Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Johnny Got His Gun was first published two days before the outbreak of World War II in Europe and was quickly serialized in the communist newspaper The Daily Worker. It was immediately popular with critics and the public and was embraced by the American Civil Liberties Union and right-wing pacifists. Trumbo elected not to reprint the book until after the war was over despite its winning of the National Book Award in 1939 and the American Book Sellers Award in 1940. He wrote that there are occasions when the individual voice must give way to a greater good, in this case the defeat of fascism. He was not pleased by many of the supporters of his book whom he considered subversive.

In 1949, Trumbo became a symbol of individual freedom when the House Committee on Un-American Activities headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy blacklisted him. As the most prominent member of the “Hollywood Ten,” moviemakers who refused to cooperate with the committee, Trumbo was cited for contempt of Congress and served a one-year prison sentence. As a result, when Johnny Got His Gun was reprinted in 1970, the author was known as a courageous spokesman for individual rights, lending the novel a new credibility during the Vietnam War. Actor Donald Sutherland read passages from the book at antiwar demonstrations, and disabled veterans found the novel particularly affecting. Quadriplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic cited the novel as having influenced his own Born on the Fourth of July (1976), a book later made into a motion picture.

In 1972, Trumbo directed the film version of his novel; although the film received lackluster response in the United States, it earned eight international awards and drew comparison with other powerful cinematic statements on war such as Paths of Glory (1957) and Catch-22 (1970).