It was bound to happen. After two groundbreaking blockbusters, Spielberg was due for a misfire at some point. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are taking a look back at a film in the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re discussing the director’s war comedy 1941. Steven had managed to avoid the sophomore slump up until now, but with 1941 he nosedived straight into it. 1941 is generally regarded as a bomb among Steven’s other works, but if you watch it today you just might find some laughs and insightful commentary among the rubble (if you look hard enough).
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
While 1941 was directed by Spielberg, the film was really the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. The pair would later garner major fame with Back to the Future, and Zemeckis in particular with films like Forrest Gump, but at the time of writing the two were still fledgling filmmakers shortly out of USC. The pair had been presenting scripts to producer John Milius in hopes of getting them made, and he fell in love with 1941. He proposed it to Spielberg, and Steven agreed to direct 1941 just as soon as he was done with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
During the production of Close Encounters, Steven, editor Michael Kahn, as well as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale all lived and worked in the same house together, where they would all hang out in the evenings and discuss the writers’ ideas for 1941, having riotous laughing fits where they would escalate the outrageousness of the script. Once Close Encounters was finished, 1941 went into production, which according to all was a splendid working experience. When the film was released though, they would find out the hard way that not everyone found it funny.
1941 is loosely based on a handful of events during the early stages of World War II on the West Coast, and combines them in hopes of generating a farcical laugh-fest lampooning the fearful paranoia in the days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All around the same time, a Japanese sub plans to bomb Hollywood, a U.S. Airforce captain flies through in his fighter, the military installs an anti-aircraft gun in a man’s front yard, General Stillwell goes to see Dumbo, a soldier attempts to seduce an old flame with an airplane, and a jitterbug contest erupts into riots.
After experiencing immense success with his last two ventures, Spielberg was attracted to 1941 as a much more relaxed affair. Steven was still under pressure to prove himself as a filmmaker during the troubled production of Jaws, and Close Encounters was a personal passion project of his. Though it was still a major production, 1941 was more of just an opportunity to blow a bunch of stuff up with his friends. In retrospect, Steven would blame some of his missteps on his arrogance coming off his last two films, though never quite acknowledging all of his failures.
In many ways, 1941 plays as a celebration of success for Steven and his regular crew. The film opens with a parody of the opening scene from Jaws, complete with Susan Backlinie (who played the original bather in Jaws) going for a swim, although this time, instead of being eaten by a shark, she is lifted into the air by a Japanese periscope. Also appearing in the film are Lorraine Gary, who played Ellen Brody in Jaws, as well as Murray Hamilton, who played the mayor of Amity in Jaws. Also appearing is Lucille Benson, who played the snake farm owner in Duel.
Fresh off his fame from appearing on Saturday Night Live and Animal House is the late, great John Belushi, and he’s by far the highlight of the film. As Captain “Wild” Bill Kelso, he hilariously constantly chomps on a cigar, fumbles through maps, and drinks a Coca-Cola by smashing the top half of the bottle and dumping it in his mouth, all while nearly crashing his fighter. Dan Aykroyd also stars as Motor Sergeant Frank Tree in his first notable film after SNL, as does John Candy appear in a minor role as Private Foley prior to some of his more memorable films.
The movie features many other notable actors, such as Japanese icon Toshirō Mifune in one of his rare Hollywood appearances as sub commander Mitamura. Christopher Lee plays Nazi Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt also aboard the sub. Slim Pickens, in some relevant casting after Dr. Strangelove, is very funny as “Hollis Wood” whom the Japanese mistake for Hollywood. Ned Beatty is terrific as the homeowner who finds himself in charge of an anti-aircraft gun. Nancy Allen and Bobby Di Cicco from Zemeckis’s debut I Wanna Hold Your Hand also star.
And with all that, and that’s not even everyone, it is really quite apparent that the film has an overabundance of characters and subplots. 1941 has a very broad scope for a comedy film, and it’s a little unwieldy, failing to narrow in on any character in particular. The initial run time was two and a half hours long, and after poor reception at the premiere, the studio forced Steven to trim it down. According to Bob Gale, the character Wally was originally intended to serve as a unifying character in the narrative, but much of his story was reduced or edited out of the film.
It also doesn’t help that Spielberg’s true talents lie in emotion and the awe of the spectacle, and as Spielberg isn’t quite as confident in the realm of comedy, he goes bombs away on the spectacle. The film doesn’t start off too bad in its early portions, but as the riots break out and things start to go boom, the film becomes far too noisy and chaotic, with too many explosions and too few laughs. As Zemeckis and Gale have described, they really wrote 1941 as more of a witty black comedy, but Spielberg’s approach relegated it to screwball comedy and slapstick.
Spielberg always took major influence from Kubrick, and if 1941 was to be his Dr. Strangelove, then something about the political satire aspect of the film just didn’t click. And while I wouldn’t quite isoloate Spielberg as responisble for the film’s failure, I would still say you have to admire Gale and Zemeckis’s approach, as in some ways the film was ahead of its time. The revisionist history angle suggests Quentin Tarantino, and the daring attempt at national parody can likely explain the film’s lack of success at home, but you can certainly see why the Europeans loved it.
At the sneak preview of 1941, it’s been said that members of the audience actually covered their ears. As Steven himself put it, “ was written and directed as one would perform in a demolition derby.” If you’re a seasoned filmgoer, then you know that’s not necessarily the best approach. Just look at the work of Michael Bay. But I think Steven got the message. After 1941, you can tell he realized that he couldn’t just coast off success anymore, and that true greatness required a concerted effort. 1941 is probably his worst film, but things only get better from here.
After Steven suffered some humbling humiliation with 1941, it would serve merely as a minor setback before a major comeback with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for streaming from Netflix, as well as from digital rental retailers. See you next week.