One, from Metallica’s fourth album … And Justice for All (1988) is an anti-war song, written by James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, depicting the plight of a World War I soldier as he tries to come to terms with the horrific injuries he has suffered on the battlefield. The soldier has lost all of his limbs, cannot hear, speak or see. The inspiration for the song and its music video comes from the 1971 movie Johnny Got His Gun, which was in turn adapted from the 1939 novel of the same name by Dalton Trumbo. The specific message of the film and novel that inspired One is: “How could a man lose as much of himself as I have and still live? When a man buys a lottery ticket, you never expect him to win because it’s a million to one shot. But if he does win, you’ll believe it because one in a million still leaves one. If I’d read about a guy like me in the paper, I wouldn’t believe it, cos it’s a million to one. But a million to ONE always leaves one. I’d never expect it to happen to me because the odds of it happening are a million to one. But a million to one always leaves one. One”. A startling choice for the third and final single from the album, it marked the band’s breakthrough into the US Billboard Hot 100, reaching number 35, and reached number 13 in the UK singles chart in 1989. The song went on to earn Metallica the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance in 1990.
The first 17 seconds of the song feature a series of sound effects, an artillery barrage and a helicopter, placing the listener right in the middle of the battlefield on which the soldier in the song suffered his horrific injuries. Following the song’s cinematic introduction, the lyrics tell of the full horror of the soldier’s situation, with him pleading to be put out of his misery. The first verse introduces us to the soldier, lying in his hospital bed, who “Can’t tell if this is true or dream”. “Now that the war is through with me, I’m waking up, I cannot see, That there is not much left of me, Nothing is real but pain now” continues singer James Hetfield, showing us the full horror of the soldier, though blind, realising that his injuries are probably as bad as they could possibly be. The first chorus of “Hold my breath as I wait for death, Oh please, God, please wake me” finds the soldier feeling that he would be better off dead than in his predicament. The lyrics of the chorus were directly inspired by a scene in Johnny Got His Gun where the soldier attempts to take his own life by refusing to breathe.
As the song continues, the lyrics grow increasingly darker, with the soldier contemplating what existence he will have following his life-altering injuries. “Back to the womb that’s much too real”, sings Hetfield at the beginning of the second verse. This disturbing image depicts the soldier’s current state of being like a foetus in the womb. As the verse continues, we are presented with images of the soldier being kept alive by hospital machinery in the line, “In pumps life that I must feel”. The only sensation that he now knows is pain and his life support machine only causes him to feel more of it. The lines “Can’t look forward to reveal, Look to the time when I’ll live” state how bleak the soldier’s future will be. It seems that he will never ‘live’ again in terms of interacting with the world around him. More disturbing images follow with the lyrics “Fed through the tube that sticks in me, Just like a wartime novelty” telling of how disgusted the soldier is with the feeding tube that keeps him alive and forces him to live with more pain. He regards the tube as a vile souvenir from his time in the Army. The final lines of the second verse, “Tied to machines that make me be, Cut this life off from me” refer to the fact that now the soldier can only exist by power of the machinery that surrounds him, he wants to be rid of it.
In verse three, the heavier section of the song, we find the soldier terrified upon realising that he has lost most of his senses, including his sight: “Darkness imprisoning me, All that I see, Absolute horror”. “I cannot live, I cannot die, Trapped in myself, body my holding cell”, the song continues. The soldier can never truly live again but is prevented from dying. His useless body is now merely a prison for his consciousness.
In the final verse of the song, “Landmine has taken my sight, Taken my speech, Taken my hearing, Taken my arms, Taken my legs, Taken my soul, Left me with life in hell”, we are given a final summary of the catastrophic damage inflicted on the soldier. The trauma of unrelenting pain has deprived him of any joy or positive feelings, “taking his soul”, leaving him to spend the rest of his days in endless misery and torment.
When coupled with the video for the song, the message of One is made even more powerful. One was the first Metallica song to have a music video. Directed by Bill Pope and Michael Salomon, the video is almost all in black and white and features dialogue and several scenes from the movie of Johnny Got His Gun. The video stars Timothy Bottoms as Joe Bonham, the main character in the novel. The quote at the start of the video, “For democracy, any man would give his begotten son” poses the question of what the price of war can do for the cause of preserving the freedoms held in America. Much of the … And Justice for All album is highly critical of these freedoms, see also Eye of the Beholder.
When Metallica appeared on The Howard Stern Show in September 2013, James Hetfield said that rather than being just an anti-war song, One is an observation: “War is a part of man”, he said, “We’re just writing about it. It’s not good or bad, it’s just a thing”. Hetfield went on to explain that the character in the song reminded him of himself due to the singer’s troubled childhood. He said that he often felt like a “prisoner in [his] own body”, with no means of escape. Hetfield’s father walked out on the family when he was 13 and his mother died a few years later.
One quickly became a favourite amongst fans and has been a staple of Metallica’s concerts since it was written. The song showed its versatility when it became possibly the greatest of the many highlights of the S&M project with The San Francisco Orchestra, conducted by Michael Kamen in 1999.