Thanks to Bryan Cranston’s Oscar-nominated performance as Dalton Trumbo, the irreverent and iconoclastic figure of American letters is perhaps known best as the guy who used to type while sitting in a bathtub full of water. At least his name is once again recognized. Over the course of a long and varied career Dalton Trumbo was known as a screenwriter of trenchant humor and sly ironic jabs at beloved American institutions. Then he became known as one of the Hollywood Ten and the highest paid screenwriter to be blacklisted during the communist witch hunt. Then he became known as Ian McClellan Hunter, mysterious no-show Oscar-winning writer of Roman Holiday before finally becoming known once again as Dalton Trumbo, the name on the script for Spartacus officially registered with the Writers Guild of America, thus bringing the ridiculous blacklist to as official an ending as it would get.
Before any of that happened, however, Dalton Trumbo was known as the author of the “Most Original Novel of” 1939 by the National Book Awards: Johnny Got His Gun. Few novels have ever endured such incredibly bad publication timing: the unabashedly anti-war novel hit stores just ten days following the announcement of a pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia and just two days after Hitler’s subsequent invasion of Poland. As a result, serial rights to the novel went to the most liberal periodical in America: the mouthpiece for the communist party, the Daily Worker.
As might be expected, Johnny Got His Gun went out of print during World War II and in a case of the weird getting weirder, though Trumbo himself rejected all offers to bring it back into print, the most fervent supporters of getting new editions of the novel into the public came from the very people who would later be instrumental in sending Trumbo to jail: the extreme fringe of Right Wing America that saw its anti-war message as a perfect vehicle for their propaganda campaign to negotiate a separate peace settlement with Hitler as a way of fostering fascist power in the U.S.
The return of a committed anti-war stance during the escalation of the war in Vietnam finally allowed Johnny Got His Gun to find its right time. The book joined alongside Catch-22 as a favorite among anti-water protestors and eventually found its way into school curricula. The ending of the war in Vietnam and the gradual swing back to the right meant it was time for Trumbo’s book to face challenges again. Over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Johnny Got Hit Gun was officially challenged by school districts across the nation seeking to censor or ban in on grounds that range from having too much sex and violence to being unpatriotic and un-American.
In 1971—ten years after his blacklisting finally came to an end—Dalton Trumbo directed a film version of his own screenplay based on his dazzlingly original novel.