That’s democracy

Theo Tait

  • Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
    Prion, 222 pp, £5.99, May 1999, ISBN 1 85375 324 6

In the mid-1940s, Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter near the top of his lucrative but precarious line of work: fast, prolific and a consummate professional, he usually wrote at night, often in the bath, fuelled by large doses of Benzedrine. He was also a prominent and outspoken member of the Hollywood Communist Party. In 1947, the House Committee for Un-American Activities began their hearings into ‘Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry’. Trumbo, with nine others, pleaded the First Amendment, ended up with a citation for contempt of Congress and spent slightly less than a year in a Kentucky jail. When he got out, he and the other members of the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted and unable to work in the industry; hundreds more followed in a second wave of hearings. For 13 years Trumbo worked on the black market, uncredited, using various pseudonyms. He wrote the original story for Roman Holiday (1953) and, under the name Robert Rich, earned an Oscar in 1956 for his screenplay The Brave One. He passed on work and encouragement to other victims of the anti-Communist purge and began a vigorous media campaign to end the blacklist. In 1960, Kirk Douglas revealed that Trumbo had written the screenplay for Spartacus; President Kennedy crossed the thinning picket lines of Catholic War Veterans to watch the film in a cinema in Washington DC. The blacklist, at least in principle, was broken.

So Trumbo entered Hollywood legend as ‘The Man who Broke the Blacklist’. As Pauline Kael put it, he became ‘the leading exponent of the dictates-of-conscience and the dignity-and-indomitable-spirit-of-man school of screenwriter’ and is probably best remembered for the series of ‘message’ epics that he scripted during this period: Spartacus and Exodus (both 1960), Hawaii (1966), and The Fixer (1968), movies that used huge budgets and lavish spectacle to prise increasingly reluctant audiences away from their new TV sets. Trumbo once again became one of the ‘best’ (i.e. best-paid) writers in the business. Throughout his life, he wrested happy endings from unpromising or disastrous scenarios – a lesson that screenwriters learn early on. In a career of extraordinary ups and downs, the HUAC saga is only the best known.

Of Trumbo’s three novels, only Johnny Got His Gun is still in print. It is based on a newspaper report about a Canadian soldier wounded in World War One, who lost his face, his limbs, and all his senses apart from touch – but who nevertheless survived well into the 1930s. After a dimly remembered explosion in a dugout on the Western Front, Joe Bonham, the soldier in Trumbo’s novel, lies in a similar condition in an unknown hospital. The nurses’ hands, the vibrations caused by people walking around the ward, the pain of the sheets against his wounds are his only contact with the outside world. He is unable to separate the present from his hallucinations of the past: work and love in Los Angeles, his upbringing in Colorado. Trumbo cleverly writes the reader into Joe’s head by using various cinematic techniques – flashbacks, montage, fade-ins and fade-outs. Filled with visceral and revolting images, it’s a novel that is easy to read but difficult to forget. The words ‘loneliness and silence and blackness’ recur frequently, along with ‘pain’ and ‘pus’. But, true to form, Trumbo manages to bring it all to an upbeat conclusion. In the visionary final section, an uneasy combination of the idealistic and the grotesque, Joe succeeds in communicating his wishes to the doctors: he taps Morse code into his pillow with his head and informs them that he wishes to be displayed to the world, like a circus freak, as a warning against war.

Johnny Got His Gun illustrates Trumbo’s determination, as he put it, to ‘use art as a weapon for the future of mankind, rather than an adornment of aesthetes and poseurs’, and its publication on 3 September 1939 indicates his appetite for controversy. The novel is tremendously fluent if not precise or subtle – Ring Lardner Jr said that Trumbo’s writing ‘was almost as facile as his speech’. His predilection for a certain kind of freewheeling bombast often led him to take up radical stances he couldn’t maintain. His opposition to war failed to survive Operation Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor; his next film, The Remarkable Andrew (1942), was a whimsical pro-war comedy (tag-line: ‘By thunderation, I’ll show America how to get tough!’).

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