Jason Robards, James Cagney And Metallica, Together At Last : Monkey See Now that the film Johnny Got His Gun is coming out on DVD, you can remind yourself that it isn't just the long version of a Metallica video.
NPR logo Jason Robards, James Cagney And Metallica, Together At Last

Jason Robards, James Cagney And Metallica, Together At Last


If you're of a certain age and musical temperament, this week's DVD release of Dalton Trumbo's 1971 anti-war movie Johnny Got His Gun makes you think of one thing in particular, and that's Metallica's "One."

The film, which stars Timothy Bottoms and Jason Robards, is about a wounded World War I soldier whose mind is alive even as his injuries have turned him into a blind and deaf quadruple amputee with no way of communicating with the outside world.

The song, as metalheads and even the more pedestrian brand of rock nerds know, was inspired by the 1939 novel (also written by Trumbo), so much so that the band included scenes and dialogue from the film in the video.

Maybe "included" isn't the right word there: let's try "supersaturated." Even by the standards of the clip-heavy soundtrack videos of the 1980s (such as the Bangles' "Hazy Shade Of Winter" from Less Than Zero or Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love" from Pretty Woman), "One" was pretty extreme in its disregard for the boundaries between the video and the movie. So much so, in fact, that the casual MTV viewer of the time might have assumed that Johnny Got His Gun was in multiplexes right then.

Then again, of course it was extreme. It was freakin' Metallica. Even with Guns n' Roses having recently left most of the hair-metal pack in its wake the year before, there was nothing on standard-rotation MTV remotely as fast and heavy as this song.

I certainly hadn't heard anything like it before, even though I was familiar with the name Metallica through my metalhead friends. What's funny is that after I bought the cassette single (thus being on both the losing end of technological history and the winning end of musical history, as "One" became, amazingly enough, a top 40 hit), I always liked to pretend that it was the quote-unquote "folk" portions at the beginning of the song (yes, that's actually how I referred to them) that I loved.

But that was a lie.

The bond between movie and band, after the jump...

It was the machine-gun headbanging that kicks off the song's second half that caught my attention when I first stumbled upon the video, pure and simple. Metalhead friends notwithstanding, I'd never seen or heard anything like it. Which is why I bought that cassingle and why I stopped what I was doing for seven minutes and 42 seconds every time the video came on. It was visually and sonically arresting and, thanks to the Johnny Got His Gun clips, brought up some rather thorny moral questions.

This can't have escaped the attention of the folks behind the DVD, since the "One" video is one of three tellings of the story included on the disc, alongside the movie and a 30-minute radio dramatization of the book starring James Cagney. In a way, it's remarkable to find in the official package, since what Metallica made (years before YouTube) was essentially a high-profile, if licensed, fan video — one that gave away pretty much the entire climax of the movie. (Oh, yeah: spoiler alert. Whoops.)

Then again, it could just be gratitude and professional respect. As mentioned at the end of the Trumbo documentary in the bonus features, Metallica is easily responsible for introducing Johnny Got His Gun to a new generation (maybe more than one) and arguably responsible for keeping it in the public consciousness for the past two decades.

Now that the movie is once again available, the band doesn't need to carry that burden any longer. But the band and the film will continue to be linked for quite some time, and it turns out that that's to neither party's detriment.