Study Guide

Johnny Got His Gun

By Dalton Trumbo

Johnny Got His Gun Introduction

Picture this: Bombs. Drums and horses. Mustard gas. Trenches filled with rotting bodies.

Sound familiar? Yep, it's World War I, the war that inspired Dalton Trumbo to write the pacifist novel Johnny Got His Gun, first published in 1939.

Don't think that just because this stuff happened a long time ago it isn't still relevant: Johnny Got His Gun was the anti-war novel for the Vietnam War, and it continued to be part of the protest movements for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This novel may be a oldie, but something about it keeps drawing people back.

The story follows a single American soldier, Joe Bonham, who has been wounded beyond what seems possible (a lot of things that people thought were impossible happened during World War I). As he lies completely immobile and helpless in his hospital bed, he thinks back on his life and the actions that led him to his present state.

We're not gonna lie: it's pretty bleak. But Trumbo isn't just trying to scare you: he wants you to think about the often unseen, often ignored, but very big costs of war. Joe's painful personal story challenges the kinds of ideas people had about war in 1914: it stops seeming quite so grand and heroic when you see the real cost to individual people.

As if the story weren't compelling enough on its own, Johnny Got His Gun has an interesting publication history as well. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the book was suppressed, and eventually it went out of print. Trumbo was actually in favor of keeping the book out of print until after the end of the Korean War.

Johnny Got His Gun returned to print, though, and by the time the Vietnam War rolled around in the 1960s, it had become a pretty big component of the anti-war movement. So what makes this book so powerful? Why does it get such different reactions at different times (and during different wars)? Why did Trumbo write a book describing the horrors of World War I but agree to the book's suppression during World War II and the Korean War?

Read on and find out, Shmoopers. This one's gonna get real.

What is Johnny Got His Gun About and Why Should I Care?

Well, there's the obvious reason: wars didn't stop after World War I. We've still got 'em, and we're still trying to figure 'em out.

For most of us these days, at least in the U.S., war isn't something we experience firsthand, even though it's still happening all over the world. The only war most of us experience is either at the movies or on TV. We know that war is going on somewhere—probably somewhere far away—and we probably know some of the political stuff causing it, but basically, our most immediate concerns are things like English homework and the finale of Breaking Bad.

Joe, the hero of Johnny Got His Gun, is like us. In fact, he's exactly like us: he's just a guy living his life. He's got parents, friends, and girlfriend drama. He doesn't really understand war, either; he only hears bits and pieces about it from those around him.

The difference between Joe and us is that Joe gets called to go to war, and he's made to give everything short of his soul for a cause that he only kinda sorta understands. Actually, that's an overstatement: he doesn't really understand it at all.

Kind of messed up, right?

Trumbo wants to show the harsh reality of war to those he thinks are orchestrating or encouraging war without fully understanding what it entails. He wants to show how war puts an end to what should be the regular experiences of a person's life: childhood, maturing, fighting with friends, falling in love. If these things were taken away from you, wouldn't you want to know why?

Does this make the novel anti-war? That's something you can debate. At the very least, though, Trumbo wants you to understand war and its horrors before you make decisions about it.

Johnny Got His Gun Resources

Websites

Pretty Much Everything Even Remotely Related to the First World War
A website dedicated to ALL THINGS WORLD WAR I (we're not kidding), including a really useful index of battles and a doctor's paper from 1917 on the treatment of shell shock. Hooray for primary sources, are we right? They did get the domain name, after all.

Uhh... It's Already Been 100 Years Since World War I Began
Man, do we feel old. Anyway, if you already know a bit about World War I and want to learn some cool new info or get some untraditional perspectives, head on over to this website. It's run by Oxford, so you know it's extra legit.

We Are the Big Important Official BBC World War One Page
Take a virtual tour of a trench. You know you want to.

Movie or TV Productions

Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
The original film adaptation of the novel, directed by Dalton Trumbo himself and starring Donald Sutherland as a very '70s Christ. Metallica used footage from this film in their music video for "One," so it must be pretty hardcore.

Johnny Got His Gun (2008)
A beautiful stage adaptation of the novel, and in case that weren't enough, it stars Ben McKenzie (Ryan from The O.C.!) as the one and only Joe.

Articles and Interviews

Censorship Just Makes You Want to Read it More
Unfortunately, the entire thing isn't available for free, but this is an interesting piece that thinks about Johnny Got His Gun in terms of Dalton Trumbo's career and his fight with the Hollywood censors... which was a battle of epic proportions.

Dalton Trumbo Remembered It All
A great interview with Trumbo from 1970, in which he discusses his inspiration for Johnny Got His Gun, the in-production movie adaptation, being blacklisted and jailed as a Communist, writing for Hollywood, and the situation in Vietnam and the United States. He has an opinion on everything, that Dalton.

Video

Archdukes, Cynicism, and World War I: Crash Course Word History #36
Literally everything you need to know. That was not a misuse of the word "literally."

Trumbo HUAC Testimony
Dalton Trumbo testifies at the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947... and holy crap, is that Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall at 0:24? Yeah, Trumbo was that big of a deal.

Audio

"Over There"
The song from which Johnny Got His Gun derives its title. Here's the original recording from 1917, sung by Billy Murray. (No, not Bill Murray.)

"Over There"
Another popular version from the song, also from 1917. This one's sung by Nora Bayes.

"It's A Long Way to Tipperary"
Another World War I ditty, just so you have an idea of the lame music people had to listen to back then. Don't drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what the lyrics have to do with war, because they don't have anything to do with war. People just thought the song was catchy.

Images

Soldiers Going "Over the Top"
No, we're not talking about over-decorating. One of the buzzwords for World War I was "trench." During offensives, soldiers left the protection (such as it was) of the trenches and ventured into No Man's Land (another buzzword), which was the name given to the opposing trenches, where—guess what?—they made totally easy targets. The phrase "over the top" was part of everyday trench discourse, and it appears in Johnny Got His Gun when Joe is describing the battle that wounded him (12.15).

An Injured Soldier in the Trenches
Now imagine it when it rained.

Dalton Trumbo Writes in the Bathtub
Just try not to picture this as you're reading.