Dalton Trumbo – Yes, The Brave Are Lonely

johnny-got-his-gun4Recently, the people at Shout!Factory, an independent releasing company on the fast track to greatness in the post-Rhino era, had the good sense to put out a special release of a long unavailable independent film. (Shout is continuing to release also the beloved Mystery Science Theater, which Rhino had the good sense to deliver for a while until they went broke because not a huge market exists apparently for indie products because people are so homogenized and blah blah).   Johnny Got His Gun, written and directed by Dalton Trumbo, is perhaps THE most inflammatory indictment not just of war, especially for the sake of “democracy”, but of any bureaucratic system led by those who would ignore individual determinism while claiming to represent the greater morality.  It is the story of a soldier in WWI named Joe Bonham who winds up in a bizarre predicament after surviving a mortar shell explosion. Armless, legless, blind, and unable to speak, he is trapped inside what remains of his physical  body, and at the mercy of those around him while he lies on a hospital table and tries to reckon with his despair and the idealism that led him down the road. Through memories and a few conversations with Jesus Christ, his life replays in his mind and for the audience.johnnygothisgun13

The thing about Trumbo is his language, very intelligent and written with a flair for meter, at times very poetic. The film retains little of this, so the book is a must read. The book came out in 1939, won the National Book Award for best original story, and was promptly squelched, pulled out of print for being “subversive”. What followed for Trumbo was a brief period of successful screenwriting for Hollywood films and then a long nightmare of persecution by HUAC, a jail sentence, and years of being blacklisted. Despite the merry turn of events, he continued to write screenplays for Hollywood films using fronts to take credit for his work, which allowed him to scrape by financially and raise his family. It would come out years later that he actually wrote some true classics like Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday, and The Brave One, for which he won an Oscar but never got credit until years later.JOHNNYGOTHISGUN_THUMBNAIL

In 1960, Otto Preminger made his screenplay for Exodus into a film and pushed to have his name credited as screenwriter. Next was Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas, a supporter of Trumbo and his work. He continued to work and wrote several good stories and screenplays including Lonely Are The Brave, The Sandpiper, Hawaii, The Fixer, The Horsemen, Papillon, and Executive Action. In a sense, one could say he beat the odds of his situation and he acheived a lot. Certainly getting to make Johnny Got His Gun into an uncompromised film was a major acheivement, despite the lack of any commercial success for the film. It stands as a major independent work and perhaps as people get to see it on dvd and the new Magnolia documentary, Trumbo, a new generation can fully appreciate the work of an American artist whose life was adversity, while his work reflected the adversities faced by his fellow man and resonate as powerful contributions.trumbo_l200805221603

In the new documentary by Peter Askin, cast members of productions of Trumbo’s works including Donald Sutherland, Michael Douglas,Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti and Joan Allen read Trumbo’s letters to family, friends and foes alike, bringing to life his language which was so eloquent and infusing the emotions he was going through. A fragile but passionate Kirk Douglas, always a champion of Trumbo, pays tribute even as he struggles to speak. It is a wonderfully warm documentary that leaves you disturbed by our nation’s capacity to get it wrong and at the same time feeling a sense of celebration for the human spirit and the concepts worth fighting for.

The Johnny Got His Gun release is packed with extras including interview material with Trumbo used in the new film.  Trumbo comes out this week, and has outtake footage of readings as added bonus features.

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