Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claim that the Oscars honor the best of the year, we all know that there are always worthy films and performances that end up getting overlooked. Sometimes, it’s because the competition too fierce. Sometimes, it’s because the film itself was too controversial. Often, it’s just a case of a film’s quality not being fully recognized until years after its initial released. This series of reviews takes a look at the films and performances that should have been nominated but were, for whatever reason, overlooked. These are the Unnominated.
The 1971 anti-war film, Johnny Got His Gun, tells the story of Joe Bonham (played by Timothy Bottoms). When America enters World War I, Joe enlists in the Army. He leaves behind his small-town life. He leaves behind his patriotic father (Jason Robards) and his loving girlfriend (Kathy Fields). As he leaves, everyone tells him that he is doing the right thing to protect democracy. Joe’s a hero!
Joe expects war to be a glorious affair, one that will make a true man out of him. Instead, he’s hit by an artillery shell while huddled in a muddy trench. Though he survives the explosion, he loses his arms and his legs. He loses his face. He’s taken to a field hospital, where the doctors say that, though he’s alive, he’s incapable of feeling or thinking. He’s left alone in a room and is occasionally checked on by a sympathetic nurse (Diane Varsi).
The doctors are wrong. Joe can think. Even if he can’t see where he is now, he can still remember the life that he once had and the events that led him to the hospital. The film switches back and forth, from the black-and-white imagery of the hospital to the vivid color of Joe’s memories and fantasies. In his mind, Joe remembers his father, who encouraged him to go to war and perhaps was not the all-knowing figure that Joe originally assumed him to be. (The film makes good use of Jason Robards’s natural gravitas. Like Joe, the viewer initially assumes that Robards is correct about everything.) Joe also imagines several conversations with Jesus (a stoned-looking Donald Sutherland), who turns out to be surprisingly mellow and not always particularly helpful. Jesus suggest that Joe may just be naturally unlucky and he also suggests that Joe perhaps keep his distance from him because, sometimes, bad luck can rub off. Joe, meanwhile, wonders if he could be used as a traveling exhibit to portray the futility of war. When Joe finally realizes that a nurse has been checking on him, he tries to figure out a way to send a message to both her and the military that is keeping him alive in his captive state. S.O.S. …. help me….
Johnny Got His Gun is based on a novel by Dalton Trumbo. The novel was first published in 1939, at a time when the debate over whether the the U.S. should get involved in another war in Europe was running high. At the time, Trumbo was a Stalinist who opposed getting involved because Germany and Russia had signed a non-aggression pact. After the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, Trumbo and his publishers suspended reprinting of the book until the war was over with. Needless to say, this was all brought up in the 50s, when Trumbo was one of the more prominent writers to be blacklisted during the Red Scare. On the one hand, Dalton Trumbo does sound like he was more than a bit of a useful idiot for the Stalinists. On the other hand, if you’re going to suspend the printing of your anti-war polemic, it should definitely be because you want to help defeat the Nazis. In the end, what really matters is that Johnny Got His Gun is an undeniably well-written and effective book, one that works because it eschews the vapid sloganeering that one finds in so many works of left-wing literature and instead focuses on the emotions and thoughts of one human being.
The book was later rediscovered by the anti-war protestors of the 60s, which led to Dalton Trumbo directing a film adaptation. The film is a bit uneven. Dalton Trumbo was 65 years old when he directed the film and there are a few moments, especially in the scenes with Sutherland as Jesus, where he seems like he’s trying a bit too hard to duplicate the younger directors who were a part of the anti-war moment. However, the scenes in the military hospital are undeniably moving. The hospital scenes are shot in a noirish black-and-white and they effectively capture the stark horror of Joe’s situation. Left alone in his dark and shadowy room, Joe becomes the perfect symbol for all the war-related horrors that people choose to ignore. He becomes the embodiment of what war does to those who are scarred, both physically and mentally, by it. The scenes where Diane Varsi realizes that Joe is aware of what’s happened to him and that he can still feel are powerful and emotional. In fact, they work so well that it’s hard not to wish that the film could have done away with the fantasies and the flashbacks, despite the fact that Timothy Bottoms gives an appealing performance as the young and idealistic Joe.
Johnny Got His Gun didn’t receive any Oscar nominations. Should it have? The 1971 Best Picture line-up was a strong one, with the exception of Nicholas and Alexandra. Johnny Got His Gun was definitely superior to Nicholas and Alexandra. However, Dirty Harry is definitely superior to Johnny Got His Gun. (For that matter, Two-Lane Blacktop also came out in 1971 as well.) But, even if Johnny Got His Gun didn’t deserve to be one of the five Best Picture nominees, it did deserve some consideration for its cinematography and Diane Varsi’s performance. If the flashbacks and the fantasies were handled a bit more effectively, I would suggest that Jason Robards and Timothy Bottoms were worthy of consideration as well.
In conclusion, I should that 1971 was a good year for Timothy Bottoms. Not only did he star in this film but he was also the star of The Last Picture Show.
Previous entries in The Unnominated: