World War films are an oddity as a Christmas time attraction, but many have opened around the holidays and found an appreciative crowd.
This year, Sam Mendes’ highly lauded “1917,” with its tour de force filmmaking, invades theaters and brings a needed focus to World War I.
There have been so many World War II films over the past 20 years alone, the first “Great War” is rarely given cinematic attention. On the other hand, 40 years ago also gave us a notable and quite infamous WWII-set comedy, Steven Spielberg’s “1941.”
The high profile dud was based on the rumored 1942 “Battle of Los Angeles,” an unproven attack by Japanese aircraft that has since been debunked as post-Pearl Harbor mania. The film depicts a collection of wacky characters, on-edge from the war, who go berserk when an attack by a Japanese submarine, and ensuing mayhem from US soldiers, bring explosions and panic.
Coming off the extraordinary back-to-back-to-back success of “Duel,” “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “1941 was a distinct change of pace for Spielberg. The lavish project gave him carte blanche to bring the shenanigans-heavy screenplay from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (with story contribution from John Milius) to life.
The result is one of the few films from the most successful filmmaker who ever lived to be counted as a “flop” (more of a financial disappointment) and a widely disliked work in the view of audiences and critics.
It has since developed a cult following, as many bad films do over time.
I’m a lifelong Spielberg fan and apologist but can’t stomach drinking the Kool-Aid to join the “1941” cult. This is a terrible film, with lots of screaming, explosions and actors getting dust and debris in their faces. In the end, it’s the audience that walks away feeling pummeled, Nearly every scene is filmed in a gaudy haze, making this resemble less a nostalgic vision than a bad dream.
Although it boasts an all-star cast, it astonishingly stars some kid named Bobby Di Cicco (whose central character fades in and out of focus), while everyone else crowds the frame and fails to hold the center for more than a few moments.
Despite being the chief draw and the central figure on all the promotional materials, John Belushi’s turn as wild Bill Kelso (properly advertised as “Bluto goes to war”) is an extended cameo.
Belushi is wonderful, even in this. It was a massive error not giving Belushi and co-star Dan Aykroyd any scenes together (they sort of acknowledge one another from the distance in one throwaway moment).
FAST FACT: Spielberg remains fond of his rare commercial misstep, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I don’t dislike the movie at all. I’m not embarrassed by it — I just think that it wasn’t funny enough.”
Aykroyd’s character, a Motor Sergeant, has a strong monologue at one point, making it seem like someone has finally stepped up and grabbed this loose cannon of a movie by the neck and budged their way into the spotlight without getting the hook. However. Aykroyd’s role falls victim to mania and, like everyone else on hand, succumbs to overacting.
Tim Matheson is apparently playing his “Animal House” character again, except this time there’s no laughs.
The only subplot on hand more unfunny than the necessary airborne arousal for Nancy Allen (who has never had a part this degrading before or since) is the story thread with Treat Williams. He gets a scene where he commits an attempted rape in plain sight for laughs.
This incredibly offensive bit isn’t a reflection of historical accuracy or even replicating a tone from the era but an awful attempt at door-slamming farce. Like a lot of “1941,” it’s a large-scale mistake.
The Japanese are portrayed as buffoons (which is especially unfortunate when one of them is played by no less than Toshiro Mifune) but at least none of the Asian actors have to endure the indignities put upon Frank McRae.
The veteran actor, playing the only African-American in the film, has an intro where he’s chided for his race by two white soldiers, one of which is played by John Candy (talk about miscasting). Watching Candy’s racist taunts, followed by a grotesque comeuppance (in which McRae’s face is doused with white powder and Candy’s is doused with black soot, which amuses the former and repulses the latter) is horrifying.
“Smokey & the Bandit Part 2” was never this dubious.
Unlike “Blazing Saddles,” the racism is delivered straight without any commentary. The same holds true for an anti-Asian attitude that seems truly from the 1940s without offering any sort of reflection.
Watching Robert Stack gleefully singing along with the “Dumbo” crows in a movie theater is something we’ll never see again (and fitting, considering the film’s love of ’40s era stereotypes).
The most obvious model for “1941” is “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” but here, the slapstick is too heavily choreographed to be funny. We’re not watching comic inspiration but exhausted stunt performers hitting their marks. The few scenes that are quiet and devoid of slapstick feel out of place and halt the momentum of mindless destruction.
In addition to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World,” Spielberg’s film steals from/pays tribute to “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming,” “It Happened One Night,” “Catch 22” and The Little Rascals.
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John Williams’ rousing score, featuring one of his best marches, kind of helps. So does the thrilling shots of planes spinning as they fly over Hollywood Boulevard. So many impressive special effects shots, Rube Goldberg-esque bits and pratfalls fly by, they create a numbing, eye-rolling effect.
The famous Ferris Wheel bit, in which the carnival attraction rolls off its axis, sums up what’s wrong with this endless parade of chaos.
Like everything else here, its woefully overdone.
“1941” could be viewed as an interesting companion piece to Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” which is also stuffed with giddily falsified U.S. history and a portrait of male egos gone amuck. However, unlike Spielberg’s presentation here, Tarantino never loses focus or control of his story.
Spielberg’s busy but unquestionably skillful direction is at the mercy of a rotten Zemeckis/Gale screenplay (the manic energy of their winning “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is absent).
Like most of the hubris/ego-driven auteurist flops that embarrassed their creators, “1941” is a prime example of the kind of work that ultimately ended the Golden Age of Cinema we know as the 1970s.
No, it wasn’t solely the monster success of “Star Wars” or the post-MTV filmmaking and commercialism of the decade that pushed the great filmmakers of the ’70s aside, it was their insistence on making movies like this. Consider:
- William Friedkin – “Sorcerer”
- Michael Cimino – “Heaven’s Gate”
- Francis Ford Coppola – “One From the Heart”
- Peter Bogdanovich – “At Long Last Love”
- Sidney Lumet – “The Wiz”
These box office busts and critical disasters dethroned the defining cinematic voices of the era.
Spielberg’s career ultimately survived “1941.” In fact, he followed it up with the surehanded, brilliantly constructed “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Years later, Spielberg would return to WWII and treat wartime madness and human savagery with compassion and complexity, not the impish prankster sensibility he brought to “1941,” a film he, perhaps, needed to get out of his system.
Watching it today is like being the only sober witness to an out-of-control frat party, in which everyone present is shouting and breaking stuff. While everyone around you bellows wildly, you fumble for your keys and scramble out the door.
I loved this movie when I was 13 (1979) and I still do. I love the chaos, the loud characters, the barrage of sound and imagery. It’s ok to have a movie like that occasionally.