267. Johnny Got His Gun (US 1971)

Director: Dalton Trumbo

Starring: Timothy Bottoms, Diane Varsi, Donald Sutherland, Jason Robards, Kathy Fields

Cinematography: Jules Brenner

Original Music: John Addison

Script/Novel:  Dalton Trumbo

FACT: Rock band Metallica own the rights to the film

LIE (almost reprise): Although Timothy Bottoms gained kudos for maintaining his family name despite the sniggering of many Hollywood casting directors, he shouldn't be regarded too highly. 'Bottoms' is a stage-name. His real name is Timothy Penises.

In one line:  Quadriplegic, faceless war veteran finds a unique way to tell his story.


Joe Bonham (Bottoms) a young American soldier steps on a landmine on the last day of World War One. His arms and legs are blown off, and he is rendered blind, deaf and without the faculty for speech because of the massive injuries to his face. Joe lies trapped in his partially detroyed, useless body, but his mind remains sharp. Joe dreams and hallucinates about his past life, and how he came to end up in such a wretched condition.A kindly nurse (Varsi) realises that when Joe bangs his head against the headboard of the bed, he is tapping out messages and thoughts in morse code. Joe tells her of his desire to be allowed to die or to be exhibited as a monstrous example of the follies of war.


Dalton Trumbo was famously blacklisted during the McCarthy era until his career was revived in 1959 when he was asked to write the screenplay of Spartacus by the film's producer/star Kirk Douglas (see - he was capable of some good things). Trumbo wrote the novel Johnny Got his Gun in 1939 and although he claimed it wasn't an anti-war tract, a cursory glimpse of the screenplay would leave you in no doubt that it certainly was.

Joe's story has many bizarre interludes. He dreams and hallucinates of Jesus (played by Donald Sutherland) as a harbinger of death and he has visions of being exhibited in a circus freak show run by his mother and father. But there are nice moments as well. Joe dreams of his past life with his beloved father (Jason Robards), his girlfriend Kareen (Kathy Fields) and of growing up in Colorado. There's a particularly affecting moment when Joe confesses to his father that he's lost a valuable fishing rod and upon fearing the worst, Joe is taken aback when his father gives him a loving and reassuring hug.

Joe's memories and dream sequences are filmed in colour, whereas the horrible reality of his living purgatory are filmed in a sharp monochrome. When an unnamed nurse (Diane Varsi) traces 'Merry Christmas' on his chest, Joe begins to tap out his responses on the headboard. The Nurse tries to tell Joe's doctors of his desire to be freed from his torment by death, or his shocking wish to become the freakshow exhibit he'd dreamed about. The doctors have no intention of granting either wish.

"John-eee! You've got yer undies on yer 'ead again, lad!" (A typical scene from Liverpool's Royal Hospital.)

Johnny Got His Gun is a powerful film, if a little preachy and over-polemicised at times. I'm fairly certain that Joe's 'morse code' communication inspired Jean Dominique-Bauby's idea to tell his story in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and visually, the black and white sections of the film must have influenced David Lynch for both Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

It's an unforgettable film and it would be a shame if you were the sort of immature person who only remembered the bit where the kindly nurse understands that Joe still has physical needs and cracks one off for him. 

Yes, you'd have to be a very dirty person to think of that. I mean, I've been in hospital loads of times and not once has any of the nurses even intimated that they'd crack one off for me. In fact, the most erotic thing that any nurse has said to me while in hospital is:

"Do you like Curly Wurlies?" 

and before I had time to even consider the possibility of her giving me a brief, but tasteful glimpse of her 'pubes', she was brandishing a chocolate bar in front of my face that a recently departed* patient had left behind.

"Not really," I said, and that was about the sum total of my pre and post-op erotic experiences.

Anyway, the film:


*And by that I mean 'had gone home - and therefore it was of little use trying to trace the owner' rather than 'deceased'. I can't think of anything less erotic and more tawdry than offering somebody a dead man's Curly Wurly. Apart from Faith Brown's 'Marilyn Monroe' impression, that is.