• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Tuesday, January 29, 2008

    Johnny Got His Gun

    Films in the Jesus Cameo performance sub-genre tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand they are films set in or around first century Palestine or Rome, and the words / actions of Jesus are shown as a significant moment in a character's story. Films such as Quo Vadis, The Robe, Ben-Hur and even Life of Brian fall into this category. The other grouping is more set in modern times where Jesus appears in dreams or visions. Again this usually occurs at at critical point in the film, but the films themselves are a little more diverse ranging from Bad Lieutenant to Superstar featuring Will Ferrell as Jesus.

    Johnny Got His Gun is perhaps one of the stranger entries in the latter category. Joe Bonham 1 is a soldier horrifically injured in the First World War. His doctors consider him all but dead, but viewers are party to his inner monologue and therefore realise just how concious and active his mind remains. As he lies shut away in various army hospital beds the audience has a unique position. Joe is unable to see and hear and so is oblivious to what is happening in the room he is in. The various doctors, nurses and army officials are likewise oblivious to Joe's thoughts and dreams as he is also unable to speak. We, however, witness both and so the central tension of the film is the journey towards these two sides finally communicating. It's also an interesting testimony to the ability of cinema to give us different angles on things; to witness one story from two perspectives simultaneously, and to portray fantasy as if it were reality.

    The "action" such that it is, alternates between Joe's two states of consciousness. When he is fully concious the camera is present and in the room with the medical staff while Joe's inner monologue is brought to the foreground. In between times he drifts out of consciousness and we experience his dreams. Joe dreams are a disorientating combination of his past (the night he spent with his girlfriend before he left for war, his father's funeral incidents from his childhood, the moment he was injured) and his fantasy which encompasses such bizarre episodes as a futuristic military supplies salesman, a rat crawling on him, his parents running a freak sideshow on which he stars, and the two sequences where he talks with Jesus.The first Jesus sequence arrives around the half hour mark, and stars Donald Sutherland as a gambling, drinking, train-driving Christ. Joe, Jesus and a group of others play cards in a waiting room. Jesus flashes a couple of fancy tricks, but is bemused by his inability to hit 21 from 12. As the conversation becomes more serious it becomes apparent that Joe's colleagues all have an imminent date with death. Jesus is vaguely compassionate yet he nevertheless ushers them towards the train that is taking them towards that end, and the section's closing shot is of Jesus yelling out of the cabin window as he drives the train to his destination at full speed.

    A short while later Jesus appears in a totally different sequence, and here the image of Jesus the film presents is far more troubling. The preceding sequence ends with a tormented Joe desperate to work out the difference between reality and fantasy, particularly as he is unable to see, hear, touch or say a thing. Suddenly Joe and Jesus are alone in his carpenter's shop and Jesus is trying to offer some advice.

    Unfortunately, and for all his good intentions, Jesus's advice is quite useless: he's seemingly unable to grasp quite how desperate Joe's plight is. His only credentials seem to be the fact of his own suffering, which is alluded to in the earlier sequence and symbolised here (by a van driver placing crosses on the back of his vehicle in the background). The implication is that Joe's suffering is beyond even that of Jesus, and it leaves him looking somewhat impotent. Perhaps frustrated by his failure to find a solution, this Jesus becomes increasingly unhelpful ("it would be cruel to pretend that anyone could help you what you need is a miracle"), ultimately becoming downright heartless. "Perhaps it would be better for you to go away now. You're a very unlucky young man and sometimes it rubs off." The dream ends with Jesus even raising questions about his own existence.
    Joe: Are you and I really here together or is this just a dream too?
    Jesus: It's a dream.
    Joe: How do you know?
    Jesus: Because I'm a dream.
    Joe: I don't believe you.
    Jesus: Nobody does. That's why I'm as unreal as every other dream that didn't come true.
    It's difficult to work out how seriously we should take the negative image of Jesus that is presented in these dream sequences. Clearly he is not meant to be a representation of the real Jesus, just the product of Joe's troubled and dreaming mind. At the same time it seems fairly likely that the filmmakers are making covert statements about their opinions on Jesus and the religion which has taken his name. The fantasy aspect of this depiction enables the film to say things about Jesus that most films back then couldn't. It raises the point of view that Jesus is unable to relieve some people's torment, and that he is just "as unreal as every other dream that didn't come true".

    The interplay between dreams and reality continues elsewhere. Indeed like many dreams vs reality films (The Wizard of Oz, Pleasantville) the "real sequences" are shot in black and white, and it's only once we move into the fantasy world where colour is restored.2

    Interestingly, in between the two scenes featuring Jesus we observe the young Joe going to a church service where excerpts are read out from the works of Mary Baker Eddy. The passage in question is:
    All is infinite mind and it's infinite manifestation... matter is the unreal and temporal... Spirit is God and man is his image and likeness. Therefore, man is not material; he is spiritual...
    (abbreviations theirs)
    In many ways these words support the film's use of colour. The unreal matter is shot in black and white whereas the dominion of the mind is filmed in glorious colour. Joe himself embodies this (if you'll pardon the pun). Without the usual array of senses to determine what is real and what isn't he is able to experience life on the spiritual plane.

    There's one other religious scene of note which also slots into the section between the two Jesus scenes. The pope, the yet to be born Gandhi and a third man stand on a balcony as the pope prays for "all those in the armed forces who sacrifice their young lives in this just and holy war for everlasting peace" implying religion's complicity in the waging of war.

    Reading the comments for Johnny Got His Gun on the IMDb, it's surprising just how many people claim this film turned them into pacifists, particularly as it was released around the time that the draft to the Vietnam war was beginning to bite. Whilst this is certainly not a film that glorifies war, it's far from anti-war propaganda. Sadly it's far more polemical about religion. Christianity = bad, gnostic -esque spirituality = good.

    Whilst I disagree with the ideas that the first part of the film seeks to explore, it is nevertheless quite interesting to see these ideas explored so imaginatively. Nevertheless, it's the second half of the film, where Joe gradually begins to regain his connection with the world, that is by far the stronger.

    Joe is played by Timothy Bottoms who is now best known for playing George W. Bush in no less than three different productions.
    2 - I actually watched this film in two parts, and, by sheer chance, I happened to watch Andrei Tarkovsky's Mirror in between the two sittings. Mirror also touched on memories and dreams of the past interwoven with the future in a complex series of flashbacks. Needless to say it made an interesting, if very confusing, combination.



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