(for sexual innuendo, brief nudity, sexuality, and some language)
Released: December 14, 1979
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Tim Matheson, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, Slim Pickens, Toshiro Mifune, Robert Stack, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Murray Hamilton, Eddie Deezen
Imagine it’s the year 2039, and somebody has made a sex comedy about the aftermath of 9/11. That’s basically what you have with Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Just replace Jihadists with “Japs”.
Thirty-eight years after the fact, 1941 is an absurd all-star ensemble about the hysteria that hits residents of Hollywood one week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. They fear they’re the next target of a sneak Japanese attack (and guess what – there’s an actual Japanese sub off the coast attempting that very ambush). It’s a wartime romp with bawdy sex humor as a primary (but not singular) component, with both U.S. and Japanese soldiers doing their fair share of bumbling. Think Stripes, but directed by John Ford.
A mishandled misfire, it’s easy to see why 1941 was Spielberg’s first bomb – both critically and financially – and became synonymous with legendary big budget disasters like Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. But here’s the truth of the matter: it’s actually not that bad.
Yes, 1941 earned its response and reputation for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it was a shallow regression for the director of Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but also because it bore such middling returns for a film that cost so much.
Twice the budget of Close Encounters and five times the budget of Jaws, the disparity between cost and outcome compared to those two masterworks was glaring (and still is). For those looking for an opportunity to take the wunderkind phenomenon down a few pegs, Spielberg handed that opportunity to critics on a silver-screen platter.
Yet for all the film’s unwieldy bloat, juvenile giggles, and sexual teases, 1941 is the most well-crafted version of sketch comedy cinema you’ll ever see. In addition, the cast and crew seem oblivious to the fact that they’re making an eventual clunker, because it’s clear that everyone involved is having an absolute blast.
It’s a brisk two hours of energized comic hijinks with as many laughs as duds, some clever bits (a few even inspired), all topped by a couple of downright impressive set pieces. The USO Jitterbug Contest is a truly remarkable showstopper, a genuine feat of conceptual and cinematic execution that’s staged, choreographed, and performed with precise artistry and gutsy ambition, especially as it devolves and expands into a full scale brawl. It’s a serious bit of gleeful filmmaking. The same, too, can be said of the “attack” on the main strip of downtown Los Angeles.
Credit Spielberg for at least this: he took a big risk, way outside his wheelhouse. And while his classic Hollywood sensibilities weren’t the right fit for a subversive Lampoon-ish sex farce – especially as he tried to mash that up with Mel Brooks-styled parodies on an It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World scale – Spielberg’s “VistaVision” scope is handsomely on display with lush visuals and spectacular sequences, utilizing models and miniatures with a skill and flair that (I kid you not) still looks better than all but the absolute best 21st Century digitized fakery.
Even the premise isn’t as tone-deaf as the 9/11 comparison suggests. By 1979, World War II comedies were commonplace in the culture (and had been for sometime), both in movies and on TV, so it wasn’t an offensive overreach in that sense. At its worst, 1941 fails desperately at playing up the ribald PG-pushing sex jokes (with periodic onslaughts of graphic innuendos and semi-orgasmic makeouts), but thankfully they’re mostly contained to a couple of plot threads, and the least interesting actors are stuck with them.
A loose narrative revolves around its premise, not focused on any specific character journeys or arcs, so it’s a true ensemble of all supporting roles and no leads. This too is a flaw but not a crippling one, and even when the laughs wane the actors’ genuine enthusiasm never does. The cast is entirely all-in on the endeavor. SNL and SCTV alums fare best, with equally appealing contributions from great character actors ranging from Slim Pickens to Robert Stack (in an unwitting warm-up to his iconic Airplane! turn a year later).
It’s disappointing that the material they’re given is such a spotty grab-bag of gags – including a self-referential Jaws opener, complete with the same actress – and lacks a strong narrative drive (the movie doesn’t so much resolve as it merely, well, stops). This, despite being scripted by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the duo that would eventually get their breakthrough (via Spielberg’s help) with one of the best screenplays of all-time: Back To The Future. Only hints of that promise appear here, at best.
For nearly everyone involved, 1941 is an inferior version of what they’re best known for…but it’s not as bad as its embarrassing reputation either. Most importantly, for all the Spielberg Completists out there who’ve been avoiding it, 1941 isn’t nearly the chore you fear it is. Spielberg has obviously done better…but he’s also done worse.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- There’s no particularly fascinating tidbits associated with 1941, other than some interesting bit parts and cameos:
- Two of Spielberg’s Jaws cast pop up in small roles, Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton, along with Susan Backlinie who “reprised” her skinny dipping turn.
- Another Spielberg alum – Lucille Benson – paid homage to her role as a gas station service attendant in Duel. Here, she fills the gas tank for “Wild Bill” John Belushi’s fighter plane.
- Spielberg wooed legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune to lead the Japanese naval crew. Mifune is an icon of Asian cinema, having starred in classics such as Rashomon and The Seven Samurai.
- Joining Jaws’s Murray Hamilton as a ferris wheel patron stranded mid-air is comic actor Eddie Deezen. If he seems familiar but you struggle to pinpoint where you know him from, it’s likely because his most recognizable role to modern audiences is as the voice of a kid in Robert Zemeckis’s animated The Polar Express. Deezen was the mo-cap actor obnoxiously annoying train mate referred to as Know-It –All. The kid bears a striking resemblance to Deezen, too.