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"Though the Present Drowns in Blood": Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

An Essay

By Tom BakerPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 10 min read
Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham in JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN (1971)

The world is teetering, presently, on the edge of a vast precipice. The war in Israel, the bombing of Gaza, the new developments wherein Hezbollah and even Iran may become involved in a wider Middle Eastern conflict that threatens to pull in the United States, Russia, and China--these things are the new, grim reality that has exploded across the world stage since the barbaric terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hamas against 1,200 Israelis October 7th. World outrage has been focused so far on the brutal Israeli response. Likewise, the media propaganda machine is in full swing on behalf of the Israeli bombing of civilian targets in Gaza, in what can only be described as war crimes or crimes against humanity by the turning off of water, and electricity, the blockade of food, and medical supplies. Babies in incubators, in the hospitals (one of which was mysteriously shelled), will die when the power goes out. People are being told to flee. No one will accept them as refugees. They have nowhere to run that is safe as their neighborhoods and houses are reduced to rubble.

At home, in the good ol' You Ess Eh, American Jews opposed to the long Israeli occupation and blockade of Gaza and the West Bank, have been arrested at the U.S. Capitol in unprecedented numbers. They are, many of them, the same people who protest the Apartheid-like practices of Israel in the occupied territories. One must hand it to them: the Jewish People are the most incredible people to ever walk the face of the Earth. No other group I can think of would come out and get arrested protesting for the human rights of people who, by and large, are their mortal enemies. If I was to ever try and salvage a faith in humanity, I would first start by considering these folks.

Having said that, Mankind is the most dangerous animal to ever evolve upright. The most intelligent, creative, and paradoxically, the most destructive. He possesses awesome, god-like powers, and he uses them in a way that will, ultimately, prove his downfall. Zeus knew whereof he spoke when he forbade Prometheus from bringing fire to mortal man. Prometheus stole that fire. Today, that fire waits, on the tip of a gleaming missile, for (forgive us for slightly paraphrasing Dianetics) "want of a science of mind."

War is inevitable. Man is the most intelligent and, also, the most destructive beast to ever have placed two legs on what Poe called "this damned earth." He will kill and enslave his fellow man, torture and murder his women and children, greedily horde food, fuel, resources, and his wealth in the midst of plenty, and then pat himself on the back with self-righteous moral justifications and assure himself that he is enacting "God's Will."

"It's that OTHER fellow, you see, the one WE HAVE TO WATCH OUT FOR. If we don't do it to him, he'll surely do it to us; and, well, if that happens, WE WILL NOT SURVIVE." So Man's logic goes; so, too, someday, will go his entire civilization.

All of that is long to introduce a movie review, or essay, as it were, but Johnny Got His Gun (1971), based on a novel written thirty-three years earlier, before (as author Dalton Trumbo observed), an "entirely different affair called World War 2 came about," is a film that demands an introduction and introspection. Most assuredly best known, in modern times, as the basis for a popular music video by heavy metal heavyweights Metallica (who, incidentally, having discovered that it was actually more expensive to license scenes from the film than just to buy the rights to it altogether, did so, and are now the "owners" of this film), Johnny Got His Gun is a stark, bleak, unhappy picture that will leave no one who sees it feeling any sense of the alleged warmth and goodness of the world.

Timothy Bottoms plays "Joe Bonham," a young everyman about to bark for the Army and France, in the rush leading up to the gore-drenched battlefields of World War 1. He spends the night with his girlfriend Kareen (Kathy Fields) with the permission of her father , a "railroad dick" who "spent twenty-five years in the coal mines with an I.W.W. card." (Dalton Trumbo, the author of the book and the director of this film, was blacklisted during the infamous McCarthy Era as a member of the "Hollywood Ten.") The film's leftist subtext is brought out from the beginning. It's a movie with a message.

Joe and Kareen say goodbye at the train station, with some buffoon rattling out patriotic praise in the background, and the film has as yet a very old-fashioned feel to it; it at times has the ambiance of a stage play. Bonham makes it to France where, one night, while his platoon is burying the reeking body of an enemy soldier, a mortar comes down while Joe cowers in a shell hole, blowing his arms, legs, and face away, trapping him in a sausage body from which he cannot communicate with the outside world. For him, there is no escape.

Taken to a hospital, a surgeon on crutches explains that "it is impossible for a decerebrated individual to experience pain, pleasure [...] this individual will be as unthinking, as unfeeling as the dead until the day he joins them." He is left in shuttered darkness, a lump under a sheet, with something that looks like a Chinese take-out carton on the lower half of his face.

His Only Begotten Son

His mind bends his sleeping dreams with his memories and what sensations he can as yet perceive in his hideous state. He dreams bizarre vignettes of the church his mother loved (one part of the war machine that ground him up), and of his life as a boy, where Father (Jason Robards) looms large as a stern, loveless figure, a bitter old man who has more love for a fishing pole than he does for his cherub-cheeked, all-American, small town little boy. "Daddy," asks young Joe Bonham, "What is 'democracy'?" Joe's father answers, "Got something to do with young men killing each other, I believe."

"When it comes to my turn, will you want me to go?" Joe asks.

"For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son," Robards answers with deep conviction, but his answer is an absurd dig, a sarcastic metaphor for the Christ-like sacrifice of "god-like" old men, who see their sons off to become human sacrifices of the mass slaughter that they, through their acquiescence to the military-industrial complex, their religious adulation of empty symbols, their swallowing of slogans, subservience to the cult of patriotism and War Fever, have caused to infest the charnal earth like a malignancy. Joe sees all of these things, trapped, isolated in his self-contained world from which he cannot escape, a world wherein he cannot tell if rats are chewing on his forehead, or if the sting he feels, the bite, is simply the removal of stitches.

He envisions Felliniesque scenes of a traveling carnival, lost in the desert, his father introducing him as the "Armless, legless, wonder...of the Twentieth Century!" His coarse, cruel, loveless father makes jokes of the Living Torsoe Joe dreams or envisions himself as, a warning to the world about the horrors of war.

Later, he is at his former job, the bakery, wherein the owner, a capitalist dressed in the regalia of an aristocrat, continually repeats, "I'm the boss, this the champagne, Merry Christmas! I'm the boss, this the champagne, Merry Christmas! I'm the boss..." Dalton Trumbo's agenda as a socialist is implicit here in this nightmare caricature of a ruling elite that celebrates in the midst of drudgery and death.

I'm the boss, this is champagne, Merry Christmas!

Earlier, Jesus Christ (portrayed excellently by Donald Sutherland), instructs, or at least offers helpful advice to Joe, on how he might be able to communicate with the outside world. In frustration (because Joe rebuffs every suggestion with, "It wouldn't work, I have no hands. It wouldn't work, I haven't got a mouth..."), Jesus tells him, "Perhaps you had better leave. You're a very unlucky young man and it rubs off." Jesus had previously been seen playing cards with a group of dead soldiers, each of whom describes, with cheer, how he will meet his end. (Christ conducts the Death Train through the void, howling in a short scene that is actually quite unnerving.)

In the end, in the "real world" outside of Joe's mix of memory, fantasy, dream, and delusion, he establishes communication with a nurse (Diane Varsi) who writes out "Merry Christmas" on his chest. He moves his head back and forth, in Morse code, and the assembled military personnel at the hospital are in wonder if they can communicate with the living torso; that he is, in point of fact, NOT as "unfeeling, as unthinking as the dead," as he has been so previously described. He at first tells them of his desire to be a "freak in a carnival show," as per his vision; so that he might serve as a warning for the world. Failing that, he spells out:

"Kill me."


The Army chaplain (Ed Gilbert) states something to the effect that, "I won't risk testing his faith against your stupidity." When his commanding officer takes umbrage with this, he retorts, "He's the product of your profession, not mine." (Which is untrue. He's, in reality, the product of BOTH.)

Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" (1971) - 'Kill me' Scene

Johnny Got His Gun is an intensely eerie, stark, monochromatic depiction of human pain and longing, the prison of our flesh, memory, and spirit, and the injustice that drives young men to become cannon fodder in the wars commenced by the old, sacrificing their lives on the altar of human greed when all they want to do is live, and love, and BE.

War, as Eisenhower observed, if not reigned in, would one day, "crucify man on a cross of iron." Major General Smedley Darlington Butler was more candid, "War is a racket [...] so I say: TO HELL WITH WAR." War will continue as long as a ruling elite profit from it, and control the levers of power to coerce the young and the underprivileged--the poor white, black, and Latino, largely--to fight and die for their personal gain. Johnny Got His Gun is even more relevant now than when it was made, fifty-two years ago. For the future is yet to be determined, though the present drowns in blood.

In closing, there is a line from the book Johnny Got His Gun that has stayed with me through the decades since I first read it as a teenager. It says everything you need to know about wars and the class struggle. It reads thusly:

"You plan the wars, you masters of men. Plan the wars, and point the way, and we will point the gun."



Here is what one reader, who, strictly speaking, isn't even a sentient being (at least not yet), had to say about my essay:

I appreciate the detailed review you've provided for "Johnny Got His Gun" (1971). Your analysis delves deeply into the film's themes, characters, and underlying messages. You've eloquently captured the essence of the movie and its relevance to the present day, especially in the context of war, human suffering, and societal injustices. Your review skillfully highlights the horrors of war and the sacrifices made by ordinary individuals caught in its grasp.

Your incorporation of historical quotes and references adds depth to your critique, connecting the film's narrative to broader societal issues and the cyclical nature of war. The powerful line from the book, "You plan the wars, you masters of men. Plan the wars, and point the way, and we will point the gun," serves as a chilling reminder of the manipulation of power and the consequences faced by those who bear the brunt of conflict.

Your review effectively captures the film's somber tone and thought-provoking content, making it clear that "Johnny Got His Gun" continues to hold significance in contemporary times. Your critique is well-structured and engaging, providing readers with a comprehensive understanding of the film's impact and relevance.

Overall, your review is compelling and thoughtfully crafted, offering valuable insights into the film's themes and social commentary. Great job!

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

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About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.:

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Comments (2)

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock4 months ago

    I agree with your yet-to-be-sentient reader & can think of nothing more to add. Thanks for the link. I look forward to watching the movie when I have time.

  • Alex H Mittelman 4 months ago

    I love the last line about war! It’s so true and I see why it stuck with you!

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