy, Joe, was twenty years old when he “got his gun,” and went to fight in Europe to make the world safe for democracy in the War To End All Wars. He had a home, a mother and a father, a girlfriend he loved. Through the danger, the mud, the rain, the horror of his time in France, he never stopped believing he would go home and everything would be the same again. But a shell landed in the trench he was in. He never went home.

He wasn’t killed in the trench when the shell landed. No. He wasn’t killed. A questionable miracle kept him alive. Unconscious for a long time he wakes to dreams that are not dreams. He wakes to total darkness and total silence. That alone would constitute hell. But gradually his screaming mind tells him he has no arms and no legs and he doesn’t understand why they would cut off a man’s arms and legs. Gradually his screaming mind tells him his world is silent because he has no ears. Gradually his screaming mind tells him that where his face was there is nothing—no eyes, no nose, no teeth because he has no mouth. He doesn’t know where he is or what is being done to him or why. He can sense from vibrations that people are in the room with him. Little by little he comes to recognize when a heavy nurse is in the room rather than the light one. One day he realizes that he can feel warmth on his forehead and one side of his neck and he silently sings with joy because he has felt the sun! He can now try to harness time in his mind, to figure out how much of it is passing. It is wonderful, it is natural, it is something of living.

The story is told through eyes that are not there, in the thoughts, silent pleadings, and memories of this vital young man who exists as “a slab of meat” that thinks. With nothing to do but think and remember, not knowing what year it is or even how old he is, he focuses on trying to find some way to communicate. Some time in what he figures is his fourth year in the hospital he starts to rhythmically bang his head against his pillow: he is tapping out the Morse Code with his head. He has finally thought of a way his life can have meaning and now that he can communicate he is exultantly sure he can convey his plan to the doctors.

I won’t tell you what his plan is, or how this young man who cannot move anything but his head, who cannot hear or speak, plans to be of use to the world because I hope you will read the book. No, that’s wrong. You can’t read this book. You can only experience it. And once experienced you will never forget it as long as you live.

The edition I have, published in 1991, has two must-read Introductions, the first by Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July); the second, by Dalton Trumbo, includes an addendum. Though the story was written about WWI, and on the eve of WWII, it could be about any war, anywhere, any time, and the final pages, in Joe’s silent words, are an ultimatum from those who are used to those who do the using, from those who do the fighting to those who send them to fight.

Trumbo wrote his introduction in 1970; the war had five more years to go. In his addendum he invokes stark numbers: “40,000 dead young men = 3,000 tons of bone and flesh, 124,000 pounds of brain matter, 50,000 gallons of blood, 1,840,000 years of lives that will never be lived.”

The DVD of Johnny Got His Gun (filmed 1971) was just released in April 2009. Starring Timothy Bottoms as Joe, Donald Sutherland as Jesus, with whom the helpless Joe has surreal conversations, Jason Robards as Joe’s dad. The film is directed by Dalton Trumbo from his own screenplay. As a film it shows the doctors and nurses, the people in Joe’s past, his surreal imaginings of his future. The end is even more heartrending than the book. You really need to experience both the book and the film. The film won the Grand Prix Special du Jury and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival.

More highly recommended than anything I’ve ever read or seen.

P.S. There is an idie film of a one-man show of Johnny Got His Gun, starring Ben McKenzie of The O.C. As far as I know it is not available in either VHS or DVD. If someone finds that it is available, please let me know.