There is a paradox of sorts in these First World War films. Films that have been produced to entertain by telling a story of abject suffering. The real life stories they portray or imitate are the personal stories of any one of the millions who died or suffered on the battlefields and various theatres of war. But they do entertain and the one piece of solace is that the entertainment comes with a message attached.
When I was young, in the early 80’s, I remember seeing lots of old men with missing limbs, or eye patches, or hacking coughs etc. Loads of them walking the streets. I realise now that these guys were the survivors. The ones who made it back with memories of friends and family members who weren’t so lucky. For the most part they kept it to themselves and didn’t discuss it with their wives and children. They struggled to sleep with memories of the past and had difficulties re-integrating into the society they’d fought to protect.
What about those who ended up in the suddenly burgeoning institutional facilities of post war Europe. The ones suffering severe enough injuries that they’d never get back home, or indeed have any idea of what home was. There are only a few films that have covered this subject, Regeneration (1997, also called Behind the Lines) kind of does something similar and will receive a review at some point but I will firstly focus on the excellent Johnny Got His Gun (1971).
This piece of cinematic gold, like Paths of Glory, started life as an anti-war book. Written by Dalton Trumbo and first published in 1939, it won awards for its originality and was adapted for radio within a year of its release. As an aside, I find it slightly strange how contentious, anti-war subject matter is more acceptable in the written form than it is on the screen.
The book finally made it to the big screen in 1971 with Trumbo as Director. And it was worth the wait. Trumbo had suffered in the years following the books release, firstly the Second World War got in the way and then, following the end of the War, his membership of the Communist Party and his sway in Hollywood bought him to the attention of the McCarthyists. He spent some time in prison and, after his release, was ostracised from the studio system. He spent the 50’s scratching a living writing screen plays under pseudonyms and biding his time.
Any Metallica fans out there? Yes, this is the film James Hetfield wrote ‘One’ about and the video for the song features the film heavily cut between shots of the band twirling their greasy locks to and throe. Lar Ulrich looking as punchable as ever. Watch the film and then listen to the words, James, it would seem, is a fan too.
The films begins shortly after the protagonist (Joe) has received a near direct hit from an enemy shell. He wakes up in hospital and slowly comes to realise he has lost all his limbs, we never see his face as this too has been obliterated and along with it any means he has of communicating with the outside world. Inside his own head he is lucid and the film revolves around his inner monologue interspersed with flashbacks to his younger self. These flashbacks are shot in colour with the contemporary scenes shot in black and white.
The war itself is left as a memory after the opening scene and the rest of the film plays out on the personal level of Joe coming to terms with his injuries and his ‘locked in’ state. The flash backs (literally) add colour to Joes’ character as they show him at important points in its life. Rites of passage moments like informing his girlfriend of his intentions to leave for the war as well as memories of his relationship with his father. In one he is drugged and the flashback takes on a different form. The colours change slightly as in a haze he asks Jesus (a young, long haired Donald Sutherland) for answers but, of course, none are forthcoming.
As our knowledge of Joe and his life grows through these colourful flashbacks so does his self-awareness. He comes to grips with his situation over indeterminate periods of time and tries to communicate with the outside world. He succeeds in varying degrees but I will not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. I think it’s safe to say the ending sends us full circle back to the military machine and its need for censor, censure and control. As we pull away from the continuing horror we are left with a pleading voice.
It’s a great film. It’s dark, both in terms of its subject matter and its cinematography, it’s paired down to a minimum of fuss with no big turns from A-list glory hunters (except the cameo from Sutherland) and is all the better for it. At its core is a simple premise with strong character development and a story line that tugs at the heart strings and draws us in. I suppose this is due to the fact the story was initially written as a book. For Trumbo to keep this simple essence and strong focus on character is to his credit when film comes with the potential for bells and whistles.
Johnny Got His Gun is another great Great War Film. Quite different to Paths of Glory but similar in one important way. Its’ subversive nature enables it to speak out about the machinery of industrialised war whilst focussing on the suffering of individuals. Hopefully, one day, things will change and films like this will be partially responsible.
This really is a must have film for everyone. Clicky Clicky here to get your copy.
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