Johnny Got His Gun
Directed by Rowan Joseph. Starring Ben McKenzie. (2008, PG-13, 77 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 26, 2008
As long as humankind continues to wage war, it's safe to say that Dalton Trumbo's searing anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun will never go out of circulation. Bittersweet success, that. But it seems a fitting accomplishment for the talented and prolific author and screenwriter. Trumbo won the National Book Award in 1939 for this novel before becoming one of the most famous writers to be blacklisted by Hollywood in the Fifties and subsequently penning such glorious screenplays as Spartacus and The Brave One under pseudonyms while in exile in Mexico. Decades later his movie credits were reinstated, and in 1971 he even directed a film version of Johnny Got His Gun, which starred young Timothy Bottoms and inspired a whole new generation of anti-Vietnam War activists. His story is simple but harrowing. In 1918, on the final day of World War I, Joe Bonham, a young soldier, is hit by an artillery shell. Joe regains consciousness much later in a hospital and gradually realizes that he is now a quadruple amputee, who has also lost his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth and has only a cloth mask covering what was once his face. As he drifts in and out of consciousness, his mind also wanders back through the story of his life until he realizes that his mind is the one functioning part of his body that remains. He marshals his mind's abilities to figure out a way to remain in touch with the world and communicate. This new film version of Johnny Got His Gun is based on the one-person play, which was adapted for the off-Broadway stage by Bradley Rand Smith and earned Jeff Daniels an Obie in 1982. This 2008 film stars McKenzie, the Austin-bred actor and The OC star, in this first-time film director's re-creation of the black box, one-man show. Using only a chair and a bench for the set, McKenzie performs movingly as he relates the young man's tale and copes with his awful discovery. This stage version leaves out some of the most eloquent and fiery passages of the book, as when the military pins a medal on his lifeless torso and Joe comes to realize that youth will always be the expendable fodder for old men's wars. Also, it might just be a matter of timing, but coming out one year after The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's inventively mesmerizing movie about a man who can only communicate through blinking his eyes, places Johnny Got His Gun at a disadvantage. We know the events in this film are happening in the mind's eye of the otherwise motionless Joe, yet watching McKenzie bounce athletically about the stage distances the viewer from the story's intrinsic horror. Still, as we find ourselves again immersed in a time of war, Trumbo's ageless story offers a useful corollary.