Dalton Trumbo is most well-known these days for being one of the Hollywood Ten, the film industry professionals who were blacklisted due to their suspected support of communism as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Trumbo was a screenwriter responsible for scripts including Roman Holiday and Spartacus, and he also authored one of the most powerful anti-war novels of the last century, Johnny Got His Gun.
Johnny Got His Gun was published in 1938 and is the story of twenty-year-old American soldier Joe Bonham who is in hospital following his injury in World War I. The book begins as Joe awakens in hospital, in pain and hallucinating, and as he comes to, he realises that he is deaf. Joe goes in and out of consciousness, alternating between fantasy and reality, remembering episodes from his childhood, his friends and his girlfriend Kareen. In his lucid moments Joe begins to understand that he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue), and his appearance is so disturbing that he has been covered up to avoid distressing the nurses who attend to him. But his mind is unaffected, making him a helpless prisoner, unable to communicate with anyone.
As Joe struggles to stay sane, he thinks about war, about what it means to die for democracy, about death before dishonour: ‘You can always hear the people who are willing to sacrifice somebody else’s life. They’re plenty loud and they talk all the time. You can find them in churches and schools and newspapers and legislatures and congress…Nobody but the dead know whether all these things people talk about are worth dying for or not. And the dead can’t talk.’
The reader is trapped with Joe inside his head and his gradual awareness of the hopelessness of his situation is devastating. Joe rages against the brutality of modern warfare and how innocent working-class men are sacrificed for high ideals that mean nothing to them. Johnny Got His Gun is a scathing attack on the immorality and ultimate futility of war, while also being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a long time.
In 1971 Trumbo directed a film of the book, starring Timmy Bottom, Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland. You can have a look at the trailer below, but I recommend reading the book to appreciate the true brilliance of Trumbo’s writing and ideas.