WHY DALTON TRUMBO OPENS LEE MARVIN POINT BLANK

There are several reasons why I chose to open Lee Marvin Point Blank with this quote from Dalton Trumbo:
“You plan the wars you masters of men
plan the wars and point the way
and we will point the gun.”

My hardcover and well-read copy of JOHNNY GT HIS GUN, the book that started it all.

First and foremost is the fact that it fit the theme of Lee Marvin’s life, work and legacy. Just as important is the fact that Trumbo was, is, and will always reman my favorite writer of all time. As a matter of fact, when I was able to land my first professional writing job in the late 1980s on a local newspaper in New Jersey, my then bulky Mac office computer boasted only one image on the side of its screen….

The image that adorned the side of my Mac in the 1980s depicted Dalton Trumbo hard at work.

Like most writers, I have both classic favorites (Jack London, Mark Twain) as well as contemporary ones (William Goldman, Richard Price). All choices are based both on subject matter as well as style. For me, Dalton Trumbo remains neck-creakingly high in both categories. Why? No other writer has ever come close to achieving his level of haunting, simple prose. In my opinion, it’s an amazing accomplishment. I read Johnny Got His Gun as a freshman in high school. Read it again as an adult. I’ve read it several times since in the intervening years and it just gets better and better every time!
Explaining the premise of the book to anyone has often resulted in being told that it sounds too depressing to read. On the contrary. Granted the premise is quite dark: In the waning days of WWI, Joe Bonham becomes the ultimate victim of war as a bomb leaves him without limbs, face, or the use of any his five senses other than touch. However, his struggle to reconnect with the outside world, flashbacks of his life before the war (both comical and poignant) and the ultimate resolution of his plight, makes for a book more than just depressing but an amazing exploration of the human condition. It goes without saying that I highly recommend it, if just for the spare and powerful writing alone.
When I was working as managing editor for a multi-educational and distribution book company, I suggested putting it in our catalog. The company owner, Mike Miller, was reticent but agreed on the condition that at least one order had to be placed for it to remain in the catalog each year. Interestingly enough, in the seven years I worked there, and titles were to be either added or removed, there was always at least one wise teacher somewhere in the country smart enough to order a copy for their class or library.  Luckily, the heavy metal band Metallica also managed to keep it the minds of their fans by buying the rights and recording the song “One” in homage to the book, with a music video incorporating scenes from the 1970 film directed by (ad costarring) Dalton Trumbo.
In these days of rising international tensions and U.S. wars now stretching into decades, the book is clearly now more relevant than ever. It might not be a popular consideration but when high school and college students are required to read certain titles before going out into the world, Johnny Got His Gun should be at the top of the list. It just might help end those international tensions and decades long wars. It might not. Certainly worth a try as at the very least a classic anti-war novel will be consumed and kept alive for the next generation.
I wonder if Lee Marvin ever read it.
-Dwayne Epstein

Other titles in the Dalton Trumbo canon…

One of Trumbo’s first books, later turned into a film starring a young William Holden as small town accountant helped by the spirit of Andrew Jackson.

Two of Dalton Trumbo’s pamphlets addressing his experiences as one of The Hollywood Ten.

A long sought title by yours truly finally discovered at The Strand Bookstore in New York.

Trumbo’s last work, left unfinished at the time of his death in 1976 but published with its first ten chapters and subsequent notes. A riveting read and powerful companion to JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN.

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THE ART OF WAR: PART I

The Art of War

For those who have never done so, such as myself, it is impossible to ever really know what it is like to experience warfare. Writers as varied as Ernest Hemingway, Ernie Pyle and Dalton Trumbo have famously come close, as well as the photography of Robert Capa and others. Words, pictures, even film, does not do justice to what actual combat inflicts on the human psyche. Lee Marvin spent most of his career trying to get that point across to an audience as his time in WWII proved to be one of the most defining aspects of his life. Even before becoming an actor, Marvin was so overwhelmed by what he went through, he sought to get the emotional impact of the war down on paper in both words and images. I myself knew it was impossible to even try so when writing that chapter of LEE MARVIN: POINT BLANK, I let Marvin write it himself via letters home he wrote during the war.
During WWII, the U.S. government attempted it as well in an effort to get across to its citizens what their friends and family were going through overseas. Commissioned by the War Dept. in 1943 under the auspices of The Army Corps of Engineers, 42 artists (half civilian, half already in the military) were asked to channel the “essence and spirit of war” into their work. The Navy created their own such commission following the sinking of the Ruben James and it’s artistic rendering. The USMC public relations director Robert Denig, who had sent field correspondents and photographers into battle, went one better. He expanded the program to include artists who would be trained as Marine recruits tasked with going into battle as soldiers and artists. Also LIFE magazine and artwork commission by the Abbott Pharmacuetical company (!) got into the business of sending artists into battle. The belief was that the emotional impact of artwork could say more than words or photos ever could. Amazingly, these artists were not hampered by gov’t censorship or propoganda requests. Instead, they created what the saw. By the end of the war they had created more 2,000 pieces. For example, here’s some images Marvin himself might have experienced….

ScoreAnotherFortheSubs

ScoreAnotherForTheSubs by Thomas Hart Benton

DeathoftheShoho

Death of the Shoho by Benney

 

The two paintings above, although badly reproduced, do evoke the image of what Marvin may have gone through as a combat Marine going into batle since the enemy was often encountered even before landing on the beachhead. Once Marvin did make one of his 21 landings, the next paintings was what inveitably followed….

CarryingEquipment

Porters and Soldiers Carrying Equipment by Boggs

TakingCover

Taking Cover by Fredenthal

The title of the above image shows what followed in the steaming jungle, which could often be shattered without warning by next image. In Part II, combat itself…….

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