Steven Spielberg’s “1941” (1979)

Director Steven Spielberg’s 1977 feature, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, was the culmination of many years of personal development.  It was a passion project wrought from the skeleton of an amateur feature (his first) that he had shot in his teens: FIRELIGHT (1964).  Once CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND was completed and became another hit for the young director, he found himself with no immediate plans for his next project.  At this same time, a couple of interns named Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were being groomed as Spielberg’s protégés.  They were working on a zany WW2 comedy about the hysteria in America following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which piqued Spielberg’s curiosity enough to attach him to the script as a director.  Spielberg initially saw an opportunity to create a lavish WW2-era musical, but he ultimately chose to pursue the black comedy/slapstick satire approach that his idol Stanley Kubrick had previously employed with DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964).  In the end, however, Spielberg wasn’t Kubrick, and his comedic talents weren’t as well-honed as his dramatic ones. The film as it came to be known, 1941, debuted in 1979 debuted with a lackluster thud at the box-office and was deemed Spielberg’s first high-profile failure.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see why people didn’t exactly cotton to the idea in 1979.  While the story becomes more rewarding towards the end, the picture as a whole feels off-tone and obtuse.  1941 sheds a humorous light on the wave of hysteria and paranoia that swept over America in the days following Pearl Harbor.  A regiment headed by Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd) is arming the coastline while Captain “Wild Bill” Kelso flies like a bat out of hell towards the west coast. Meanwhile, a Japanese sub has surfaced off the coast, their sights set on destroying Hollywood.  Their geographically-inept soldiers accidentally kidnap a redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood instead, and set about interrogating him to “hilarious” results.  The whole thing culminates in a massive, confused air battle over Hollywood and a standoff in Santa Monica.

If you didn’t know 1941 was a comedy by reading the script, then you’d know once you saw the cast, which is headlined by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE stars John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd, as well as popular comedian John Candy.  The late Belushi gives a great performance as the wild-eyed lunatic Bill Kelso, giving him a kamikaze-like obsession with finding and defeating the Japanese.  Aykroyd makes his film debut in 1941, finding the goofiness inherent in a bumbling salesman persona transposed to the rigid protocol of the military.  As Private Foley, Candy isn’t given a lot to do, but he is nonetheless a welcome, friendly presence.

Spielberg’s supporting cast is equally off-kilter and eccentric.  Treat Williams plays Stretch, a young, handsome corporal with anger problems and entitlement issues.  Veteran horror icon Christopher Lee plays Captain Wolfgang Kleinschmidt– a great casting choice on Spielberg’s part that allows Lee to eschew his Hammer Dracula image and indulge in some Nazi goofery.  A regular of films by Akira Kurosawa (another huge influence on Spielberg), Toshiro Mifune gives one of his very few performances in an English-language film as Commander Mitamora, the gruff Japanese officer leading the charge against Hollywood.  In a quasi-reprisal of his role in Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE, Slim Pickens serves as a great foil to the would-be Japanese invaders as the redneck Christmas tree farmer named Hollis Wood.  And apparently Mickey Rourke makes his film debut in 1941 as well, but I never saw him anywhere.  Maybe that was the part of the film I missed when I dozed off on my couch.

Nancy Allen and Lorraine Gary provide a small measure of femininity to balance out the machismo of 1941’s narrative, but for the most part their characters are fairly over-looked and under-developed.  The youthful Nancy Allen is there to fulfill the “ingénue love interest” archetype, while JAWS’ (1975) Lorraine Gary doesn’t fare much better as the “shrill harpy wife” character, even if it’s a marked improvement on her prior performance.

It could’ve been the shitty transfer of the DVD I viewed, but cinematographer William A. Fraker’s work on 1941 is far less impressive than that of Vilmos Zsigmond or even Bill Butler’s work previous (it also might account for why Fraker was fired midway through the film).  The 2.35:1 aspect ratio is consistent within Spielberg’s filmography, but Fraker seems to have muddled the image with a middling contrast and diffused light that blights exterior daylight sequences.   Sweeping crane shots add to an imaginative mix of matte paintings and miniature work, resulting in an epic sense of scale.  Say what you want about Spielberg’s technical proficiency, but the man truly knows how to move a camera.  Overall, he cultivates a hyper-comedic vibe with strangely racist undertones.  I’ll admit that the race humor was appropriate given the story’s midcentury setting, but watching it in 2013, it still felt like it was in poor taste.

Along with editor Michael Kahn, John Williams is one of only two of Spielberg’s regular collaborators to return for 1941. Williams crafts a serviceable score that’s appropriately patriotic to match the heroic, bombastic comedy on display. Spielberg has gone on record to state that Williams’ march theme for 1941 is one of his personal favorites from the acclaimed musician, but I personally found it nowhere near as iconic as the bulk of their work together.

1941 occupies a strange place within Spielberg’s canon, as it is very self-aware of the fact that it is a Spielberg film. Obviously, the film deals heavily in WW2 imagery, which Spielberg has trafficked in from his early childhood films all the way to present day.  But this same familiarity is also used for laughs that poke fun at the director himself.  The humor is surprisingly sexual for Spielberg, who has built a bonafide institution around his family-friendly brand of filmmaking. There’s also the parody of JAWS that opens the film, which replicates the earlier film’s cold open right down to the naked blonde girl and Williams’ ominous two-note theme.  As a native Oregonian, I should also take this opportunity to note that this sequence was shot in Cannon Beach, a very iconic landmark on Oregon’s coastline.

Like I mentioned before, 1941 went down in history as Spielberg’s first big flop.  It wasn’t necessarily a financial failure, but critics were aching for some blood in the water after the one-two strike of JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND—so when they smelled it, they pounced.  By experiencing this kind of disappointment, Spielberg learned a very valuable lesson: even the world’s most successful filmmaker had a ceiling that his talent could not surmount.  The stillbirth of 1941 showed Spielberg what he was best at– and comedy was not one of those things.  To this day, Spielberg has never made another film that could be considered a full-on comedy.  Even the lighthearted, freewheeling nature of CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) was counterbalanced by the pathos of serious adult problems.

Every filmmaker will experience a dud at some point in his/her career; it’s inevitable.  1941 isn’t a particularly good film, but it’s not terrible either.  Despite a sluggish opening, the investment in Spielberg’s 150-minute epic farce pays off towards the end with a relatively enjoyable battle sequence over the low-slung buildings of Hollywood and the darkened boardwalks of Santa Monica.  1941 hasn’t been given much respect in the years since its release, and as long the current DVD (with its terrible transfer struck during the format’s early days) remains in print, it’s not likely to gain further appreciation anytime soon.  It may wallow in obscurity and mediocrity, but there are far worse fates awaiting films out there.  Those who do give 1941 the time of day will, at the very least, find a curious look into Spielberg’s career at one of its humbling moments.

1941 is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.


Produced by: Buzz Feitshans, Michael Kahn, John Milius

Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale

Director of Photography: William A. Fraker

Production Designer: Dean Edward Mitzner

Editor: Michael Kahn

Music by: John Williams