50 Years Ago: ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ Begins Its Journey to Inspiring Metallica
You've heard someone say: "Sure, the movie's good, but you should read the book!" But have you ever heard someone say: "Sure, the movie's okay, but you should watch the music video"? Well now you have.
Johnny Got His Gun, which premiered on May 14, 1971 at the Cannes Film Festival, is an interesting film with a resonant message. But it doesn't pack nearly the punch of the 1989 video for the Metallica song "One," which uses extended clips and dialogue from the film to pile drive the viewer with its emotional point.
The story here goes all the way back to the early 20th century. The phrase "Johnny get your gun," was commonly used as a recruiting call for the U.S. Army, so much so that in 1917 a song with that title was recorded to encourage Americans to enlist and go off to fight in World War I, then raging in Europe.
At the time, Dalton Trumbo was growing up in rural Colorado, dreaming of a career in letters. He eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where Trumbo persevered in his writing career despite being unable to get the novels he was writing published. Eventually, he ended up breaking in as a screenwriter, and was seeing early success in that department – Trumbo already had at least nine credits to his name – when he published the novel Johnny Got His Gun in 1939.
The book created an immediate sensation, winning a National Book Award for "Most Original Book." Appearing in the early days of World War II, it was a resoundingly pacifistic work, and helped establish Dalton Trumbo as a political radical. In the following years, he would establish himself as one of the most in-demand screenwriters in Hollywood, and would also join the Communist Party.
For this, he would be outed in a Hollywood Reporter column by William Wilkerson in 1950. Trumbo and several other Hollywood figures were called to testify in front of Congress. When he refused to name other communist sympathizers in Hollywood, Trumbo was convicted of contempt for Congress and served 11 months in the penitentiary. On his release, Trumbo was prevented by the MPAA from working in Hollywood unless he recanted his political beliefs. Rather than doing so, he spent the next 10 years writing under pseudonyms, penning classics like Gun Crazy and Roman Holiday while pretending not to work.
See the Original Trailer for 'Johnny Got His Gun'/strong>
Eventually, the blacklist lost its power, and Trumbo began writing under his own name again, ascending back to the top of the Hollywood ranks with screenplays for Exodus and Spartacus, among others. By 1971, in the dark closing days of the Vietnam War, he was able to bring Johnny Got His Gun to the screen.
The film (which follows the novel closely) is about a soldier named Joe Bonham (Timmothy Bottoms) who is hit by an artillery shell in World War I. The doctors do not believe he will regain consciousness, and so decide to keep him alive for the good of science, even though he has lost both legs, both arms, and his eyes, ears, mouth and nose.
But Joe does regain consciousness, and comes to understand what has happened to him. He spends half his time engaged in memories: We see his boyhood in Colorado and scenes from his military life, as well as segments where he confronts Jesus (Donald Sutherland) and imagines himself put on display as a freak in a kind of traveling carnival. The other half of his time is spent trying to communicate with the doctors and nurses who come in and out of his room.
Finally he learns to bang his head against his pillow in Morse code, and the hospital staff deciphers what he's saying over and over: "Kill me." They refuse to do so, and Joe ends the movie in despair, weakly tapping out "S.O.S., help me" with his head.
It's certainly a dark vision, and the original 1939 novel brilliantly conveys it to the reader. The 1971 film, however, succeeds less well. The hospital sequences – shot in black and white – still pack a punch, but in the color flashback sequences Daniel Trumbo's weakness as a director shows. The actors are not put in position to succeed, and the sequences lack vitality, feeling at once both sentimental and emotionally flat.
Watch Metallica's Video for 'One'
These failures doomed Johnny Got His Gun to obscurity, where it probably would have remained except for Metallica. The video for "One," a song inspired by the film, came out in January 1989 and was the first music video the band ever made. Like the movie, the clip flashes between two settings.
In the first, two-tone footage shows Metallica playing "One" in an abandoned warehouse. The second setting consists of clips from the film, dialogue intact. Together, they match the story of Johnny Got His Gun with lyrics from a song which imagines the condition of a wounded soldier not unlike Joe: "Darkness imprisoning me / All that I see / Absolute horror / I cannot live / I cannot die / Trapped in myself / Body my holding cell."
The emotional force of the story, which the movie fritters away, is distilled and intensified in Metallica's video. We see clips of Joe's condition, and hear his voice describing what's going on. The color flashbacks from the film attain a true nightmarish quality when they are radically trimmed down and set to the teeth-gnashing guitar work.
The frenetic build and explosive final three minutes of "One" manage to drive home the simmering rage that lies behind the tale. There's a very real fury at the horrors done to the bodies of soldiers, all in the name of abstract ideals trumpeted by the men at the top who never put themselves in real danger.
It could never have occurred to Dalton Trumbo – who died in 1976 – that a metal band might find a way to resurrect and exemplify his anti-war vision, half a century after he initially wrote it. But, radical that he was, it seems almost certain that he would have loved Metallica's accomplishment.
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