Monday, August 14, 2006

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

This is one of my favorite books. A copy was given to me about 8 years ago by my cousin Kareem and this is the fifth time I am reading it. It was written just before World War II and was actually published a few days after the war started. The story itself is set in America during World War I. The author, Dalton Trumbo also wrote the screen plays for Spartacus and Papillon, both notable films in their time. He was also one of the famous ‘Hollywood 10’ who were film writers that were blacklisted in the 1950’s during the McCarthy era for being communists. After that he went into self-exile in Mexico where he continued to write under a pseudonym. Dalton Trumbo died in 1976.

‘Johnny Got His Gun’ is a story about a young American boy named Joe Bonham from a typical white bread American town who is drafted to fight in World War I. He wakes up one day with a horrible headache only to progressively realize that he has been horribly injured in an attack. He has lost all his limbs, his face, sight, hearing, and speech. Trumbo accurately describes him as a ‘slab of beef with a mind’. The entire story takes place in his head as he faces his disabilities and recollects moments from his past. The writing style is brutally honest and I do not think there is a comma in the entire book. It is written just as you would expect an innocent small town boy from the early 1900’s to talk. Many sentences are long and overflowing with thoughts but it is still a very relaxed read.

The first barrier Joe has to overcome is distinguishing when he is awake and when he is dreaming. With no eyelids or eyes he has to focus all his energy just to achieve this seemingly simple task. The book is at many times frightening and horribly depressing. You are forced to imagine what life would be like in that situation where even if you wanted to scream you could not or cry or even attempt to take your life. He tried to hold his breath only to find that he was so badly damaged that a machine was doing his breathing for him. In this excerpt, Joe is under the impression that every night a rat is coming to feed on an open wound on his side. How ever there is no way for him to distinguish if this is real or just a dream. It is only one of many instances where Trumbo effectively depicts the torture Joe is going though.

“He began to realize that the chewing of the rat was not a thing that would last for only 10 or 15 minutes. Rats were smart animals. They knew their way around. This one wouldn’t be content to go away and not come back again. It would return from day to day and from night to night to feed at his carcass until he went crazy. He found himself running through the corridors of the hospital. He found himself coming upon a nurse and grabbing her by the throat and putting her head down to the hole in his side where the rat was still clinging and hollering at her you lazy slut why don’t you come and chase the rats off your customers? He was running through the night shrieking. Running through a whole series of nights running through an eternity of nights yelling for Christ sake somebody take this rat off me see him hanging there? Running through a lifetime of nights and shrieking and trying to push the rat off and feeling the rat sink its teeth deeper and deeper.

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.”

In this vegetative state Joe scrutinizes the many aspects of life, war, freedom, and liberty as he drifts between his dreams, memory, and harsh reality. The text is very powerful and Trumbo utilizes this setting to translate some extremely thought provoking and controversial ideas. This book is a commanding statement against war and it has been said that ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ was even banned during the Vietnam and Korean Wars. It takes the worst case scenario and unveils the hideous face of war and boundlessness of human stupidity. Joe eventually does manage to communicate so there is direction and a meaningful conclusion to the story. I would rather not give the story away though, because it is a worthwhile read.

‘Johnny Got His Gun’ was interpreted to film in 1972 if I am not mistaken. It was directed by the author Dalton Trumbo and the only well known actor to me in the film was Donald Sutherland, who played the role of Jesus Christ. The film is shot in black and white and although it is worth watching, it can not compare to the force or splendor of the book. It is impossible to covey the ideas going though Joes head using images alone and if the screenplay just read as the book, it would be like listening to the book. The style of filming however is interesting as it really does convey a feeling of sadness, misery, and empathy. It has also been adapted to a one man stage show but I have never seen it, but it does sound very intriguing.

“There is nothing noble about dying. Even if you die for honor. Not even if you die the greatest hero the world ever saw. Not even if you are so great that your name is never forgotten and who’s that great? The most important thing is your life little guys. You’re worth nothing dead except for speeches. Don’t let them kid you anymore. Pay no attention when they tap you on the shoulder and say come along we’ve got to fight for liberty or whatever their word is there is always a word.

Just say mister I am sorry I got no time to die I’m too busy and then turn and run like hell. If they say coward why don’t pay attention because it’s your job live not die. If they talk about dying for principles that are bigger than life you say mister you’re a liar. Nothing is bigger than life. There’s nothing noble about death. What’s noble about lying in the ground and rotting? What’s noble about never seeing the sunshine again? What’s noble about having your legs and arms blown off? What’s noble about being blind and deaf and dumb? What’s noble about being dead? Because when you’re dead mister it’s all over. It’s the end. You’re less than a bee or an ant less than a white maggot crawling around on a dungheap. You’re dead mister and you died for nothing.
You’re dead mister.

In these troubled times we live in this book should be thrust into every soldier’s hand that is ready to go out and fight, kill, and die for their governments. Although some aspects of the book may be outdated, it is still overall a timeless classic. And if any of you are Metallica fans (the old stuff), you might recall the song ‘One’ from the album ‘and Justice for All…’ or ‘One’. It is an awesome track that is quite long and it switches between tranquil guitar solo’s and heavy distortion riffs from Kirk and James, backed by a Jason’s hard driving bass line, and Lars’s manic drum beats. ‘One’ was inspired by this ‘Johnny Got His Gun’.

One Lyrics

I can't remember anything

Can't tell if this is true or dream

Deep down inside I feel the scream

This terrible silence stops me

Now that the war is through with me
I'm waking up, I cannot see
That there's not much left of me
Nothing is real but pain now
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please god, wake me
Back in the womb it's much too real
In pumps life that I must feel
But can't look forward to reveal
Look to the time when I'll live
Fed through the tube that sticks in me
Just like a wartime novelty
Tied to machines that make me be
Cut this LIFE off from me
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please god, wake me
Now the world is gone I'm just one
Oh god, help me
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please god, help me
Darkness imprisoning me
All that I see
Absolute horror
I cannot live
I cannot die
Trapped in myself
Body my holding cell
Landmine has taken my sight
Taken my speech
Taken my hearing
Taken my arms
Taken my legs
Taken my soul
Left me with a life in hell


IndCoup said...

The film is only available in France on DVD(dubbed in French!).

All quiet on the Western Front, is another classic of this type IMO.


mogs said...

I remember reading it in Accra in 2000, upon your recommendation, when you were also based there for a short while.