Last fall’s release of the biopic Trumbo, and an Oscar nomination for its star, have brought screenwriter Dalton Trumbo back into the public imagination. Long before his fame as one of the Hollywood Ten, Trumbo wrote Johnny Got His Gun, a WW1 novel.
The cover of the copy I read claims it to be the great American novel. I can’t attest to that, but it is a great anti-war novel.
The action of the entire book lies in the mind of US soldier Joe Bonham. Slowly he – and we – realize that he has lost both arms, both legs and his face. He cannot see, hear, smell, taste or speak. We sink with Joe into his thoughts, his memories, his indignations, his isolation, his personal horror. We root for his efforts to make sense of his constrained existence and to communicate with the outside world. We despair with his failures.
In a stream of consciousness, Trumbo presents the shifting boundaries between sanity and madness.
When he had run without legs until he was tired and when he had screamed without voice until his throat hurt he fell back into the womb back into the quietude back into the loneliness and the blackness and the terrible silence. (p 123)
Joe’s life parallels Trumbo’s own upbringing in Colorado and Los Angeles. (As an aside, Joe is quite a tribute to the American education system … a guy without higher learning with a vast knowledge of history, literature and Morse code.) He is also the vehicle to express Trumbo’s treatises on class politics and the propaganda of patriotism.
He thought here you are Joe Bonham lying like a side of beef all the rest of your life and for what? Somebody tapped you on the shoulder and said come along son we’re going to war. So you went. But why? In any other deal even like buying a car or running an errand you had the right to say what’s there in it for me? … But when a guy comes along and says here come with me and risk your life and maybe die or be crippled why then you’ve got no rights. … There are plenty of laws to protect guys’ money even in war time but there’s nothing on the books says a man’s life’s his own. (p 142-143)
Few references mark the war as WW1 or place Joe Bonham in time. For the most part, he could be any soldier in any modern war. The book could just as well be about WW2, Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan.
Could Joe Bonham’s extreme state be real? “Trumbo was inspired to write his antiwar book during the 1930s after learning about two severely injured WW1 veterans: a British major who had been so mutilated that the army reported him missing in action to his family, and a Canadian soldier left dismembered, blinded, deafened and tube-fed by the conflict.” (Martin F. Norden, The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, p 240) Several sources identify Ethelbert “Curley” Christian as the only soldier to survive a quadruple amputation in WW1. He became a activist for veterans’ benefits.
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