Steven Spielberg has directed 27 feature films, and few have a lower reputation than his World War II comedy 1941. It sits in the land of The Terminal and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and both of those have more fans. With serious caution, I’ve decided to check out the 146-minute extended cut. Although it earned a decent box office take, this film rests in the middle with four major hits around it. Compared to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the returns look like a massive failure. Is this a hidden gem that deserves more attention? There’s always a chance for such a marquee director with a strong reputation. It certainly has a few fans, so the question is whether the prevailing sentiment of disaster is accurate. Let’s close out this look at Spielberg’s early films with one of his most notorious pictures.
What's the story about?
The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and the citizens of California are frightened they’ll be the next target. Their fears may be justified when an enemy submarine arrives with thoughts of taking out Los Angeles. The residents need no help to freak out and wreak a lot of destruction before this vessel even appears in their sights. Wally (Bobby Di Cicco) just wants to take his girl Betty (Dianne Kay) to the USO dance, but only soldiers are allowed. While he tries to find a way to this big event and its jitterbug contest, the local soldiers and sailors are itching to fight anyone. Meanwhile, pilot Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi) flies his fighter around town and induces chaos wherever he goes. The paranoid climate keeps growing, and it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.
Does this film reveal the skills that would make Spielberg a household name?
1941 reveals the technical proficiency that Spielberg showed in his successful projects. He presents the action skillfully and makes the complicated sequences believable. That’s pretty much the only thing that connects to his best work. This is a messy series of gags that seems below such a marquee director. The comedy is so obvious and involves people falling down and inadvertently causing explosions. The sexual humor is painful and shows a filmmaker working outside of his comfort zone. Spielberg can direct funny moments within the context of a different genre, but he’s clearly not the right guy for this type of comedy. It’s hard to just blame Spielberg, however. The screenplay from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale tries so hard to be zany that it falls flat right from the start. Watching one-note characters run around like maniacs is rarely entertaining no matter what production values surround them. It’s stunning that this is the same writing duo who created Back to the Future. That film has some goofy comedy, but it’s part of a larger story with characters we like. This mess is so full of characters that it’s difficult to connect with anyone.
Are there connections between this early movie and his later work?
This is a strange outlier in the Spielberg filmography, particularly when you look at the movies that followed. He’s clearly paying homage to Hollywood’s past and casts actors like Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Slim Pickens, and others in small parts. The veterans do their best with limited material, but there’s only so much they can do in this weak format. The movie opens with a girl taking a naked swim, and it’s Denise Cheshire from Jaws! She played the swimmer in the opening of that film, and John Williams reprises his famous score in this scene. This time, it’s a submarine that arrives from below, and there’s an awkward joke of a Japanese sailor being amazed (“Hollywood!”) by the image of her clinging to the ship. While callbacks to previous films can be fun, this connection is so blatant that it completely fails. Spielberg and Williams leave subtlety at the door right from the start. The intrusive score remains throughout the story and beats the “fun” into our brains. This is not a wise move.
What are the primary themes? Does Spielberg make them interesting?
There’s a witty comedy about citizens dealing with fears of invasion hidden somewhere within this film. Unfortunately, that theme is lost in all the set pieces. The best sequence is the USO dance, which is well-staged and fun. When this is compared to houses falling down and painful escapades from Nancy Allen and Tim Matheson, its success stands out even more. The reason is that we’re actually invested in Wally’s goal to win the dance contest. It sounds trivial but is one of the few interesting arcs in the very large cast. Spielberg goes for the mayhem, and it becomes very grating by the second hour. Even with Dan Akroyd, John Candy, John Belushi, and many other talents, there’s no salvaging this mess.
Spielberg called 1941 a “total conceptual disaster”. Does it live up to this billing?
Definitely. 1941 batters the audience with gags, music, and over-the-top acting. While this approach fits with the comedy trends of the time, that era’s gems have simpler stories. There are far too many characters to follow, and few are memorable. There’s a clever gag involving a Ferris Wheel rolling off its foundation near the end, but it’s surrounded by actors mugging for the camera. The treatment of women and the Japanese characters is problematic, but the dim-witted approach includes nearly everyone. There’s little to ground the story as the mayhem increases, and it’s exhausting just to reach the end.
Next week, I’ll return to the post-apocalyptic future with Tom Cruise in Oblivion.