1941 (1979) directed by Steven Spielberg and starring John Belushi
What’s it about?
In the Christmas of 1941 during the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, America goes into panic mode about the threat of further Japanese incursions. General Stilwell (Robert Stack) is assigned to defend Southern California in the event of additional attacks.
Various comedic plot threads ensue, amongst them the following:
- Bobby Di Cicco plays Wally, an assistant in a diner who is in love with Betty (Dianne Kay) and wants to take her to the annual Jitterbug dance. This year however he is blocked from going as the dance has been turned into an army morale booster that only men in uniform can attend. Moreover, his love rival, a Corporal named “Stretch” Sitarski (Treat Williams) looks like he might woo his girl at this event. He hits upon a plan to sneak in and win her back.
- Tim Matheson plays Stilwell’s aide Captain Birkhead, who has his eye on seducing the General’s secretary Donna Stratton (Nancy Allen). The problem is that Donna has a thing for making love in aircraft cockpits while airborne, and Tim isn’t much of a pilot.
- Toshiro Mifune plays the Japanese Submarine Commander Mitamura, who has aspirations of carrying out a second Pearl Harbor, this time by attacking Hollywood. Christopher Lee plays the skeptical Nazi Captain Kleinschmidt who is along for the ride.
- Dan Aykroyd plays Sergeant Frank Tree, who puts a gun emplacement in the back yard of gun enthusiast Ward Douglas, against the wishes of his wife Joan (Lorraine Gary).
- John Belushi plays the gung-ho pilot Captain “Wild Bill” Kelso, who is hell-bent on hunting down any Jap he can find.
It all culminates in a massive riot which arguably does more damage than the Japanese could ever manage.
Watch a trailer:
Why is it significant?
In many ways, Spielberg was a victim of his own success. His previous two films, Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, were huge box office hits (the former the highest grossing film ever in the US at that time) and netted several Oscar nominations and wins. As a result, the joint studios Universal and Colombia Pictures simply opened their purse strings and allowed him to spend a then-massive $35 million on this attempt at a Dr. Strangelove-like satire.
The result was panned by most critics and while, technically-speaking, it wasn’t a box-office flop (it made nearly $95 million at the box office, thus proving fairly profitable even when marketing and distribution were added to the production budget) it made far less than either of the director’s previous two films. While it has won a few defenders over the years its wider critical reputation hasn’t really improved over time.
How does it hold up?
I would like to start this review by saying that I attempted to approach this notorious critical flop from Steven Spielberg with an open mind. I viewed both the cinema version and the Director’s Cut. Unfortunately, the critics of the time were broadly correct in their assessment. The Director’s Cut is admittedly the slightly superior version - if only because the added expository material makes the chaotic plot easier to follow. However, both versions suffer from the same basic issue: 1941 just isn’t very funny. The trouble is that the vast budget simply encouraged Spielberg to throw as much at the screen as possible - lots of name actors, lots of sets (most of which end up either falling down or being blown apart), lots of special effects.
Humour has to be able to breathe and unfold at its own pace; the secret of comedy is timing after all. Unfortunately, with so many zany loud performers vying for attention amongst an endless barrage of explosions, punch-ups and falling objects it’s hard to tell when one gag ends and another begins. That’s not comedy - it’s exhausting chaos.
The irony is that Spielberg clearly can insert genuinely funny scenes into his films: witness his subsequent venture Raiders Of The Lost Ark. In that film, the gags hit the mark since they erupted naturally and unexpectedly from scenes - for example, the revelation that Indy, having proven himself to be a model of heroism in a trap-filled underground tunnel, is revealed to be afraid of snakes. The two things that may have made all the difference in Raiders were that the tone avoided an imperative to be gratuitously zany at every turn - and that the somewhat smaller budget ($18 million) meant that Spielberg had to focus himself and regain a sense of cinematic economy.
Even in 1941 there are occasional salvageable moments amongst the wreckage. The opening Jaws spoof, and a closing “falling house” gag that resembles a live-action Chuck Jones cartoon are funny, as the jokes arrive out of the blue rather than submerged in a surrounding barrage of mayhem. The dancehall showdown between Wally and Stretch is a marvellously developed farcical sequence. Slim Pickens (the pilot from Dr. Strangelove) manages to stand out as a hick who retains a sense of patriotic defiance in the face of interrogation by the Japanese. The trouble is that these kinds of moments are rare exceptions in an almost 2-hour running time (2 hours and 26 minutes in the Director’s Cut).
It’s also hard to deny that 1941 looks spectacular. The recreation of Hollywood Boulevard, bedecked in neon, bunting and giant illuminated Santa inflatables is a wonderfully nostalgic setting. There is some excellent miniature work seen in an aircraft chase down the same street, and the destruction of a fairground complete with a giant Ferris wheel rolling down the pier. Even good looks, however, can’t redeem what is basically the accidental prototype of a Michael Bay film.
Runtime: 118 mins
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Script: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, John Milius
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mithune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, John Candy, Eddie Deezen, Bobby Di Cicco, Dianne Kay, Slim Pickens, Lionel Stander