Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Killer-Works Memories: Johnny Got His Gun

Back in 2008, I began posting a string of film reviews for Killer-Works. The web site has recently shut down, so I've been slowly re-posting the reviews here. This week, I'm re-posting the last review of mine to appear on the site, for Johnny Got His Gun. The review was originally published on November 9, 2009.

The story opens with a team of army doctors managing to save the life of Joe Bonham, an American World War I soldier. Unfortunately, a shell blast has left Private Bonham without legs, arms, eyes, ears or a mouth. The doctors take comfort from the knowledge that he has suffered permanent brain damage and will never be aware of his wretched condition. But the doctors are wrong: Joe Bonham is completely conscious and living a nightmare existence.

Often hailed as one of the great anti-war films, Johnny Got His Gun, written and directed by Oscar winning (and famously black-listed) Dalton Trumbo, speaks just as much to the general human condition as to the horrors of war. We watch a man, cut off from the world, try to make peace with his new internalized existence. Joe's recollections of his past grow increasingly warped by his dream imagery until finally none of it is reliable. The memory/dream scenes (shot in color) are interposed with scenes of drab reality (shot in black and white), where we see how different people react to what, by all appearances, is merely twitching human meat. Their compassion and callousness manifest in surprising ways and, by the end, the only truly evil thing that can be done to men like Joe Bonham is to ignore them. It is no small irony that this story (both the film and the original novel) is routinely suppressed during times of war. For most of us, the only exposure we've ever had to the film are in the clips used for the music video of Metallica's One some twenty years ago.

At one point, even Jesus Christ (played with more compassion by Donald Sutherland than any other film version of Christ I've ever seen) is stumped in his attempts to comfort Private Bonham. If the viewer takes solace from anything, it is that the film does not cop out with any easy answers. This is a film that understands that life can be unfair and simply expresses its condolence.

Johnny Got His Gun provides a snapshot of the life of one young man whose future is destroyed by war, yet continues to exist, refusing to simply be forgotten. It is all too easy for us to honor those who fall in battle for a single day, then promptly forget them as we are rallied for the next war. In fact, the greatest tragedy of the film is that its message is still relevant today.

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