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Johnny Got His Gun

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Wikipedia article

'Johnny Got His Gun' is an anti-war novel written in 1938 by American novelist and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo

and published September 1939 by J. B. Lippincott.

It won one of the early National Book Awards: the Most Original Book of 1939.

"1939 Book Awards Given by Critics: Elgin Groseclose's 'Ararat' is Picked ...", 'The New York Times', 1940-02-14, page 25. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851-2007).


Joe Bonham, a young soldier serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell. He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue), but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.

Joe attempts suicide by suffocation, but finds that he had been given a tracheotomy which he can neither remove nor control. At first Joe wishes to die, but later decides that he desires to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country in order to show others the true horrors of war. After he successfully communicates with his doctors by banging his head on his pillow in Morse code, however, he realizes that neither desire will be granted; it is implied that he will live the rest of his natural life in his condition.

As Joe drifts between reality and fantasy, he remembers his old life with his family and girlfriend, and reflects upon the myths and realities of war. He also forms a bond, of sorts, with a young nurse who senses his plight.


; Joe Bonham

: Joe Bonham is the main character. "The novel mainly consists of his reminiscences of childhood and his current struggle to remain sane and, finally, to communicate."

; Regular Day Nurse

: "As a caretaker, capable of great humanistic love, the regular day nurse stands apart from the terse medical establishment, represented by the Morse code man, yet is not capable of the perceptive sympathy of the new day nurse."

; Bill Bonham (Joe's father)

: Joe's father, Bill Bonham, courted Joe's mother and raised a family with her in Colorado. "His character comes to stand for Joe's nostalgia for an older way of life." It is also said that Bill passes away (chapter 1) leaving his mother and his younger sisters alone. (one aged 13 years, the other aged about 9 years)

; Marcia Bonham (Joe's mother)

:Joe's Mother, Marcia Bonham, was always close to Joe and Bill. She would spend all day in the kitchen, cooking and baking.

;Kareen (Joe's second girlfriend)

:Kareen (who was aged 19 years at the time of Joe's departure) is mentioned throughout the book as Joe floats between reality and fantasy. She and Joe sleep together for the first time (chapter 3) the night before he leaves.

;Diane (Joe's first girlfriend)

:Diane is only mentioned in chapter 4. In that chapter it is mentioned that she cheated on Joe with a boy named Glen Hogan. She also cheats on Joe with his best friend, Bill Harper.

;Bill Harper (Joe's best friend)

:Bill Harper warns Joe that Diane has cheated on him with Glen Hogan. Joe, who doesn't believe the news, hits Bill. Joe later finds out Bill was truthful and decides that he wants to renew their friendship. However, he finds Bill and Diane making out at her home and is hurt by both. The end of chapter 4 references how Bill was killed at Belleau Wood.


: Joe meets Howie (chapter 4) after his troubles with Diane and Glen Hogan. It seems that Howie was never able to keep a girl in his life, and his girlfriend Onie also cheated on him with Glen Hogan. Joe and Howie decide not only to forget about their girlfriends but also about Glen Hogan. Joe and Howie join a group of Mexicans working on a railroad. However, once Howie receives an apologetic telegram from Onie, the boys decide to return home.

Title and context

The title is a play on the phrase "Johnny get your gun",

a rallying call that was commonly used to encourage young American men to enlist in the military in the late 19th and early 20th century. That phrase was popularized in the George M. Cohan song "Over There", which was widely recorded in the first year of American involvement in World War I; the versions by Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso, and Nora Bayes are believed to have sold the most copies on phonograph records at the time. 'Johnny Get Your Gun' is also the name of a 1919 film directed by Donald Crisp.

[http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0010315 IMDb profile of 1919 film 'Johnny Get Your Gun']

Many of protagonist Joe Bonham's early memories are based on Dalton Trumbo's early life in Colorado and Los Angeles. The novel was inspired by an article he read about the Prince of Wales' visit to a Canadian veterans hospital to see a soldier who had lost all of his senses and his limbs. "Though the novel was a pacifist piece published in wartime, it was well reviewed and won an American Booksellers Award in 1940."

(It was published two days after the declaration of war in Europe, more than two years before the United States joined World War II.)


Serialized in the 'Daily Worker' in March 1940,

the book became "a rally point for the political left" which had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Shortly after the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Trumbo and his publishers decided to suspend reprinting the book until the end of the war. After receiving letters from right-wing isolationists requesting copies of the book, Trumbo contacted the FBI and turned these letters over to them. Trumbo regretted this decision, which he later called "foolish", after two FBI agents showed up at his home and it became clear that "their interest lay not in the letters but in me."

Dalton Trumbo. 'Johnny Got His Gun'. Citadel Press, 2000, [http://books.google.com/books?id=LnnMLLk2uU4C&pg=PA5&lpg=PP1&output=html&sig=roPgN-QwCYEEj0YKC0GC5dnEfC8 pg 5], introduction


On March 9, 1940, a radio adaptation of 'Johnny Got His Gun' was produced and directed by Arch Oboler, based on his script, and presented on the NBC Radio series "Arch Oboler's Plays." James Cagney played Joe Bonham on that broadcast.

In 1971, Trumbo directed a film adaptation of the novel, starring Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham. In 1982, 'Johnny Got His Gun' was adapted into a stage play by Bradley Rand Smith, which has since been performed worldwide. Its first off-Broadway run starred Jeff Daniels.

[http://www.johnnygothisgunthemovie.com/about.htm Johnny Got His Gun the movie]

In 1988, the heavy metal band Metallica wrote the song "One" based on the book and used clips from the film in the video.

In 2008, actor Benjamin McKenzie earned critical acclaim for his solo performance (as Joe Bonham) in the "live on stage, on film" version of the 1982 Off-Broadway play based on the novel, McKenzie's first starring role in a feature film.

[http://www.johnnygothisgunthemovie.com/JGHG_Variety_Review.pdf 'Variety' review of the "live on stage, on film" version of 'Johnny Got His Gun']

In early 2009, the 1971 film made its U.S. DVD debut, produced by Shout! Factory. The DVD included the original, uncut film, plus a 2005 documentary ('Dalton Trumbo: Rebel In Hollywood'), new cast interviews, Metallica's music video "One," behind-the-scenes footage with commentary by stars Timothy Bottoms and Jules Brenner, the 1940 radio adaptation, and the original theatrical trailer.

[http://www.shoutfactorystore.com/prod.aspx?pfid=5256993 Shout! Factory website]

In October 2010, a special educational DVD[http://www.johnnygothisgunthemovie.com Johnny Got His Gun the movie] of the 2008 film version starring McKenzie became available free of charge to every high school library in the U.S. The educational DVD contains both a pre-screening and post-screening discussion guide for students, in addition to a 15-minute featurette on the making of the film, the original movie's theatrical trailer, and a history of the original novel.

In the Italian anti-war comic strip 'Sturmtruppen', a young soldier called "Sigfrid Von Nibelunghen", who voluntarily enlisted before coming of age due to the pro-war propaganda he was subject to at school, suffers the same fate as Joe Bonham. In the end, when he considers the harsh reality of his condition against the idealized vision of war and heroic death he had been led to believe, he simply thinks to himself "I fear that I have been duped".


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