A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
I've never much liked anti-war films. They've never much stopped war, for one thing. For another, they attract hushed and reverential praise which speaks of their universality and the urgency of their messages. Most anti-war films come so burdened with universality and urgency that the ads for them read like calls to sunrise services.
Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" smelled like that kind of anti-war film. It came out of the Cannes Film Festival with three awards and a slightly pious aroma, as if it had been made for joyless Student Peace Union types of thirty-five years ago. But it isn't like that at all. Trumbo has taken the most difficult sort of material -- the story of a soldier who lost his arms, his legs, and most of his face in a World War I shell burst -- and handled it, strange to say, in a way that's not so much anti-war as pro-life. Perhaps that's why I admire it.
Instead of belaboring ironic points about the "war to end war," Trumbo remains stubbornly on the human level. He lets his ideology grow out of his characters, instead of imposing it from above. In this sense, his film resembles Joseph Losey's "King and Country," which also turned its back on the war in order to consider one ordinary, unremarkable soldier.
Trumbo's soldier is Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms), who comes from an American background that is clearly modeled on Trumbo's own. The boy works in a bakery, supports his mother and sisters after his father's death, is in love with an open-faced and sweet Irish girl, and enlists in the army because "it's the sort of thing a fellow ought to do, when his country is in trouble." Months later, he's sent on a patrol into no-man's land to bury a corpse that was offending a colonel's nose. A shell lands near him, and he wakes up in a hospital.