This is a significant film that has reached cult status. The director, Dalton Trumbo, also wrote the novel in 1938. He had read about a British officer that had been horribly wounded in WWI. He wrote a searing anti-war treatise, and it won the National Book Award in 1939. Two weeks later Hitler invaded Poland and WWII started. The publishers found themselves feeling uncomfortable with this inflammatory book. It was branded as subversive and leftist, and it went out of print. But during WWII, the book became an underground classic, and it could cost someone up to 6 bucks a copy on the black market. Oddly enough, the largest audience for it was the servicemen who were fighting the war. Post-war in 1945, the book was reprinted and was fairly well received…again. Then came HUAC, and Senator McCarthy, and the Korean War. Trumbo was indicted and he became a member of the Holl! ywood Ten. He spent a year in jail for contempt of Congress. So in 1950, the book again was out of print.

Trumbo, with other Hollywood expatriates, set up an artist’s community in Mexico, and he continued to write screenplays under assumed names. Ironically, he won an Oscar using one of the no deplumes. In 1960 Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger stepped up and called a halt to the artistic chokehold. They brought Trumbo home out of exile, and he wrote the screenplays for SPARTACUS and EXODUS. By the mid 60’s, his novel resurfaced, just in time to parallel the newest war in Viet Nam. At one point, the Spanish director, Luis Bunuel, wanted to make a film out of it, but it never came to fruition.

Dalton Trumbo decided, with a lot of help from his friends, to put the project together, and direct the film himself. That book had been pushed around by four wars, and Trumbo felt it was past time to make a movie out of it. He stated,” Every time I look at the flag, my eyes fill up with tears.” In 1971 the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, but it did poorly at the box office in the U.S. It had its greatest financial success in Japan.

The movie is not well balanced. Perhaps Trumbo was too close to the material. If he had taken a cue from Robert Altman, who had scored big with his anti-war satire M.A.S.H., or from Mike Nichols who gave us CATCH 22; or even the way they filmed Vonnegot’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, things might have been different. These directors used comic situations and scathing satire to drive their anti-war messages home. Trumbo had some of that in this film, but not enough.

One interesting sidenote, the rock group Metallica did a 7 minute video in 1989 called TWO OF ONE, and it utilized clips from this movie. For some people, seeing the video reawakened an interest in the film. Jerry Fielding composed the musical score. An old friend of Trumbos, he too had been blacklisted in the 50’s. Later, he went on to do scores for many good films, including THE WILD BUNCH. Jules Brenner was the cinematographer. This was his debut film as head lenser. There was a nice blend of styles; black and white for the present, sepia tones for the war flashbacks, and full color for the personal memories and dreams of the main character. The scenes leapfrogged about a lot, and it was a challenge to know what was a dream, a fantasy, or reality. Later films, like JACOB’S LADDER, owe a lot to this one in terms of conceptualization.

The movie opens up on a group of WWI doctors discussing a decerebrated patient, a John Doe grievously wounded soldier, assumed to be brain dead, and incapable of sentience or dreams. One doctor stated,” This young man will remain as unfeeling, as unthinking, as the dead…until the day he joins them.”

The doctors observing the patient only saw an armless, legless, faceless, totally deaf living chunk of meat with a beating heart and an active colon. But we could hear the soldier’s voice, his consciousness.

Joe: Inside me I’m screaming, but nobody pays any attention. If I had arms, I could kill myself. If I had legs, I could run away. If I had a voice, I could talk and be some kind of company for myself. I could yell for help, but nobody would help me !

The soldier is aware of his surroundings, even though he cannot impact them; like an intelligent dolphin swimming through a world he cannot touch. He is capable of complex thoughts and is perplexed by his nightmares. In a dream sequence, he sees himself as a carnival freak, a star, attracting throngs. His father, played by Jason Robards, was the barker.

Father: He eats through a tube. And whatever comes in through a tube has to go out through a tube. He is the armless, legless wonder of the twentieth century. And yet, by God, he’s just as alive as you and me.

Timothy Bottoms, in his film debut, played the young soldier, Joe Bonham. He did an exceptional job with the voice-overs in the scenes of the present, and was seen in the flashbacks, preparing to do his duty in France, romancing his girlfriend, and then in that fatal moment, curling up in a fetal position in the trenches, readying himself for his rendezvous with the howitzer shell that had his name on it.

Joe: Daddy, what is Democracy?
Father: I don’t know, son. It seems to have something to do with young men having to go out and kill each other.
Joe: But Daddy, what if I don’t want to go?
Father: Son, any man would be proud to give up his child’s life for Democracy.

For Bottoms, this was the role he had just before the breakthrough one in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. He was fine as the fresh-faced naïve Joe. There were some rough spots. By the time he made THE PAPER CHASE, he had become a better actor.

Jason Robards played the father, and he underplayed brilliantly, preparing audiences for the meatier roles to come in those films of Eugene O’Neill’s plays. He was a brilliant actor, who could strut and bray like he did in A THOUSAND CLOWNS, and or could sit quietly and inhabit a part like he did in this film. He conveyed the heartbreak and frustration of a workingman who could never get ahead. In Joe’s mind, his father appeared in memories, in flashbacks, in fantasies, and as a spirit advisor. The father had died young, and had seen it coming.

Father: That’s how it is. Each man faces death by himself…alone.

Robards’ character only coveted one thing; an extraordinary fishing pole. He felt that it elevated him above the men around him; the finest fishing pole he could ever own. But young Joe lost the pole while fishing with a friend one day, and neither the father nor the son ever got over it.

Marsha Hunt, a fine actress from the 1950’s, appeared briefly as the Mother. Kathy Fields played Joe’s sweetheart, Kareen. She only completed three films, and this was her last one. The first two had been soft-core nudie features. She was able to convey some of virginal sweetness of Kareen, but was sorely lacking in ability to play the more dramatic scenes. Charles McGraw was wonderfully gruff, yet compassionate, as Kareen’s Dad, Mike Burkeman. Eduard Franz, a skillful character actor, played General Tillery, the doctor that had spared Joe’s life, such as it was, and such as it became. Donald Sutherland played Christ, looking every inch the hippy, and yet also just like the pragmatic caring savoir that we all need to see in order to make our transitions to the other side acceptable. His scenes were done with a sardonic quality, giv! ing us a humorous take on death and war. Sutherland put energy and verve into many of the sagging flashbacks and fantasies. I feel that he was showing Trumbo the more accurate direction to take the picture. It would have been much more effective and successful if the director had keyed into this modality.

Diane Varsi was a standout as the 4th Nurse. Somehow she found a way to share her love of humanity and her heart with what was left of Joe. In the book the scene where she masturbates Joe was a vibrant event. In the film, it had to be downplayed and implied. Most of the medical staff was only interested in following their orders, and keeping the piece of meat alive. They never thought of it as a person. But Varsi began to relate to Joe as a human being. It was she that figured out that his constant head movement was significant, and it turned out to be Morse code, leading to a chilling sequence where Joe actually communicated with his doctors.

They asked him what he wanted. He said he could not stand being so alone. He requested to be put into a carnival, where he could be with people. He did not care that he would be considered a geek attraction. They did not respond. He told them that if they would not honor his request for Freakdom, then they needed to kill him. Kill me, kill me, he tapped frantically with his head. “What is your name?” they asked him repeadedly. “Kill me” was his only reply. He had no identity to share with them. He clinged to his anonymity with invisible fists.

Fear, cowardice and shame washed over the assemblage. Nurse Varsi was forbidden to have further contact with the patient, and she was exiled from the room. Joe had previously discovered the warmth of the sun when Varsi had opened up the windows. But the doctors shuttered all the windows. He was sedated and left in complete isolation.

S.O.S., Help me…he tapped out incessantly, as the camera pulled away. The society that had put him in harm’s way, the United States Army that refused to let him die, and the medical staff that gave him dispassionate perpetual care…all turned their backs on him, leaving him alone and drugged in the darkness and the complete silence, in a hellish nether land of the living dead.

In the film the camera lingered momentarily on a Latin phrase, part Roman and part Fascist, “ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Meaning roughly,” It is good and righteous to die for your country.” I liked this film a lot, more for its message than its content. TV Guide called it “flawed but powerful”. This movie has polemic teeth, and it cuts through much of the traditional dogma, propaganda, and lies that politicians force-feed us eternally. It stands alone, defying any grinning spin-doctor to twist it into something palatable. It teaches us that if we are driven by patriotic fervor, this can become a dangerous turn of events, whereby the powers that be will be able to manipulate, or sacrifice our life and limb on the alter of their choosing. It teaches us further that freedom, lib! erty, and Democracy can be reduced to buzz words that cloud the real issues. We come to realize that, in fact, there are worse things in this world than death.

I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars
Glenn Buttkus
Teacher, Actor, Writer.