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Flawed but powerful, Dalton Trumbo's adaptation of his disturbing 1939 antiwar novel won three awards at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival but met with mixed reviews at home. The film centers on Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms, in his film debut), a young American soldier who loses his legs, arms,
and face when a bomb explodes near him on the last day of WW I. Deaf, dumb, and blind, he is kept alive by doctors who assume he is a vegetable and keep him in a locked room, intending to use him for medical research. Joe, however, can think and, in time, feel. To maintain his sanity, he roams a
vast mental landscape in which memories and dreams commingle with meditations on the brutality and senselessness of war--an interior life represented in color, while the hospital scenes are in black and white. Eventually, a compassionate nurse (Diane Varsi) comes to understand Joe's condition and
communicates with him by writing on his chest with her finger, to which he responds by using his head to tap Morse Code. When Joe's request to be put on display as a reminder of the terrible cost of war is denied, he asks to be killed. A number of critics have found JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN
heavy-handed; others consider it to be among the cinema's most powerful antiwar statements. To be sure, Trumbo, directing his first film, drives home his points in a somewhat obvious, often awkward fashion that is overly talky, but so disquieting is his story and the reality underlying it that it
is difficult not to be moved by the film and Bottoms' fine performance. When a 1965 production of the story that was to have been directed by Luis Bunuel fell through, as did a subsequent deal with Warner Bros., Trumbo and producer Bruce Campbell came up with $750,000 and made the film themselves
under the rubric of Robert Rich (the pseudonym the blacklisted Trumbo used for his Academy Award-winning screenplay for 1957's THE BRAVE ONE) Productions.