Cast & Crew
Judy Howard Chaikin
During World War I, an unidentified, grievously wounded soldier is saved by a team of surgeons, although the head doctor, Col. M. F. Tillery, declares that the youth has no higher brain functions. Despite the unease of the other doctors, Tillery is determined to study the soldier, and insists that if the youth had more than mere basal metabolic functions, he would not have allowed him to live. Unknown to Tillery or the other medical personnel, the soldier, twenty-year-old American Joe Bonham, has full mental abilities, although he cannot yet control his lapses of consciousness. While he lies in the hospital, completely covered by bandages and heavy, tent-like blankets, the drugged Joe wonders where he is and drifts into a memory of the night before he left for the war, when he was with his sweetheart Kareen: Despite Kareen's pleading that Joe not enlist, he states that he must, and the couple makes love for the first time. In the morning, Joe bids farewell to Kareen, his mother and two young sisters. Back at the hospital, Joe realizes that although he can feel his blood pumping, he cannot hear his pulse, which means that he is deaf. Overwhelmed by pain and realizing that because he is covered with bandages, he must have been seriously wounded, Joe is only vaguely aware of Tillery's presence as the colonel orders him transferred to the main French military hospital. Believing that he can hear a telephone ringing, Joe then remembers the night that his gruff but beloved father died. When he awakens from his reverie, Joe realizes that the stinging sensation he feels is Tillery removing the stitches from where his right arm has been amputated at the shoulder. As nurses begin removing the sutures from his left shoulder, Joe screams internally and curses them for making him a cripple. Tillery then orders the staff to keep Joe in a locked room, with the shutters drawn, so that no gawkers will have access to him. Still completely covered, except for his forehead, Joe floats in a drugged state and imagines himself at the train station before he and his new buddies shipped out. They play cards with Christ, who instructs the others, who are describing how they are going to die, to leave Joe alone when they protest that he will not actually be killed. In the hospital, Joe's sutures are removed from his hips, as both of his legs have also been amputated, and he shrieks in horror to himself. Overwhelmed by his inability to communicate, Joe's tenuous grasp on reality slips even more as he mentally pleads with his mother to tell him what is happening. He remembers his idyllic boyhood in Colorado, before his family moved to Los Angeles, and recalls his mother's faith in God and his father's love for his fishing pole, his most valuable possession. Meanwhile, Tillery examines Joe and removes the bandages on his face, leaving only a mask covering him from throat to forehead. Joe is baffled why he still has breathing and feeding tubes and cannot see, as he had assumed that once his bandages were gone, he would be able to see and communicate. Joe forces himself to explore his face from the inside and realizes that he cannot move his tongue around his teeth because he no longer has a tongue or teeth, nor even a jaw. As his senses move upward, Joe discovers that he has also lost his nose, eyes and ears, and that his face is a "crater" from his forehead to his throat. The hysterical Joe's thrashing prompts the nurse to sedate him, and as he drifts off, he has a nightmare about a rat chewing on his forehead. Unable to distinguish between dreams and reality, Joe imagines himself in Christ's carpentry shop, where he asks Christ for help. Each of Christ's suggestions fail, as Joe cannot brush the rat from his face if it is real, nor yell to awaken himself if he is having a nightmare. Wearily but with compassion, Christ asks Joe to leave, asserting, "You're a very unlucky young man and sometimes it rubs off." Joe is awakened in the hospital by the footfalls of two nurses, and the head nurse, angered that Joe is so isolated, insists that the shutters be opened so that he can have sunshine, and that his bed be properly made up with sheets. Joe is thrilled by the sensory changes and constructs a scheme to track the passage of time. A year later, Joe laments that he does not know exactly how old he is, nor when the year he has counted began. Remembering back to the war, Joe relives the night he was wounded: In a trench with some English soldiers, Joe is writing a letter to Kareen when an officious British colonel orders Corp. Timlon to remove the stinking corpse of an enemy that is caught on nearby barbed wire and give him a "decent" funeral. Despite the danger, Timlon and several men, including Joe, go out that evening to bury the Bavarian, but they come under heavy fire and Joe is hit by a shell. Pondering his fate, Joe then recalls his family's visit to a carnival freak show and imagines his father as a barker, advertising Joe as "The Self Supporting Basket Case." Joe's reverie ends when a new, young nurse enters the room. Exposing Joe's chest, the sympathetic woman begins to cry, and Joe is moved to feel her tears upon his skin. The nurse prompts Joe to think of Kareen, who chastises him for leaving her pregnant and alone, although Joe assures her that in his mind, she will stay young and beautiful forever. Later, remembering a prostitute he met in France, Joe becomes aroused, and the nurse's caresses bring him such joy that he recalls a sunny day on the lake with his boyhood friend, Bill Harper. The day was marred when Joe accidentally lost his father's fishing pole, but the wise older man comforts his son tenderly. Later, on a wintry night, the nurse begins to scratch letters onto Joe's chest. Slowly, he deduces what she is doing and nods his recognition as she writes "Merry Christmas." Joe is overjoyed, as he now has an exact date from which to tell time. After a disturbing hallucination of a Christmas celebration at the bakery at which he used to work, Joe mentally retreats to a quiet forest, where he encounters his father. The two men discuss life and death, with Bonham commenting that death is better, then telling him that he must think rationally and use his head. Bonham then reminds Joe of the Morse code that he and Bill learned as children, and Joe realizes he can tap out a message with his head. Excited, Joe begins tapping an SOS, which the nurse realizes is not merely an automatic muscular response, as one doctor insists it is. The doctor sedates Joe, but when Tillery, now a white-haired general, visits the hospital, the nurse brings him to Joe's bedside. One of the other men present recognizes Joe's SOS, and it dawns on the shocked men that Joe is not brain dead and has been completely aware the entire time. The men, especially the chaplain, castigate Tillery for condemning Joe to such a cruel existence. When they ask Joe what he wants, Joe pleads to be exhibited to the public to demonstrate how the "army makes men." The brigadier general orders the translator to inform Joe that his request is impossible, to which Joe responds, "Kill me." When Joe continues to ask to be killed, the men sadly exit. Although she has been ordered to sedate Joe, the nurse, overcome by his tragedy, says a prayer, then clamps shut his breathing tube. As he begins to sink into unconsciousness, Joe blesses her for releasing him from his agony, but before Joe dies, the brigadier general returns, opens the clamp and orders the nurse to leave. Feeling the nurse's footsteps fading away, Joe is bereft, and after the doctor injects him, Joe weakly continues tapping out his SOS, knowing that he is condemned to do so until he dies, alone, from old age.
Judy Howard Chaikin
Jason Robards [jr.]
Peter Virgo Jr.
Sandy Brown Wyeth
Samuel M. Annis
Dr. Milton Birnbaum
William P. Dornisch
Lena G. Ford
George R. Nelson
James F. Sommers
Theadora Van Runkle
Pamela H. Vanneck
Johnny Got His Gun
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
Johnny Got His Gun
He eats through a tube. And whatever comes in through a tube has to go out through a tube. He is the armless, legless wonder of the twentieth century. And yet, by God, he's just as alive as you and me.- Father
Inside me I'm screaming, nobody pays any attention. If I had arms, I could kill myself. If I had legs, I could run away. If I had a voice, I could talk and be some kind of company for myself. I could yell for help, but nobody would help me.- Johnny
I don't know whether I'm alive and dreaming or dead and remembering.- Johnny
When it comes my turn, will you want me to go?- Johnny
For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son.- Father
The heavy metal band Metallica wrote their popular song "One" based on Dalton Trumbo's book "Johnny Got His Gun", and their music video for the song includes clips from the movie.
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 Buñuel announced that he would produce a film based on the property. A January 1964 Variety article about Buñuel'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 Buñuel's ideas in the final script. A June 1968 Hollywood Reporter article related that Buñuel 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 Buñuel 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." Buñuel 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.
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Released in United States on Video February 1988
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1971
Released in United States on Video February 1988