Dalton Trumbo captures the horrors of war in his only directorial debut Johnny Got His Gun. While may not be the greatest war film, the film deftly navigates the horrors of its aftermath when it comes to one young soldier starring Timmothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland, and Kathy Fields. The video and audio presentation from Imprint isn't the best, but it gets the job done and the extras are wonderful. Recommended!
Everyone can thank the heavy metal band Metallica for bringing back this forgotten movie Johnny Got His Gun into the main pipeline of movies again. This film was not really remembered after its initial release in 1971, but then Metallica started using clips of the film during their concerts, which caused a big cult following of the film that led to the band purchasing the rights to the movie. What most people forget is that Johnny Got His Gun is a truly terrifying film that is subdued in its horror and not only targets the atrocities of war but also the subject of being euthanized and where the line should be drawn. All of this was made possible by the infamous writer Dalton Trumbo.
Of course, Trumbo came back into the limelight recently with the film Trumbo played by Bryan Cranston who was one of ten men in Hollywood who were put on trial for maybe spreading the word of communism in the United States. Trumbo wrote the book Johnny Got His Gun in 1939 and came to direct the film in 1971, serving as his only directorial effort. Johnny Got His Gun didn't do very well financially, even though Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland starred in the film. Perhaps the added work for Trumbo in getting the best performances out of his actors and trying to frame a cohesive story was a bit much for him at the time, but the movie was almost lost until Metallica started using it. And rightfully so, because this movie is gutsy and artfully done in a way that the legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa stated that this is one of his favorite films.
Why would that be? Its setup is unorthodox where a young man named Joe enlists in the army during WWI in order to do the right thing, or so he thought. Joe is injured during the war and wakes up in a hospital where all four limbs have been removed and all of his facial features have also been blown off or amputated. The only sense he has left is touch, leaving his eyesight, hearing, taste, and smell gone forever. He can't even eat but must take in food intravenously. This awful and tragic scenario has forced the young Joe to be a literal prisoner in his own body without a real way to communicate other than banging his head on his pillow in Morse code.
All this allows Joe to fantasize, dream, and hallucinate about his past life with his loved ones, growing up, and the family he left behind before the tragedy. Through the help of a nurse who has become sympathetic to his situation, he is able to have some form of real human interaction, but it's all for nothing as the army doctors decide what to do with him. Trumbo was very outspoken on the subject of war. He was against it. But this is not so much an anti-war movie as it is about being pro-life and euthanasia, or even about what the horrors of war can do not to thousands of soldiers, but to just one person who thought the right path was to join the army and fight for their country.
Trumbo doesn't allow his dialogue or heavy-handed themes to knock his audience over the head with sermons, but it rather plays out naturally through the characters and their reactions to the tragedy before them and that's what makes this little gem of a movie stand out so brightly. Young Joe doesn't want to keep going in his state, but his inability to communicate clearly doesn't come through enough to the army doctors who want to keep him alive and away from the media or others so as to not showcase the bad side of war. It's a sad state of affairs, even until the very end where it has an Ari Aster vibe to it all. Johnny Got His Gun may not have particularly great pacing, but its visual style in painting the present-day in black and white and having Joe's memories set in color is truly outstanding. Plus, having Donald Sutherland play Jesus Christ was a brilliant choice. This is one memorable and sad film that should be discovered again.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Johnny Got His Gun codes its way to Blu-ray via Imprint with one disc housed inside a hard plastic clear case with spine number 115. There is also a hard cardboard sleeve that features the artwork of a hand giving the peace sign with a soldier walking through a war-torn field. Inside, the reversible artwork features Joe in the hospital bed while the other side is a movie still. Everything is in black and white.
Johnny Got His Gun comes with a 1080p HD presentation that is not entirely a new one. This image seems to be sourced from a previous transfer and is not a brand-new one for this Imprint release. This picture looks a bit better than other releases from the Imprint company, but there are still issues. The black and white scenes look like they were shot in color but then toned down to their black and white levels, while the scenes in color are never vibrant, but rather subdued. Black levels are not very inky and there is some crush. Skin tones are natural. The detail does reveal some rather nice closeups showcasing decent facial features and textures in the hospital bedding and another wardrobe, but it's never too sharp or vivid at any given time. There are also instances of dirt, warps, and other video issues.
This release comes with an LPCM 2.0 track that gets the job done but never immerses the listener in dream or fantasy sequences. This is mostly dialogue driven and while some sequences might sound like a tin can, most of it comes through nicely. There is no real heft on the low end, which is a shame, but the other sound effects are decent enough and do what it intends to do for better or worse.
There is about two hours' worth of bonus materials here, including recent interviews, original radio programs, and a commentary. These are worth watching.
Johnny Got His Gun is one of those lost films that were rediscovered in the most unlikely of places - a Metallica concert. Dalton Trumbo sure had a way with words and his stories and it transcribes greatly in this film even if there are some beginner flaws as a filmmaker. Imprint's video and audio. transfers are serviceable here, but the extras are great. Recommended!