And justice for all

Pub date May 27, 2009
WriterBen Terrall
SectionArts & CultureSectionTrash

TRUMPETING TRUMBO I read Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 masterpiece of antiwar literature Johnny Got His Gun in high school. I went for anything which said that patriotic duty to die for one’s country is bullshit — hence I loved it. Rereading it last year the book hit me harder. The writing is amazing, shot through with brilliance from start to finish — scathing, bitter, funny, righteous. Now lucky Trumbo fans can watch the former blacklistee’s 1971 film adaptation of his novel, just released on DVD.

Actor Timothy Bottoms was 18 when he played (via voiceover and flashbacks) Joe Bonham, who lies in an Army hospital bed pondering his fate. Hit by a mortar shell on the last day of World War I, Bonham is left a blind, deaf, and mute quadruple amputee, with only memories, fantasies, and, for a time, a sympathetic nurse. On a commentary track, Bottoms points to the film’s contemporary relevance given the staggering number of soldiers maimed in the Iraq war but kept alive by sophisticated medical technology.

Trumbo worked with Luis Buñuel on an adaptation of Johnny. Ultimately that project fell through, but by the time Trumbo directed his own script in 1971, the Spanish surrealist’s influence was palpable. At the time, Buñuel responded, "For me, the film has the same power as the novel. It has the same disturbing quality and moments of extremely powerful emotion. The film left an impression on me that is among the strongest I ever experienced."

Marsha Hunt, whose successful film career was cut short by the blacklist, played Bonham’s mother. In a phone interview, the now-91-year-old said, "I liked [Trumbo] enormously. I was so delighted that he wanted me in his film." Hunt emphasized Trumbo’s incredible discipline, which led him, during lean times of underpaid black market work, to write 12 screenplays in 16 months (a helpful doctor who prescribed amphetamines contributed to that productivity).

"It’s hard to believe that the same talent who gave us Spartacus also gave us Roman Holiday," she said. "Just as far from each other as possible in terms of style and period and everything else. He was an impressively versatile man, as well as brilliant."

The 2007 film Trumbo, featuring documentary footage and actors reading from the great man’s letters, should also be released on DVD. And some astute publisher should bring Additional Dialogue, Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962 back into print. Among my favorite passages from that volume is in a 1951 letter to novelist Nelson Algren, who was prepared act as a "front" for Trumbo. Trumbo advised, "If you have any moral compunctions about such a procedure in relation to motion pictures, please forget them. Hollywood is a vast whorehouse, and any scheme by which tolerably honest men can abstract money from it for their own purposes is more than praiseworthy."