Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

Film "Johnny Got His Gun" Lacks Impact of the Book

Cleveland Press September 18, 1971

"Johnny Got His Gun," Dalton Trumbo's 30-year-old novel, is a milestone in anti-war literature. His movie version, however, is less a milestone than it is a fumbling attempt at getting the same impact on film.

This is the story of a basket case -- a World War I soldier whom an artillery shell renders armless, legless and faceless.

The doctor in charge is utterly certain the man is decerebrated -- totally without thought or feeling. But the doctor is wrong. The lump under the blanket tent, under the huge gauze mask, being kept alive with tubes is a thinking, feeling being.

Moreover, he remembers, and the story of the American soldier, Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), is told in flashbacks the past in color, the present in grainy black and white.

While no one can expect "Johnny Got His Gun" to be entertaining -- the subject is basically repellent -- one would hope that it would be more engrossing, more revealing.

Much of the fault is in Trumbo's screenplay and direction he did both since his novel was repeatedly shunned by the regular moviemakers.

His biting anti-war message is buried under a pile of sentimental scenes and cliches. His youthful recollections are folksy images as they might have been directed by Fellini. His hospital scenes look as though they are taking place on a stage.

And what is left is a horror picture, the likes of which are seldom realized in those films that carry the designation.

As for the message, it is a toss up what will register more -- the anti-war theme as strong as it is, or the story of loneliness, the attempts to break through, to communicate.

Bottoms in the main role shows promise in the flashbacks though his voice is not dramatically compelling on the soundtrack in hospital scenes. Jason Robards as his father has too much of the "Hey, look at me, I'm just folks," about him. Diane Varsi as the nurse who finally communicates with him is effective in her brief scenes.