Friday, May 6, 2011

Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo)


I have watched enough 'pacifist' war films in the past, but I can safely say that "Johnny Got His Gun" is the most emotionally penetrating of the bunch that also extracts tenacious hope out of despair. What makes this film, masterfully directed by Oscar winner Dalton Trumbo (who won for penning the great romantic film "Roman Holiday"), very effective in what it tries to impart to its audience's sensibilities about the inhumanities of war is its pure focus and sheer devotion to its main character.

In other films dealing with the same underlying sentiments, the message and emotions are too widely distributed to a variety of characters that they sometimes appear to be too far-fetched, hence meager in overall effect. But in "Johnny Got His Gun", which beautifully reigns on the longings and memories of the titular character and wholly explores the landscapes of his entirety, Dalton Trumbo maximized the whole film and merged Johnny's personal struggles as an extreme amputee with his flinching anti-war sentiments. It ultimately came out as a spell-binding commentary not just pertaining to the sheer senselessness of conflicts, but also regarding the endurance of the soul.

Timothy Bottoms portrays the quadruple amputee Johnny with his trademark sad eyes and deadpan energy. Through his flashbacks and overlaps of fantasies and retained memories, he leads us through an unforgettably cerebral journey inside the psyche of an ordinary man who, as told to him even by his father (great performance by Jason Robards), is nothing 'unusual'. This is not a soldier whose life is filled with overachieving decorations or countless belligerence in the battlefield. He is a simple man with the same existential woes like other people usually have. But what separates him among others is his sense of 'hope'.

This film could have easily drifted into an unfathomable territory of pity and despair. But with Dalton Trumbo's attention to emotional balance, while enhanced by Jules Brenner's cinematography, "Johnny Got His Gun" surprisingly tiptoes between sets of spirited humor amidst its pessimistic undertones. But aside from all of these, the film is also quite articulate in its seemingly elegiac approach to religious 'faith'.

Eccentrically surrealist as it may seem to be, Donald Sutherland's 'Christ' is not shown as an omniscient observer but as a man of wisdom capable to immerse. He gambles with the soldiers, he fancies carpentry and he also signs checks. This can simply be a visual injection by Luis Bunuel who did an uncredited screenplay contribution to the film, but it is still subtly affecting in its approach.

"Johnny Got His Gun" fully suggests that in times of chaos, especially those created and prolonged by the follies of men, God does not merely watch from above but guides in close contact. But also as what the film's theme suggests, he is also imperfect in his own right.

There's a significant exchange in the film where the military doctor asks the priest to convince Johnny to put his faith in God. The priest, after seeing the poor condition of Johnny's physical predicament, tells the astute military doctor that he will not risk testing Johnny's faith against his (the doctor) stupidity. Johnny is a product of the military doctor's profession, after all. It's a conversation rooted out from situational desperation but it's quite obvious that the failure of the military doctor to reply to the priest's indirect accusation alludes to his acceptance of the generalized mistakes created by his occupation.

The film, although has raised some potent promises regarding the condition of men of duty like Johnny, is a bleak observation of casualties and the secretive tendencies of 'war' and its officials. And as if out of nowhere, it is evenly contrasted with the demonstrativeness of a 'freak show' on a traveling carnival. The latter may exploit, but it does not, in any way, take lives so relentlessly as the first.

Many films have shown emotional desensitization in the middle of violence and carnage. But "Johnny Got His Gun" does not put itself along those lines that may just evoke mindless, machismo-filled indifference; the film is, after all has been said, a liberating study of the maddening physical limitations of a man nowhere to retreat but his collective dreams and his conscious mind. It tells of the imminence of hopelessness yet it struggles for life. Dalton Trumbo and Johnny. They prefer the 'carnival' more.


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