Directed by Dalton Trumbo (USA, 1971)
Last year’s key-note film was Johnny Got His Gun (1971), a classic penned and directed by notorious Hollywood troublemaker Dalton Trumbo.
The film’s star, Timothy Bottoms, flew from California to speak at the screening, as well as the English premiere of his new film Welcome to the Men’s Group.
It was a privilege to have hosted such a legend, and giving hundreds of film-lovers in Norwich the opportunity to interact with a genuine star was exactly what the NRFF was established to do.
Watch the trailer now:
My first experience with Johnny Got His Gun was the notorious music video “One” by Metallica. Horrific black and white footage interspersed with their electrifying performance was clear…metal heads knew the hypocrisy of the “Machine”…the “system”…what the purpose of war really was…to keep that machine fuelled.
Bands in the 80s and 90s were notorious for fusing clips from retrospective films that had a similar essence into their music videos and/or songs. As an angsty teen I appreciated the film for being anti-establishment, and now as an adult and film historian/scholar I see that importance resonate even more so today. “Making the world safe for democracy”…the line that is given to us day in and day out from those in power, the words to mollify us into acquiescing our civil liberties and to support things (such as war) that are clearly against our happiness and logic as human beings. War on ideas now instead of actual tangible entities are chillingly turning past science fiction totalitarian horror, as seen in Orwell’s 1984, into lived realities. To be in a perpetual state of war is to control the masses. To distract them with shiny technological gadgets, to tell them that their liberties and very lives are honorably exchanged in the name of homeland security. To “reword” the enemies’ names to perpetuate confusion…we will always be at war with Eurasia or Oceania (substitute any terror organization here)…but the greatest horrors are usually awaiting you at the homefront…as Johnny so marvellously conveys.
Dalton Trumbo knew the hypocrisy of the system and was thus vilified in a way during the McCarthy era that we since collectively shunned as having been an awful witch hunt …yet ironically we still continue with that façade of democracy in our uber-modern global and digital society while the powers that be still pull the puppet strings…it is just better hidden with all of the distractions.
We chose to screen Johnny Got His Gun because it is brilliant. It is important for people to understand that these problems we face are not new…they have been going on for years…just swept under the carpet or morphed into a new name, new regime. The 1970s as a decade is perhaps one of the most richly political eras for commercially produced films. Commentary on Vietnam was skillfully alluded to in an indirect and digestible way through such films as Robert Altman’s ‘M*A*S*H’ (1970) Franklin J. Schaffner’s ‘PATTON’ (1970) and Mike Nichols ‘Catch-22’ (1970) taking place in the Korean War, and WWII, respectively. Johnny is set in WWI, a war I refer to as the “forgotten war”. A war to say in the very least when mentioned to some of my students and even people my age is only remembered by the song “It’s a Long Way To Tipperary” and gas masks and trenches. Trumbo’s film is a haunting classic because it embodies social significance of the WWI era, the 1970s and today.
The performances by Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland remind us of a time when actors had such a presence that it grabbed you as an audience right through the screen. Timothy Bottoms, to whom we are graciously honored to have attend, made a stunning debut with his subtle and honest performance that it caught the eye of Pete Bogdanovich resulting in Bottom’s unforgettable role in the New Hollywood classic ‘The Last Picture Show’.
The question and Answer session following the film will be one to never forget. This is truly a significant film. One that perhaps you could find on DVD somewhere (although it is rare!) but to see it with an audience…that amplifies the meaning and heightens the experience…to see it with the lead actor who will recall Dalton Trumbo’s filmmaking processes…to be able to engage in conversation at the Q&A…too see it like this, is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Please join us on this most special occasion.
– Alexandra Nakelski, Director of Programming and host of the evening
One of the things that I wanted to do with the Norwich Radical Film Festival when I first began talking it over with our members, was that I wanted to bring out debate in mainstream cinema that had long since been buried by an established studio system keen to forget controversy. Mainstream movies, and particularly ones from Hollywood, are often written off as crass, vulgar and worst of all popular – portrayed by elitist cultural theorists as dumb entertainment. This completely erases a long and proud tradition of radicalism within the industry, one we would do well to learn from as our arts come increasingly under pressure from corporate-backed funding cuts as a form of economic censure. And that brings me to our retrospective screening, highlighting the immense contribution to cinema made by the legendary American screen-writer Dalton Trumbo, who produced vibrant, witty and radical films from within Hollywood’s studio system.
Trumbo lived a remarkable life. Championing striking studio workers further down the production chain, and fighting fearlessly for freedom of political expression in McCarthyite Hollywood, he was jailed for being a communist along with the Hollywood Ten. He was blacklisted by the studios, but writing under pseudonyms he was able to win two Oscars for his work, bringing that blacklist crashing down. With his work returning to prominence thanks to a recent biopic, which earned Brian Cranston an Oscar nomination, the Norwich Radical Film Festival is honoring Dalton Trumbo by screening his anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun (1971).
This is the only film that Trumbo both wrote and directed, adapting it from his own novel of the same name. Clearly he felt the message at its heart was of such importance that on this occasion he took the execution of his writing into his own hands – and to brilliant effect. Receiving 4 stars from the notoriously hard to please Roger Ebert, and winning the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes in 1971, Johnny Got His Gun takes place during the First World War. This is not the version of the war that has recently been sanitized by the UK government, as a “noble sacrifice” in the war’s centenary year though. What makes this film a must for the Norwich Radical Film Festival is that this is a radical, critical account of the First World War where elite arrogance and patriotic bluster lead to the needless destruction of a young man’s life.
The film follows a young soldier, Joe (Timothy Bottoms), who is left in a state of living death after being hit by a German shell. Trapped inside his head, Joe reflects on the harsh reality of the American dream and the hypocrisy of making war in the name of democracy. In the shadow of Iraq, and with the West intervening with fresh bombing campaigns in Libya and Syria, it is a film that is sadly as relevant today as it was when it was initially released, in the midst of the Vietnam War. Its radical anti-war message is as important to remember now as it ever was; that war has a terrible human cost, no matter what ideological dressing it is given.
– Jack Brindelli, Festival Director