Review: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

“What the hell does liberty mean anyhow? It’s just a word like house or table or any other word. Only it’s a special kind of word. A guy says house and he can point to a house to prove it. But a guy says come on let’s fight for liberty and he can’t show you liberty. He can’t prove the thing he is talking about so how in the hell can he be telling you to fight for it?”
~Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

Plot summary

“After his dugout suffers a direct hit from a German shell in the last days of the Great War, 20-year-old American infantryman Joe Bonham gradually comes to in a French hospital.

As his thoughts become more lucid, he realises he has been left deaf, dumb and blind and that all four of his limbs have subsequently been amputated. His face, meanwhile, has been obliterated by the shell and what is left – ‘a red gash … with mucus hanging from it’ – is now covered by a mask to avoid distressing the nurses.

Despite his injuries, his mind still functions as well as ever, letting him think back to his childhood in small-town Colorado and allowing him to contemplate the full horror of his situation. Joe soon realises he is ‘the nearest thing to a dead man on Earth … a dead man with a mind that could think’.” More in the Guardian review

On Dalton Trumbo
Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun
Theatrical poster for the film adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Photo: changsterdam (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Dalton Trumbo worked as a cub reporter for the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, covering courts, the high school, the mortuary and civic organizations. (…) His first published novel, Eclipse, was about a town and its people, written in the social realist style, and drew on his years in Grand Junction. He started writing for movies in 1937; by the 1940s, he was one of Hollywood’s highest paid writers for work on such films as (…) Kitty Foyle (1940), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay.

Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, won a National Book Award (then known as an American Book Sellers Award) that year. The novel was inspired by an article Trumbo read about a soldier who was horribly disfigured during World War I.

In 1947, Trumbo, along with nine other writers and directors, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as an unfriendly witness to testify on the presence of communist influence in Hollywood. Trumbo refused to give information. After conviction for contempt of Congress, he was blacklisted, and in 1950, spent 11 months in prison in the federal penitentiary in Ashland, KY. Once released, he moved to Mexico.

In 1993, Trumbo was awarded the Academy Award posthumously for writing Roman Holiday (1953). The screen credit and award were previously given to Ian McLellan Hunter, who had been acting as a ‘front’ for Trumbo since he had been blacklisted by Hollywood.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • The ultimate inner sanctum after being trapped in one’s own body
  • Fate worse than death
  • Fight against war bureaucracy

“A man doesn’t say I will starve myself to death to keep from starving, or that he’d spend all of his money to save money. Why should he be willing to die for the privilege of living?” ~Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun

The 1930’s are closing in as we speak – or rather write. However, there is one last piece from My Top 30 Books list to be mentioned, a book with a heavy weight compared to the number of pages in the novel. I read this novel in 1998 but it still haunts me, in a good way.

Johnny Got His Gun is THE anti-war novel, and I don’t think there’s any dispute about that 🙂 The novel is thoroughly memorable, since it deals with such a powerful story on World War I published on the doorsteps of World War II. It is also highly timeless: after being banned during World War II, the novel experienced a re-awakening during the Vietnam War after the change of public sentinent towards war activities. Also, a film adaptation came out in 1971. In its deep naiveté, the novel is sympathetic in its chillness about the horrors of an individual and leaves a permanent mark on the reader.

So, talking about “snow” hitting the fan, the protagonist Joe Bonham sure is one unlucky fellow. He is badly injured in the last moment of World War I and he wakes up in a hospital, all but left to some of his senses and unable to communicate. He is trapped in his own body and only able to make journeys to his inner feelings and memories, recurring flashbacks to his youth, and with the flow of the content, death becomes an unattainable goal. But, as the reader will see, death does not become him, sometimes it only remains a dream, hijacked by the war apparatus.

The power of communication

Communications is vital in Johnny Got His Gun. The idea of one half-dead young man, barely surviving in the torso he is occupying, communicating his wishes to the outside world becomes entangled in war regulations. Joe Bonham reaches a culmination point when he through the Morse code finds a link to the outside world. However, his battle proves out to be more challenging than he imagined.

It’s a one man’s pacifist battle against the faceless war machine not wanting to grant his wishes, so eventually the outside world turns into a void, a vacuum unable to communicate back. It is the final self-realization about the circumstances surrounding Joe that build the boundaries for his existence.

In a sense, Joe Bonham is one of “those other kids” sent to war, as sympathized similarly by Erich Maria Remarque in All Quiet on the Western Front. Johnny Got His Gun touches upon the ultimate question of individual freedom. In what extent is one able to exercise one’s personal freedom to choose?

Johnny Got His Gun comes highly recommended. It is a tragic story of one man’s coming-to-terms-of-oneself in the face of the pointlessness of war and the limits of one’s actions as opposed to the expectations posed by the state in times of war. There is a certain amount of propaganda in the story, but it’s easy to get by it. The mental strain is very captivating, so I would recommend to refrain from reading the novel just before going to bed to avoid potential nightmares.

Also, check out the music video to Metallica‘s One (1989) that shows scenes from the 1971 film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun.

More information
– Phil Mongredien: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, review on the new edition of the novel published in the Guardian on 16 August 2009, link retrieved on 3 December 2016
– Theo Tait: That’s democracy, published in the London Review of Books on 2 March 2000, link retrieved on 3 December 2016
– The novel Johnny Got His Gun was adapted to a film written and directed by Dalton Trumbo in 1971, a newer film adaptation was released in 2008
– Arto Pajukallio: Kommunistijahti pilasi maineen, Helsingin Sanomat (requires login), published on 31 July 2010
– Metallica’s song “One” (1988) is based on the idea of a soldier losing all of his limbs and being unable to hear, speak, or see

Other novels and stories by Trumbo
  • Eclipse (1935)
  • Washington Jitters (1936)
  • The Remarkable Andrew (1941)
  • The Biggest Thief in Town (1949)
  • The Time of the Toad: A Study of Inquisition in America & Two Related Pamphlets (1949)
  • Night of the Aurochs (1979)

“How could you believe or disbelieve anything anymore? Four maybe five million men killed and none of them wanting to die while hundreds maybe thousands were left crazy or blind or crippled and couldn’t die no matter how hard they tried.”
~Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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