Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Spectrum Files: Johnny Got His Gun

I'm no big fan of guns, that's not a mystery to anyone that knows me, because my lizard brain has a hard time detangling them from warfare.

In the winter of 1988, all the long-hairs in my Central Wisconsin High School were jacked to the moon because it happened.

Metallica crossed over.

With the single "One", the Bay-area four piece thrash outfit had gone from headbanger cult band to a chart-topping rock act.  This opened the door to hearing the type of hard-rock on mainstream radio that most people wouldn't think possible.  It was a watershed moment.  That overshadowed the true accomplishments of the song, however.  The structure of "One" is based on the concept of a man who goes to war and loses all of his limbs, his eyesight, and his hearing.  He lays in a complete void wanting nothing but release.  In all reality, it is pretty impossible to imagine a worse fate.  The concept is mirrored by the story "Johnny Got His Gun" and subsequent film, both of which the band claimed to have never heard of when they composed the piece.

On a warm Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1982, Spectrum aired the 1973 film written and directed by the since-legendary Dalton Trumbo.  Trumbo was played to Oscar-nominated effect by the actor Bryan Cranston, in a film about the man and his membership of the group known as The Hollywood Ten, blacklisted for their alleged ties to communism.  Trumbo's gifts were such that he was allowed to work in the industry behind closed doors, uncredited.

At the outset of Johnny Got His Gun, I thought it was another visualization of war, like many I'd seen previously.  That is, until its descent into hell began.  The lead character, Joe Bonham, goes off to fight, eagerly hoping to defend his country in World War I before his fate befalls him.  When he awakes in his black and white nightmare, only his dreams (in full color) are a release from his nightmarish existence.

The film's final scene is a bleak and uncompromising vision of awfulness in its cold honesty.  As a 10 year old, it was an ice bath that accomplished its goal.  It disturbed me to my core.  A long-standing fear of mine is confinement, like being buried alive.  This young man's situation probably wasn't much different from it.  It was some of the scariest shit I've ever seen.  An allegory of my worst fears thrown onto the screen as some sort of punishment for patriotism.  I wanted nothing more but to help this young man pull free from the bonds of an impossible quagmire of unrepentant misery and was helpless to do so.  I knew it was fictional, but not impossible.   Hence my unease, my reluctance to forget it.  While many friends were watching movies painting war as action films, I'd not look at those movies the same way after Johnny Got His Gun.

Regardless, over time, the movie had settled under dust in my memory sharing time with other problems, and was dragged back into the sunlight by Metallica's video.  The clip used footage from the movie as a backdrop for performance shots of the band playing their instruments in an empty warehouse setting.  All of what that movie had to share was brought back in excruciating revival,  firing off receptors of recall, and I welcomed it.

Sometimes we need a reminder of what the viciousness of man can do, even if we don't necessarily want it.  But then again, in years since, art hasn't been necessary to provide that reminder.

It's been said that Jimmy Carter demanded all of his state department members view this film before beginning their work.  Perhaps it is time to resume that practice, and maybe have a few other people in government positions view it as well.

War is hell, but lessons can be learned in a much easier way than experiencing it for yourself.  Johnny Got His Gun is among the best teachers film has to offer.

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