Johnny Got His Gun

The success of the film Trumbo – starring Bryan Cranston as the titular blacklisted screenwriter and Communist Party member – has come at an interesting time in the American cultural landscape. Discussion of socialism is now commonplace. As is free and open discussion of stripping people of their civil rights because of what their beliefs may or may not be. As a gauge of how important it might be, the film has gladly pissed off the right people.

Filmmaking is a fickle art-form; it is of course impossible to cram every single element of a person’s life into a biopic. Nonetheless, that the film doesn’t mention in any way Dalton Trumbo’s masterpiece novel Johnny Got His Gun is frustrating for those familiar with his work. Telling the story of a young soldier fighting in World War I who, caught in an explosion, loses both arms and both legs as well as his sight, hearing and ability to speak, it is as gut-wrenchingly disorienting and terrifying as it sounds.

Though Trumbo agreed to suspend publication of the book (written in 1939) until after World War II, it understandably found a new and enthusiastic audience as the movement against the war in Vietnam gained momentum. In 1971, Trumbo wrote and directed a filmed version of Johnny Got His Gun. (Footage from the film was famously used in Metallica’s 1988 video for the song “One.” The band eventually bought the rights to the film so they wouldn’t have to keep paying royalties every time they showed the video. (Which is why, given their retrograde and shamelessly profit-oriented views on cultural rights and the internet, we have no moral qualm sharing it without permission here.)

A regrettably uncredited collaborator on the film was famed Spanish Surrealist filmmaker (and fellow communist) Luis Buñuel, who co-wrote the script. Both the film and the book bear the hallmark of Surrealism: the blurring of barriers between reality, memory and dream, a fascination with the relationship between inner psychology and the world at large, juxtaposition and montage. We present the film here – in its entirety – as an illustration of how, during times of upheaval and popular struggle, avant-garde artistic techniques can be used to give voice to that struggle in a way that more conventional methods can't. We also hope that it can be read as a small but visceral act of protest against the official narratives of our own time, a reminder of the horror that waits for us if we continue down the road of endless war and barbarism. – The Editors

James Dalton Trumbo (1905 - 1976) was an American screenwriter, novelist and film director. He wrote over thirty screenplays during his career, under pseudonyms after being blacklisted from Hollywood for membership in the Communist Party. In 1960 he was publicly named as the writer of Spartacus and Exodus, effectively ending the blacklist.