Johnny Got His Gun – Book & Movie Review

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

Suppose your eyes are blind, your ears are deaf, and your limbs are so numb that they can not feel the contact of the place they touched, just like a frozen finger… Now, for you; the world is like a void. It is space’s very self. You don’t step on the ground because your feet can’t stand. Your eyes don’t see and your ears don’t hear. Walk like you are walking in the air! A wall came in front of you. Hit it! Who is to say that you hit? You won’t hear the crash, so the wall couldn’t block the path. If you assume that you walk, who is gonna prove to you that you don’t? You fell to the ground! Who is to say that? Even though you are lying on the ground; if you know yourself walking in a way towards the sky… Do you feel it?

Look, what happens to the universe when you deactivate a few feelings? How do physical beings go towards a volumeless surface and then a surfaceless space? These all, weren’t exist? Where did they go as soon as a few feelings got deactivated? In that case, there is nothing, isn’ it… Let’s call it that, or let’s call it everything. Let’s call it that way, or let’s call that everything exists. Let’s just say everything exists. There are shapeless bodies and bodyless shapes that our eyes cannot see and our ears cannot hear… Expressly the are deads and there is past… Once our sensitivity exceeds naturalness, a whole new world will begin for us. Let’s go into that world! There we will find all our abducted moments, our past and our dead. Let us believe in our dead just as we are sure of the city that buzzes outside when we are confined to a deaf room! What’s the difference between a dead man and a street we passed for once and never see again? Despite we didn’t see or we will never see that street again, we think that the street is in its place, but we consider our dead aren’t exist though we will possibly see them when the time comes. A difference of belief…

The dead live, the moments live; all the feelings, ideas, excitement are in the space, in another climate and obscurity where too far for the mind to go, live in the form of crystal and sharp rocks which turned from smoke to ice, everything lives…

Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, The FantasIes of a LONELY NIght (1928)

✴ Thanks to Enes Talha Coşgun for translating the content. ✴

Joe is a young American soldier. He has a girlfriend, a dream and a purpose planted him by propaganda: Fighting for democracy, fighting for “end the war”. Despite his girlfriend is begging, Joe participates in First World War and badly injured by a bomb in a pit, and he looses all his limbs that allow him to communicate with the world: Arms, legs, face, eyes, nose, ears, tongue… He has lost all his abilities except thinking and feeling. He can’t see, he can’t hear, he can’t speak. His body has become a dark prison where his soul is locked up. Joe stays here alone with his own thoughts.

WARNING: The article contains spoilers about both the book and the movie.

“World War I began like a summer festival – all billowing skirts and golden epaulets,” writes author Dalton Trumbo in the book’s preface. “Millions upon millions cheered from the sidewalks while plumed imperial hignesses, serenities, field marshals and other such fools paraded through the capital cities of Europe at the head of their shining legions. It was a season of generosity; a time for boasts, bands, poems, songs, innocent prayers.”

The darkness of the book/film is a reaction to this colorful atmosphere created for a war in which the blood of millions of people will be shed. As a matter of fact, although the dream and memory sequences are colored in the film, the current time is black and white. And the name of the book comes from the slogan “Johnny, get your gun!” which was used in World War I to encourage young people to participate in the war.

These phrases are from the preface: “Nine million corpses later, when the bands stopped and the serenities started running, the wail of bagpipes would never again sound quite the same. It was the last of the romantic wars.”

The colonel, who undertakes Joe’s treatment, thinks he is unconscious and decides to keep him alive so that he can learn what to do in similar medical situations. Gives care instructions to nurses: They will be gentle, but they will not have any emotional bonds. Because the anonymous soldier’s brain is damaged and unconscious, he will not have feelings and thoughts until the day he dies. 

But the truth is the exact opposite. Joe is conscious and he thinks that he is having a nightmare at first, but in time, he understands the truth. He realizes that his arms and legs have been amputated and his face is no longer in its place. He feels the sun, the warmth and the coolness, the nurses coming in and out of the room. This is how his connection between him and the life now. War took everything from him, leaving him helpless somewhere between life and death.

“It was like a full grown man suddenly being stuffed back into his mother’s body. He was lying in stillness. He was completely helpless. Somewhere sticking in his stomach was a tube they fed him through. That was exactly like the womb except a baby in its mother’s body could look forward to the time when it would live.

He would be in this womb forever and ever and ever. He must remember that. He must never expect or hope for anything different. This was his life from now on every day and every hour and every minute of it. He would never again be able to say hello how are you I love you. He would never again be able to hear music or the whisper of the wind through trees or the chuckle of running water. He would never again breathe in the smell of a steak frying in his mother’s kitchen or the dampness of spring in the air or the wonderful fragrance of sagebrush carried on the wind across a wide open plain. He would never again be able to see the faces of people who made you glad just to look at them of people like Kareen. He would never again be able to see sunlight or the stars or the little grasses that grow on a Colorado hillside.

He would never walk with his legs on the ground. He would never run or jump or stretch out when he was tired. He would never be tired.”

FROM THE BOOK – JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN

Unlike other anti-war productions, this book/film does not include bloody war scenes. Trumbo does not adopt a didactive style, but instead develops the story through the main character Joe and empathizes with the viewer/reader. Throughout the film, we listen to the sentences that go through Joe’s mind, which, in his own words, “like a piece of meat,” and we witness his feelings and memories. Sometimes we put ourselves in his shoes and deeply grasp the meaninglessness of war, why? Is it worth it? Trumbo successfully conveys the criticism of family, state, abuse of religious feelings and the phenomenon of war over the main character.

The book/film argues that life is the most meaningful thing and rejects the “noble, honorable death” literature used to drive young people to the front. According to the author, at the moment of death, the soldier won’t think about democracy, freedom, independence, honor, the security of the land, what they died for; on the contrary, the dying soldier will long for a familiar voice with deep sighs to live in his last breath.

They are saying that a man will have to die in order to protect his life. If you agree to fight you agree to die. Now if you die to protect your life you aren’t alive anyhow so how is there any sense in a thing like that? A man doesn’t say I will starve myself to death to keep from starving. He doesn’t say I will spend all my money in order to save my money. He doesn’t say I will burn my house down in order to keep it from burning. Why then should he be willing to die for the privilege of living? There ought to be at least as much common sense about living and dying as there is about going to the grocery store and buying a loaf of bread.

FROM THE BOOK – JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN

One of the most cult sections of the film is when little Joe talks to his father about what democracy is.

What is democracy?

The young soldier tries to communicate with the outside world while thinking of the people and memories he leaves behind. One day he succeeds to talk to a new nurse who sympathized him by -both metaphorically and literally- “using his head”, by hitting his head to the pillow in morse code. The nurse responds by touching his body. When the soldiers finally arrive, Joe asks them to do two things: Getting out or get killed. 

But the only thing that meets him is the same as the beginning of the book/movie: darkness. Soldiers don’t listen to him. And they won’t let the nurse kill him. His desires, consciousness, feelings don’t matter. Just as the phenomenon of war does not care about man. The war has not taken humanity anywhere and will not, it will the put it in a factious circle and will confine it to the same coarse darkness. That’s how the cult production ends. 

Metallica wrote the song “One” based on this book. The clip of the song contains images from the film.

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