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The film's opening title reads: "Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun." The title of Trumbo's novel comes from the popular, World War I-era song "Over There," written by George M. Cohan. The opening credits feature World War I-era newsreel footage on the top half of the screen, with the written credits on the bottom half. Trumbo's writing credit reads: "Novel and Screenplay Dalton Trumbo." At the end of the film, before the cast credits, a title card reads: "War dead since 1914: over 80,000,000. Missing or Mutilated: over 150,000,000. 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.'" The Latin quotation, which translates as "sweet and glorious it is to die for one's country," is from the first century B.C.E. Roman poet Ovid, Odes, III.2.13. The opening and ending cast credits differ in order, with the ending credits mostly in alphabetical order. Although there is an onscreen 1971 copyright statement for World Entertainers, Ltd., the film was not registered for copyright at the time of its release. However, Robert Rich Productions, Inc. did register the film for copyright on September 20, 1983, at which time it was issued the number PA-193-546. The Variety review of the film's May 14, 1971 screening at the Cannes Film Festival mistakenly lists the running time as 100 minutes.
The sequences showing "Joe Bonham" in the hospital are in black and white, sometimes with a bluish tint to suggest night, while the flashback and fantasy sequences are shown in color. An August 1971 American Cinematographer article on the making of the picture noted that the hospital sequences were shot in color, but printed in black and white because at the time of production, it still had not been decided if the picture was going to be entirely in color. Joe's internal thoughts are heard throughout the film as voice-over narration by Timothy Bottoms. While he is in the hospital, Joe is almost completely covered so that his injuries are never graphically shown.
The film is largely faithful to Trumbo's controversial, best-selling novel, which was published in 1939 several days before the outbreak of World War II. At the end of the novel, however, after his heartfelt, caustic request to be exhibited as a freak is rejected, Joe does not ask to be killed. He instead thinks to himself that he is now a "secret" to be kept by the military officials so that future soldiers will not be afraid to enlist. According to Filmfacts, Trumbo acknowledged that many details of Joe's childhood were autobiographical, and that the idea for Joe's injuries came from stories Trumbo had heard about two grievously wounded British soldiers, one of whom was injured so badly during World War I that his family was "led to believe that he had been dead for 15 years." According to an August 1971 Publishers Weekly article on the book's history, it was serialized by the Communist paper the Daily Worker in 1939. In March 1940, Trumbo's novel was adapted for an hour-long radio drama broadcast by NBC, with James Cagney starring as Joe. Over the years, various amateur theatrical verions of the story, including a ballet, have been produced.
Although a modern source states that John Garfield was interested in starring in a movie version of Trumbo's novel in the late 1940s, contemporary sources report that the picture's complicated production history began in the mid-1960s, when Spanish avant garde director Luis Buuel announced that he would produce a film based on the property. A January 1964 Variety article about Buuel's plans noted that his purchase of the film rights was a lease only, with the rights to revert to Trumbo after nine years. According to Filmfacts, Trumbo "incorporated a number of the famed director's ideas into the script," although in a March 1971 Variety article, Trumbo claimed that he retained only one of Buuel's ideas in the final script. A June 1968 Hollywood Reporter article related that Buuel fell ill and the "Mexican producer linked to the project ran out of money." Trumbo then decided to direct the picture himself; it was the first and only film he directed. Trumbo, a longtime and prolific screenwriter, was well known as one of the "Hollywood Ten." [For more information about the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Hollywood blacklist, see the entry above for the 1947 RKO film Crossfire.]
Filmfacts noted that after Buuel dropped out, producer Bruce Campbell, who was married to Trumbo's daughter Melissa at the time, arranged for a production deal with Warner Bros., but although WB executive Ken Hyman was enthusiastic about the project, the studio declined to participate, according to contemporary news items.
According to June 1968 news items, after the deal with Warner Bros. collapsed, Trumbo decided to coproduce the picture with the management-production firm Campbell-Silver-Cosby Corp. The company, a partnership consisting of Campbell, Roy Silver and comedian Bill Cosby, previously had developed several television specials. [Although by the time of the pre-production of Johnny Got His Gun, Cosby was no longer active in the company, it retained his name.] A June 26, 1968 Hollywood Reporter article added that among the various experimental devices Trumbo intended to incorporate into the film was the voice of one soprano, although she would sing no specific lyrics, and that she would be "occasionally supported by a trio from the Vienna Boys Choir." The participation of members of the famous choir has not been confirmed, however. Eventually, Silver dropped out of the project and Campbell-Silver-Cosby Corp. was disbanded.
Although a December 1968 Hollywood Reporter announced that producer Robert Haggiag, who is listed in the onscreen credits as one of the "Associates of the Production," was going to make the picture at his Dear Studios in Rome, beginning in May, that deal also failed to materialize. Campbell and Trumbo then formed their own corporation, first called The Bruce Campbell and The Dalton Trumbo Co., and later Robert Rich Productions, Inc., in order to raise production monies privately. [Robert Rich was the pseudonym under which Trumbo wrote the Oscar-winning story for the 1956 RKO release The Brave One, see entry above.] According to contemporary accounts, Campbell and Trumbo collected approximately $1,000,000 from private sources for Johnny Got His Gun, which was shot during the summer of 1970 in forty-two days. In an August 1971 Motion Picture Herald article, Trumbo recounted that he and Campbell had unsuccessfully sought financing from "17 different film production and distribution companies" before producing it themselves.
A modern source reports that Ryan O'Neal, Jon Voight and Robert Blake were considered for the role of Joe before Trumbo signed newcomer Timothy Bottoms, who had only recently graduated from high school and made his feature film debut in Johnny Got His Gun. An August 1983 Hollywood Reporter article about the history of the film noted that Trumbo originally signed Walter Matthau for the role of "Joe's father." Trumbo himself appears in the film under the name Robert Cole as the "Orator" who lectures about the advances in medical techniques that will be gained by studying Joe.
According to the American Cinematographer article, a small, private lake near Lake Tahoe, CA was used for some sequences, with the hospital scenes being filmed at Producers Studio in Hollywood. The article further reported that the battlefield sequences were shot in Chatsworth, CA; the carnival barker scenes were filmed at El Mirage Dry Lake in the Southern Mojave Desert; the bakery was located in an "abandoned Tootsie Roll factory" in Culver City; "Christ's" carpentry shop was a shed in a Highland Park backyard; and the house in which Joe's father died, located at 55th St. in Los Angeles, was the actual house where Trumbo's father died forty years previously. In the article, Campbell noted that the filmmakers were forced to rush into production due to Donald Sutherland's tight schedule, and after filming for a week, went on hiatus for a week to study the completed footage. Campbell related: "On the basis of what we saw, we made some changes and replaced a few people."
Filmfacts stated that the film was edited down from a rough cut of over three hours to its original running time of 112 minutes, and then to 111 minutes after its "initial bookings to qualify for a `GP' rating." However, the August 5, 1971 New York Times review noted that the picture had not yet been submitted for a rating. The exact nature of the deletions has not been determined, and the viewed print ran 111 minutes. In a press conference held after the film's successful screening at Cannes, Trumbo noted that he was having trouble finding an American distributor for the film, which most studios found too "depressing," according to the May 1971 New York Times coverage of the event. In early July 1971, trade papers reported that Cinemation Industries, Inc. had signed to distribute the picture in the United States and Canada.
The film, which provoked extremely strong reactions from critics, several of whom commented on its renewed relevance in light of the Vietnam War, won several festival awards, including the Special Jury Prize, International Critics Prize and Protestant World Council of Churches Prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. According to the May 1971 New York Times article about the film's appearance at the festival, it originally had been accepted for out-of-competition screening only, but "the panel of critics unanimously declared that the film deserved to be in the main festival." Buuel was instrumental in getting the film into competition, according to the article. Trumbo also received a Writers Guild of America nomination for Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium, and the picture won the Golden Phoenix award for "best of festival" and the Golden Dove peace prize at the Atlanta Film Festival in late June 1971. Bottoms received a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer-Male.
Johnny Got His Gun marked the feature film debut of David Soul, best known for his role in the popular 1970s television series Starsky and Hutch, and the last motion picture appearance of Kathy Fields. Although the Newsweek review quoted Trumbo as stating that he intended Johnny Got His Gun to be the first part of a filmed trilogy exploring societal problems, the other two pictures were never made. Modern sources add to the cast Jerry Zinnamon (Dead Bavarian), Ken Globus (Waiter) and Margaret Pellegrini and include Jeremy Kay in the crew as an art director.
In a May 13, 1971 letter to the Daily Variety editor, Trumbo noted that Sutherland, who portrayed "Christ" in the film, worked for no pay, while two or three other actors worked for deferrals and the rest worked only for scale. In the May 1971 New York Times article, Trumbo also asserted that "all the union men, the technicians on the film, deferred their overtime payments." The overtime pay became the subject of a July 1972 lawsuit against Robert Rich Productions, World Entertainers, Ltd., Trumbo and others, filed by 65 members of the production staff, who claimed that they had been promised "a 25% bonus on all accumulated overtime once the picture was sold." In August 1971, Hollywood Reporter reported that Kaleidoscope Productions, Inc. sued Robert Rich Productions for nonpayment of post-production editing services. Another suit was brought in September 1973, by International Producers Services-Quedo Inc., which claimed that Trumbo and his production company did not pay for "services rendered in a film production supervisory capacity." The disposition of the suits has not been determined.
Campbell himself threatened to bring suit against Cinemation, according to a January 1972 Hollywood Reporter article, which noted that Campbell was protesting the distributor's advertising, booking and accounting practices in regard to the movie. Campbell specifically lashed out against Cinemation's failure to promote the film for Academy Award nominations and for double-booking it with Oh! What a Lovely War, a 1969 British, satiric musical comedy about WWI (see below). It has not been determined, however, what legal recourse Campbell sought, if any. As noted by an August 1983 Hollywood Reporter article, the film became the subject of a complicated federal suit, in which the IRS investigated whether the film's many investors put up their money purely for tax shelter advantages. The outcome of that suit has not been determined.
March and November 1978 Los Angeles Times and Variety articles on Campbell, who never produced another picture, noted that after the film's initial, unsuccessful run, he was forced to declare bankruptcy but eventually was able to buy the picture's distribution rights at auction for $2,500, as well as 90 prints for another $2,500. [Modern sources report that Trumbo, who invested some of his own money in the production, also suffered seriously from its financial failure.] In the 1978 Los Angeles Times article, Campbell stated that he had been "screening [the film] every week for the past seven years....It's been my entire life since I first saw the script in 1968." A November 1980 Hollywood Reporter article reported that Campbell was still exhibiting the film and attempting to make it a "cult event."
In January 1989, the heavy metal band Metallica released their first music video, for the song "One." Directed by Michael Salomon and Bill Pope, the black-and-white video featured numerous clips from Johnny Got His Gun. According to modern sources, the band purchased the rights to the film in order to use it for their video.