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One of the most talented and controversial of the Hollywood Ten, the group of screenwriters blacklisted and imprisoned for their refusal to cooperate with the Congressional anti-Communist hearings of the late 1940s and 1950s, Dalton Trumbo started his career in the mid-1930s and very quickly became a highly successful writer as well as a prominent leftist activist. Although not a member of the Communist Party USA in 1939, Trumbo's remarkable anti-war novel of that year, Johnny Got His Gun, was eagerly embraced by the party, which had by that point become fiercely against American involvement in the war. The story of a World War I soldier who has lost all his limbs and his face and is unable to talk or communicate until he realizes he can tap out Morse Code messages with his head, Trumbo's book was a sharp rebuke to the drift of national sentiment and government policy toward entering the European conflict against the Axis Powers. The message of the novel was echoed in a speech he delivered in February 1940 against the notion that we would have to go to war to preserve democracy: "There is no such thing as democracy in time of war. It is a lie, a deliberate deception to lead us to our own destruction. We will not die in order that our children may inherit a permanent military dictatorship." This attitude was becoming an increasing minority by that point, but it didn't stand in the way of the Trumbo novel winning the American Book Sellers Award (precursor to the National Book Award) and critical praise for the way the author had structured the story around the fears, confusion, fantasies, memories, and nightmares of a severely incapacitated "basket case" (a term originally coined in England after World War I to mean a quadruple amputee).
An adaptation of the novel had been done as early as 1940 when James Cagney played the lead character Joe Bonham in a highly effective hour-long radio play based on the book. A screen version was briefly discussed right after World War II; John Garfield expressed interest in playing Joe, but the Congressional hearings put an end to that possibility. Despite the blacklist, Trumbo continued to work surreptitiously throughout the 50s, his screenplays either uncredited, "fronted" by others, or credited under pseudonyms. Among his films during that time were the Best Writing Academy Award winners Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956), for which he was eventually publicly acknowledged years later. The blacklist was finally broken in 1960 when both Otto Preminger and Kirk Douglas announced they would hire Trumbo as the writer for their latest projects (Exodus, 1960, and Spartacus, 1960, respectively). Back in the mainstream at last, Trumbo began to eye the possibilities for bringing his acclaimed novel to the screen.
Trumbo wrote his first draft of the Johnny Got His Gun screenplay in 1964 after Spanish director Luis Bunuel, whom he had met in Mexico shortly before, expressed serious interest in it. Both he and Bunuel were pleased with the adaptation, but financing fell through. Trumbo pressed forward, feeling an even greater urgency to get the story out before the public as the U.S. became more deeply embroiled in Viet Nam, and he decided, with Bunuel's blessing, that he would make this his first (and, as it turned out, only) directorial effort. In the late 60s, an independent production company partially owned by Bill Cosby took on the project. That company dissolved not long after, but one of its principals, Bruce Campbell, stayed on with Trumbo, dedicated to bringing the story to the screen. With little success shopping it around to studios and established producers, the two finally raised the $600,000-plus budget through relatively small contributions from private investors.
Several well-known actors agreed to play parts, including Donald Sutherland (as Jesus, in scenes allegedly added by Bunuel), Jason Robards, Diane Varsi, and Marsha Hunt. Trumbo himself took on a small role. The central character, however, was more difficult to cast. Several well-known young stars were considered, including Ryan O'Neal, Jon Voight, and Robert Blake, but Trumbo felt none of them had the innocence and vulnerability he was looking for. Just weeks before production was to begin, he found his Joe Bonham in a young man fresh out of high school, Timothy Bottoms, who would achieve fame later that year in his second picture, The Last Picture Show (1971), and go on to a long and varied career.
One role in the picture engendered a controversy and a falling out between Trumbo and Alvah Bessie, his old friend and fellow Hollywood Ten writer. Bessie had contrived to get a part in the movie for his friend Jerry Zinnamon, an aspiring actor and writer. Trumbo didn't have a role he thought suitable for Zinnamon so he cast him as "the dead Bavarian," a German corpse impaled on a barbed-wire fence, a recurring image in both the novel and the film. Zinnamon completed his part in three uncomfortable days in the sweltering August heat. A short time later he sent a seven-page letter to Bessie in which he humorously (and with much exaggeration and inaccuracy) described his experience. Bessie thought it was funny enough to send to Esquire magazine, which ran it in the December 1970 issue. Trumbo was at that point under terrible stress trying to get his picture edited and distributed, compounded by funding shortfalls that forced him to put up $25,000 of his own money to complete dubbing and looping. He sent a furious letter to Bessie and berated Zinnamon over the phone. Zinnamon admitted widely that much of what he had written was "blatantly false," including reports of disharmony on the set. Still, Trumbo was not mollified, and Bessie spent years trying to make amends.
Trumbo took his completed picture to the Cannes Film Festival hoping to find a distributor who would give it the exposure he felt it deserved. At first, according to a New York Times article in May 1971,Johnny Got His Gun was accepted only for an out-of-competition screening. But reportedly Bunuel interceded and had it put into competition, where it won three awards, including the Special Jury Prize. It also won awards at the Atlanta Film Festival, and Trumbo's screenplay was nominated by the Writers Guild of America. Bottoms received a Golden Globe nomination as Most Promising Male Newcomer. Reviews, however, were mixed, and coupled with distribution problems, Johnny Got His Gun was not a success at the box office, leaving Trumbo disappointed, exhausted, and financially depleted.
Trumbo said a number of the details of Joe Bonham's early life were patterned after his own childhood. In the movie, the scene at the house in which Joe's father died was shot at the actual Los Angeles home where Trumbo's own father had died 40 years earlier.
Segments of Trumbo's book are read by Donald Sutherland in the documentary F.T.A. (1972) about a touring troupe organized by Sutherland, Jane Fonda and others to offer alternative entertainment to American soldiers abroad.
In 1982, playwright Bradley Rand Smith adapted the novel for the stage, under the title Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, with an acclaimed off-Broadway performance by then newcomer Jeff Daniels (who went on to such film hits as Terms of Endearment, 1983, and Dumb and Dumber, 1994). The stage version was filmed in 2008. The part of Joe Bonham was played by Ben McKenzie, best known for the TV series The O.C. and Southland and the independent film Junebug (2005).
Director: Dalton Trumbo
Producers: Bruce Campbell, Tom Tryon
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo, based on his novel
Cinematography: Jules Brenner
Editing: Millie Moore
Art Direction: Jeremy Kay, Harold Michelson
Original Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Timothy Bottoms (Joe Bonham), Diane Varsi (Fourth Nurse), Jason Robards (Joe's Father), Donald Sutherland (Christ), Marsha Hunt (Joe's Mother).
by Rob Nixon