(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. (Or, for a more current comparison, a suggestive raunch-com in 2058 about the Coronavirus pandemic.) That’s basically what you have with Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Just replace Jihadists with “Japs”. (Or virus with “vermin”.)
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 that they’re the next target of a sneak Japanese attack — and sure enough, there’s an actual Japanese sub off the coast attempting that very ambush.
1941 is a wartime romp, with bawdy sex humor as a primary (but not singular) component, in which both U.S. and Japanese soldiers do 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 why it went on to 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, fatuous regression for the director of Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. but that would’ve been forgivable (or, at least, not been under such a media microscope) if it hadn’t cost so much money to make.
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 hotshot wunderkind down a few pegs, Spielberg essentially 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 that you’ll ever see. In addition, the cast and crew seem oblivious to the fact that they’re making an eventual clunker because one key virtue is abundantly clear: everyone involved is having an absolute blast.
It’s a brisk two hours of energized comic high-jinks with as many laughs as duds, a few clever bits (some even inspired), and 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. It’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, and the same can be said later on of the “attack” on the main strip of downtown Los Angeles.
Credit Spielberg for at least this: he took a big risk way outside of his wheelhouse. Sure, classic Hollywood sensibilities weren’t quite the right fit for a subversive Lampoon-ish sex farce — especially as he tried to mash that tone 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.
Indeed, he and his optical effects technicians utilize models and miniatures with a skill and flair that still looks better than all but the absolute best 21st Century digitized fakery. (And I sincerely mean that.)
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 worst, where 1941 fails is in its desperation to play up 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.
The plot meanders, lacking a tight construct, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for a sketch-movie like this. The premise is the consistent thread within the loose narrative. A true ensemble of all supporting roles but no leads, there isn’t a focus on any specific character journey either. Yes, that’s 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 absurdity. 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 turn in Airplane! a year later).
It’s disappointing that the material is such a spotty grab-bag of gags (including a self-referential Jaws opener, complete with the same actress) as it meanders with a lack of strong narrative drive; the movie doesn’t so much resolve as it just, 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 inferior version of what they’re best known for, but it’s not as bad or as embarrassing as its reputation either. Most importantly, for all of the Spielberg Completists out there who’ve been avoiding it, 1941 isn’t the chore you fear it is. Spielberg has obviously done better…but he’s also done worse.
- The most fascinating tidbits about 1941 are its 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.
- 1941 was the big screen debut for Mickey Rourke.
- Two Hollywood icons — Charlton Heston and John Wayne — turned down offers for the same role: Major General Joseph W. Stilwell, who was eventually played by Robert Stack. After reading the script given directly to him by Spielberg, Wayne not only turned it down due to ill health but tried to get Spielberg to drop the project entirely. He felt it was an unpatriotic slap in the face to World War II vets. Reportedly, Heston turned it down for the same reason.
- It’s interesting how our perceptions have changed about what a box office bomb is. 1941 was made for $35 million back in 1979 (which, to be clear, was one of the biggest budgets of all time at that point — and for a goofy comedy, no less). In today’s dollars, that would be around $125 million. Domestically it grossed $31.7 million, an embarrassment for Spielberg but not so much for most anyone else. That’s $112 million in today’s dollars, and globally it pulled in over $92 million, or $345 million in 2020. Today, those kind of numbers wouldn’t even phase most studios.