Johnny Got His Gun

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Johnny Got His Gun
First edition
AuthorDalton Trumbo
CountryUnited States
GenreAnti-war novel
PublishedSeptember 3, 1939
J. B. Lippincott[1]
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)

Johnny Got His Gun is an anti-war novel written in 1938 by American novelist Dalton Trumbo and published in September 1939 by J. B. Lippincott.[1] The novel won one of the early National Book Awards: the Most Original Book of 1939.[2] A 1971 film adaptation was written and directed by Trumbo.


Joe Bonham, a young American soldier serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital bed after being caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell. He gradually realizes that he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, nose, teeth, and tongue), but that his mind functions perfectly, leaving him a prisoner in his own body.

Joe attempts suicide by suffocation, but finds that he has had a tracheotomy that he can neither remove nor control. He then decides that he wants to be placed in a glass coffin and toured around the country in order to demonstrate to others the true horrors of war. Joe eventually successfully communicates this with military officials after several months of banging his head on his pillow in Morse code. However, he realizes that the military will not grant his wish, nor will they put him out of his misery by euthanizing him, as it is "against regulations". It is implied that he will live the rest of his natural life in his condition.

As Joe drifts between reality and fantasy, he remembers his old life with his family and girlfriend, and reflects upon the myths and realities of war.


Joe Bonham

Joe Bonham is the main character. "The novel mainly consists of his reminiscences of childhood and his current struggle to remain sane and finally to communicate."[3]

Regular day nurse

"As a caretaker, capable of great humanistic love, the regular day nurse stands apart from the terse medical establishment, represented by the Morse code man, yet is not capable of the perceptive sympathy of the new day nurse."[3]

Bill Bonham (Joe's father)

Joe's father, Bill Bonham, courted Joe's mother and raised a family with her in Colorado. "His character comes to stand for Joe's nostalgia for an older way of life." It is also said that Bill passes away (chapter 1) leaving his mother and his younger sisters alone (one aged 13 years, the other aged about 9 years).[3]

Marcia Bonham (Joe's mother)

Joe's mother, Marcia Bonham, was close to Joe and Bill. She is referenced regularly in the book singing, cooking/baking and playing the piano.

Kareen (Joe's girlfriend before he leaves for war)

Kareen (who was aged 19 years at the time of Joe's departure) is mentioned throughout the book as Joe floats between reality and fantasy. She and Joe sleep together for the first time (chapter 3) the night before he leaves, with her father's reluctant approval.

Diane (Joe's first girlfriend)

Diane is only mentioned in chapter 4. In that chapter it is mentioned that she cheated on Joe with a boy named Glen Hogan. She also cheats on Joe with his best friend, Bill Harper (who told him that she cheated with Hogan).

Bill Harper (Joe's best friend)

Bill Harper warns Joe that Diane has cheated on him with Glen Hogan. Joe, who doesn't believe the news, hits Bill. Joe later finds out Bill was truthful and decides that he wants to renew their friendship. However, he finds Bill and Diane making out at her home and is hurt by both. The end of chapter 4 references how Bill was killed at Belleau Wood.


Joe meets Howie (chapter 9) after his troubles with Diane and Glen Hogan. It seems that Howie was never able to keep a girl in his life, and his girlfriend Onie also cheated on him with Glen Hogan. Joe and Howie decide not only to forget about their girlfriends but also about Glen Hogan. Joe and Howie join a group of Mexicans working on a railroad. However, once Howie receives an apologetic telegram from Onie, the boys decide to return home.


José worked at a bakery with Joe. He was given the job at the bakery through the local homeless shelter. José has many stories that set him apart from the other homeless workers, including the fact that he refused marriage to a wealthy woman. José wanted to work in Hollywood. When the opportunity presented itself to work for a picture company, José purposely gets fired because he feels his own personal honor will not allow him to quit on the boss that gave him his original opportunity.

New day nurse

The new day nurse was the first person to successfully communicate with Joe after his injuries. She moved her finger on his bare chest in the shape of the letter M until Joe signaled that he understood "M". She then spelled out "MERRY CHRISTMAS" and Joe signaled that he understood. The new day nurse then deduced that Joe's head-banging was in Morse Code and fetched someone who knew Morse Code.

Title and context[edit]

The title is a play on the phrase "Johnny get your gun",[4] a rallying call that was commonly used to encourage young American men to enlist in the military in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That phrase was popularized in the George M. Cohan song "Over There", which was widely recorded in the first year of American involvement in World War I. Johnny Get Your Gun is also the name of a 1919 film directed by Donald Crisp.[5]

Many of protagonist Joe Bonham's early memories are based on Dalton Trumbo's early life in Colorado and Los Angeles. The novel is inspired by articles about two men with severe injuries that Trumbo read about: the tearful hospital visit of Edward, Prince of Wales to Curley Christian, considered to be the first and only Canadian soldier in WWI who was a quadruple amputee, and a British major whose body was damaged so horrifically that he was reported as MIA to his family. The family discovered the truth years after his death in the hospital.[6][7] "Though the novel was a pacifist piece published in wartime, it was well reviewed and won an American Booksellers Award in 1940."[8] (It was published two days after the declaration of war in Europe, more than two years before the United States joined World War II.)


Serialized in the Daily Worker in March 1940,[9] published by the Communist Party USA to which Trumbo belonged,[10] the book became "a rally point for the political left" which had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (1939–1941) when the USSR maintained a non aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Shortly after the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union, Trumbo and his publishers decided to suspend reprinting the book until the end of the war, due to the Communist Party USA's support for the war so long as the US was allied with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.[10]

In his introduction to a 1959 reprinting, Trumbo describes receiving letters from right-wing isolationists requesting copies of the book when it was out of print. Trumbo contacted the FBI and turned these letters over to them. Trumbo regretted this decision, which he later called "foolish," after two FBI agents showed up at his home and it became clear that "their interest lay not in the letters but in me."[11]


  • On March 9, 1940, a radio adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun was produced and directed by Arch Oboler, based on his script, and presented on the NBC Radio series, Arch Oboler's Plays. James Cagney voiced Joe Bonham on that broadcast.[12]
  • In 1971, Trumbo adapted for the screen and directed an eponymous film adaptation of the novel, starring Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham.
  • In early 2009, the 1971 film made its U.S. DVD debut, produced by Shout! Factory. The DVD included the original, uncut film, plus a 2005 documentary (Dalton Trumbo: Rebel In Hollywood), new cast interviews, Metallica's music video "One", behind-the-scenes footage with commentary by stars Timothy Bottoms and Jules Brenner, the 1940 radio adaptation, and the original theatrical trailer.[13]
  • In 1982, Johnny Got His Gun was adapted into a stage play by Bradley Rand Smith, which has since been performed worldwide. Its first off-Broadway run starred Jeff Daniels, who won an Obie Award for his performance.[14]
  • In 1984, a television adaptation was filmed by director Miroslava Valová under the Czech name Johnny si vzal pušku. It was filmed via Czechoslovak Television in Prague, starring Michal Pešek [cs], Petr Haničinec and Věra Galatíková.[15]
  • In 1988, Metallica released the studio album ...And Justice for All, which includes the song "One", heavily based on the book's events and depiction of Joe Bonham's condition. The music video for the song features several clips from the film adaptation.[16]
  • In 2008, Ben McKenzie starred in a solo performance in the "live on stage, on film" version of the play.[17]
  • From May 21, 2014 to June 14, 2014, the UK stage premiere, directed by David Mercatali and starring Jack Holden, ran at the Southwark Playhouse.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Trumbo, Dalton (1939). Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo. J. B. Lippincott Company. ISBN 9780847938254. Retrieved 2009-05-02.
  2. ^ "1939 Book Awards Given by Critics: Elgin Groseclose's 'Ararat' is Picked as Work Which Failed to Get Due Recognition". The New York Times. New York City. February 14, 1940. p. 25 – via ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851–2007).
  3. ^ a b c "SparkNotes: Johnny Got His Gun: Analysis of Major Characters". Retrieved 2009-08-07.
  4. ^ "SparkNotes: Johnny Got His Gun: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols". Retrieved August 7, 2009.
  5. ^ IMDb profile of 1919 film Johnny Get Your Gun
  6. ^ "World War 1 Encyclopedia: Christian, Curley". Toronto Star. August 1, 2014. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
  7. ^ Flatley, Guy (June 28, 1970). "Thirty Years Later, Johnny Gets His Gun Again". The New York Times. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
  8. ^ "SparkNotes: Johnny Got His Gun: Context". Retrieved 2009-08-07.
  9. ^ de Fossard, Fred (March 2015). "A Triumph of Anti-War Literature". Spiked. London, England. Retrieved June 25, 2018.
  10. ^ a b Kenneth Lloyd Billingsly (1998). Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s. Rocklin, CA: Forum/Prime
  11. ^ Trumbo, Dalton (1940). Johnny Got His Gun. New York City: Citadel Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0553274325. Retrieved December 30, 2014.
  12. ^ Pavlik, John V. (2017). Masterful Stories: Lessons from Golden Age Radio. Routledge. ISBN 978-1315530758.
  13. ^ Johnny Got His Gun (DVD of the 1971 film ed.). US: Shout! Factory. May 26, 2011 [2009]. Archived from the original on May 26, 2011. Retrieved March 16, 2016.
  14. ^ a b "Johnny Got His Gun, the movie". Retrieved December 30, 2014.
  15. ^ "Johnny si vzal pušku [TV inscenace]". Filmová databáze. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  16. ^ Corwin, Joanna (2009). "Trapped in Myself: 'One' and the Mind-Body Problem". In Irwin, William (ed.). Metallica and Philosophy: A Crash Course in Brain Surgery. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. p. 180. ISBN 978-1405182089.
  17. ^ Harvey, Dennis (October 13–19, 2009). "Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun" (PDF). Variety. Los Angeles, California: Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved December 30, 2014 – via

External links[edit]