Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshirô Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, Donna Stratton, Lucille Benson, Jordan Brian, John Candy
Released: 1979 / Genre: Comedy / Country: USA / IMDB
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In the late Seventies, Steven Spielberg was the working definition of the term boy-wonder. He already had two films under his belt that could be argued as the most important films ever: one made you never want to go into the ocean again and the other made you keep your eyes on the night skies.
So there he was pondering his next step as a film-maker; what would his next film be about?
Interesting story: while making Close Encounters of the Third Kind, fellow director Francois Truffaut spoke with him about how well Spielberg worked with kids, commenting that his next film should feature kids as a focal point. Spielberg’s response was that he was planning on doing a comedy about World War II with lots of pratfalls and explosions. Truffaut’s response: “You are the child.” I’m sure he meant it as a compliment.
But that brings us to 1941, the last Spielberg movie of the Seventies and also the most notorious film Spielberg would ever make – not only because of its huge budget and small returns, but also because of its main star.
And no, I don’t mean Treat Williams.
The plot is almost as complicated as your typical Three Stooges short: the nation is in a state of panic after the attack on Pearl Harbor and nowhere is the nation more on alert than in California where nerves are frazzled, the populace is paranoid and allowing anti-aircraft cannons to be mounted in front of their houses.
And naturally there were your fair share of gung-ho soldiers, hard-bitten veterans, shell-shocked commanders, steely Axis members, flag-waving civilians and large-scale devastation that comes about under the goofiest of circumstances.
“This isn’t the state of California, it’s a state of insanity.”
Somehow, wartime paranoia was ripe for slapstick mayhem in the eye of Steven Spielberg, and so he, with co-story author John Milius (and yes, that is the same John Milius who gave the world the first filmic adaptation of Conan the Barbarian) gave us a monumental large-scale paean to slapstick paranoia. Maybe Spielberg thought for such a large-scale comedy, he needed someone to write with him who could envision large-scale characterisations. And it didn’t hurt that he also had the help of fledgling screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale – who would most certainly go on to the proverbial bigger and better things. But Spielberg, if he wanted large-scale everything, certainly got his wish – but more on that in a bit.
1941 roars out of the gate with an ironic bit of subtlety as he parodies his own opening of Jaws. And even with the same woman who opened Jaws (Denise Cheshire)! From there, everything is played at full volume and with broad strokes of the palate both in front of and behind the camera.
Spielberg and and his writers present us with characters who have no quiet moments – every single person is a caricature, playing it big and loud as if to compete with the special effects, which are innumerable. We’re talking scale models, pyrotechnics, life-size representations and gigantic sets collapsing down around their inhabitants. No need in having just a chair collapse out from under someone when the whole house could follow suit. No need in having two people run around when a whole mob of people could do the same, and all in the same direction (funnier that way). No need in having a small charge of gunpowder blow up when you could have a series of huge explosions take out half of a city.
You can practically see Moe Howard smiling down appreciatively from Comedy Heaven.
And oh: the cast in this thing! This is one of those casts which needs to have every name followed by an exclamation point: John Belushi! Dan Aykroyd! Ned Beatty! Christopher Lee! Robert Stack! John Candy! Warren Oates! Toshiro Mifune! Slim Pickens! Elisha Cook Jr.! James Caan! Mickey Rourke! Nancy Allen! It boggles the mind that as recently as 1979 a cast as monumental as this could be assembled for what amounts to one big dumb comedy. But after all, this was Steven Spielberg, the man who gave the world Jaws and Close Encounters…he had something about him. Don’t question him, Universal Studios said – he knows what he’s doing.
Another studio said that about another director once. That director was Michael Cimino and the studio was United Artists. And we all saw how that ended up.
Anyways, there are moments of brilliance here and there, but not in the way that Spielberg and company anticipated, I’ll wager. The brilliance in question comes from the little moments from particular actors who do yeoman work against the bombast and explosions: Oates’ crazed officer has some grand minutes…Stack’s General Stillwell plays the straight man in a rather stoic, self-contained way that is perfect counterpoint to the madness surrounding him…and Belushi….
Oh brother; BELUSHI.
By this stage in his life, John Belushi was so dependent on drugs and alcohol that the very fact he was able to make it to the sound stage should have earned him an Oscar. Still, as one-man air force Wild Bill Kelso, Belushi plays it like an airborne Bluto Blutarsky; shooting at radios, downing whole bottles of Coke in one swig, playing with squeaking kewpie dolls, fighting with uncooperative folding maps in mid-flight, crashing fighter planes straight down Hollywood and Vine, with a half-smoked stogie clenched firmly in his mouth all the while. Say what you will about Belushi and how he lived: the man could put on a show.
The whole film was huge and grandiose, with John Williams’ score booming like a marching procession for clowns and the look provided by legendary director of photography William A. Fraker bringing a certain class to the proceedings – quite an achievement for what amounts to a comedy one-reeler stretched out to nearly 2 1/2 hours. Yep.
Still, with all of the manic energy and over-compensation-by-screaming school of film-making, 1941 was funny. There were moments, like I said, that had me laughing and even when I wasn’t laughing I was smiling. Spielberg did his best to entertain and 1941 has enough big dumb stupid comedy moments that, even if you don’t like big dumb stupid comedies, you’ll still laugh at the sheer audacity of it all. And that’s certainly worth your money, isn’t it?
And speaking of money, contrary to popular belief, 1941 actually made back its budget and then some…by 2004, but hey: at least it made it back eventually*.
Now, as far as 1941’s legacy – being the lynch pin as it is for all over-produced, over-budgeted, overly busy comedies – maybe it’s all for the best seeing that at least this comedy had laughs. And that’s a heck of a lot more than you can say for most comedies nowadays.
So if you get a chance to watch 1941, by all means take the chance and enjoy…just make sure to keep your expectations low, about as low as the comedy is going to be.
* = Which means that there may yet be hope for Heaven’s Gate. Someday.
Written by George Litman. George is the creator of movie and pop culture blog The Great White Dope.