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, 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 had been given a tracheotomy that he can neither remove nor control. At first Joe wishes to die, but later decides that he desires to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country in order to show others the true horrors of war. Joe successfully communicates these desires with military officials by banging his head on his pillow in Morse code. However, he realizes that the military will not grant his wishes, 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."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."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)Marcia Bonham (Joe's mother)
Joe's mother, Marcia Bonham, was always close to Joe and Bill. She was referenced regularly in the book to sing, cook/bake and play the piano often.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 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.Howie
Joe meets Howie (chapter 4) 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
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.
The title is a play on the phrase "Johnny get your gun", a rallying call that was commonly used to encourage young American men to enlist in the military in the late 19th and early 20th century. 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; the versions by Al Jolson, Enrico Caruso, and Nora Bayes are believed to have sold the most copies on phonograph records at the time. Johnny Get Your Gun is also the name of a 1919 film directed by Donald Crisp.
Many of protagonist Joe Bonham's early memories are based on Dalton Trumbo's early life in Colorado and Los Angeles. The novel was inspired by an article he read about the Prince of Wales' visit to a Canadian veterans hospital to see a soldier who had lost all of his senses and his limbs (possibly Ethelbert “Curley” Christian, though he did not suffer severe facial wounds). "Though the novel was a pacifist piece published in wartime, it was well reviewed and won an American Booksellers Award in 1940." (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, 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. 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. After receiving letters from right-wing isolationists requesting copies of the book, 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."
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.
In 1971, Trumbo directed a film adaptation of the novel, starring Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham. 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.
The song "One", by American heavy metal band Metallica, is heavily based on the events of the book and condition of Joe. The music video for the song features several clips from the film adaptation.
In 2008, Benjamin McKenzie earned critical acclaim for his solo performance (as Joe Bonham) in the "live on stage, on film" version of the 1982 Off-Broadway play based on the novel, McKenzie's fourth starring role in a feature film.
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.
In October 2010, a special educational DVD of the 2008 film version starring McKenzie became available free of charge to every high school library in the U.S.
The UK stage premiere of the Bradley Rand Smith version—directed by David Mercatali and starring Jack Holden—ran at the Southwark Playhouse from May 21, 2014 to June 14, 2014.