A Rare Flop for Steven Spielberg, “1941” is a Farce in More Ways Than One

Released as part of the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection, 1941 marks a departure for the director into broad farce with disappointing results…

1941_spielberg-film-poster_top10filmsDuring the 1970s, Steven Spielberg had started to reach glowing heights as a filmmaker, as well as an artist. He started out with the excellent debut Duel, and then he changed the face of blockbuster cinema with Jaws, before the excellent Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So, coming off the back of that, he decides to make a really expensive period war-comedy in the form of 1941, which involves panic in Los Angeles after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and stars an ensemble cast (including Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune and Robert Stack).

It is significant that over the course of a career that has included horror films, sci-fi romps, historical epics, literary adaptations, war movies, action adventures and even a ghostly romance, 1941 is the only time Steven Spielberg has come genuinely unstuck, and the problem here is very simple: total control and too much money to play with. This is meant to be an attempt at a satirical comedy of both WWII and Hollywood’s war and disaster genres but comedy is inversely proportional to budget; the more a film costs, the less likely it is to be funny. 1941 is the classic example of that, and here, we just get a patchwork of bits and pieces scattered all over the place, resulting in what is an unfunny mess of a movie, and shows what happens when you have too much money to play with.

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In some ways, his bloated WWII farrago can be seen as a companion piece to Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour – a film that takes the exact same similar historical tragedy (America’s bloody war with Japan) and turns it into a dreary farce. Both movies are bloated, baggy, boring, fantastically ill-judged and bum-numbingly long. Except, the only real difference between these two gargantuan stinkers is that Spielberg wanted his audience to laugh while Bay wanted them to cry. Both directors failed badly in their respective endeavours, but whereas Bay still scored a financial hit by virtue of his movie’s non-comic ‘event’ status, Spielberg instead just took a bath because nothing sinks faster than an unfunny comedy, regardless of how much cash you throw at it.

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When the spectre of 1941 was raised in a later interview with Spielberg himself, he admitted that extravagance had indeed got the better of him but insisted that the film had not lost money in the long run – it had just merely ‘underperformed’ in the short term. Filmmaker John Boorman suffered a similar experience following the release of Deliverance. After he was renounced as an artist for creating one of the very best films of the 1970s, success got the better of him as well and he went off the rails, resulting in Zardoz (the worst sci-fi movie of all time) and Exorcist II: The Heretic (the worst horror movie/sequel of all time). As far as falls from graces go, that is a spectacular one. Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder has a similar situation with spending too much money on a war-comedy, except that Stiller’s baggy picture actually had funny moments.

Too this day, 1941 remains Spielberg’s lowest point, serving as a daily reminder of the dangers of having too much money to play with, resulting in a war-comedy that is completely raggedy and all over the place, way too long, massively overproduced, wastes an entirely talented cast and is totally unfunny in every possible measure. Still, at least it made Spielberg try harder with Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.

Result: millions spent – zero laughs achieved.

Top 10 Films - One Star - Steven Spielberg 1941

Written by Ryan Pollard

1941_spielberg-film-poster_top10filmsDirected by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Nancy Allen, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams
Released: 1979 / Genre: War/Comedy / Country: USA
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1941 has been reviewed as part of the Steven Spielberg Director’s Collection Blu-ray set – you can purchase the set from Amazon.co.uk by following this link

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About the Author
Ryan Pollard is a former student of Animation at the University of Huddersfield.

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  1. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Not sure I’d compare this with Bay’s Pearl Harbour which, as the writer has correctly pointed out, made some money. It’s more like Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World without the Saul Bass credits. Big cast, lots of expensive slapstick that falls on its face(doesn’t the scene when Belushi is filling up his plane at the roadside bowser remind one of the destruction of the petrol station in the Kramer movie; plus both films feature plenty of airplane hijinx) and a Californian/Los Angeles setting.

    And, like the Kramer film, this is bound to have a cult legion of fans out there somewhere (of which I’m not one), so I don’t know if I would call this Spielberg’s worst – I’d probably put Indie Jones parts II and IV below it.

    Plus it’s not a TOTAL waste of talent – Belushi is pretty funny in a vulgar sort of way.

    Having said that, the tenor of this piece is accurate – the film is a self indulgent mess that suffers from some embarrassing performances.

  2. Avatar
    Nostra Reply

    This is one of the Spielberg films I haven’t seen, but it seem I should keep it that way!

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