Well this came to me as a big surprise. 1941 is a film I never really got around to watching until now. I was put off by it from other people who claimed it just wasn’t up to par with other Spielberg classics at the time, such as Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders. It was received to mixed reviews by audiences and critics and both Columbia and Universal wrote it off as a flop. But that’s not all true. 1941 did make money. It made $90 million worldwide from a $35 million budget, which for 1979 is a pretty hefty budget for a film. I can see why audiences didn’t care for it. It doesn’t have any of the heart-tugging magic of Spielberg’s films of that era. It’s got issues. For one thing, it’s a bit long for a comedy. There are probably one too many plot lines going at the same time, a few of which don’t get totally resolved. Sometimes the film would spend so much time on one storyline that I started wondering what was going on with the other characters in the film, some of which I hadn’t seen for a good 30 minutes. Is this film one of Spielberg’s best? No, not really. Is it a bad film? Oh good heavens no.
Upon first viewing it did take me some time to get into the movie, but the characters and the extraordinary cast had my interest from the beginning. It was even written by Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale, pre Back to the Future. Every big star you can imagine is in this film from Dan Aykroyd to John Candy, John Belushi, Robert Stack, Ned Beatty, and Christopher Lee as a nazi commander! It’s worth the wait as the film builds to its absolute chaotic finale. The effects and miniature work are all spectacular. My dad had stories about when he worked on the MGM lot and he saw the pyrotechnic crew putting the charges on the Santa Monica pier miniature with the ferris wheel. The ferris wheel rolling down the pier to me is an iconic shot in the film. And then there’s John Williams fantastic score, with another great memorable march for Belushi’s cigar chomping Wild Bill character. But my absolute favorite moment in the film is the ending, as Ned Beatty gives his stirring speech about being an American patriot and nails his christmas wreath on the door of his shattered house, only by doing so it knocks his entire two story house off the side of the cliff towards the ocean. The scene was supposedly shot all in one take with 7 cameras running as the entire house went over the cliff. It’s a spectacular and hilarious gag.
Of course, then there’s the characters infused within this film. One of my surprise favorites was Treat Williams as the army officer Sitarski. I haven’t had much exposure to Treat Williams work with the exception of The Phantom (a film where I thought his villain character was one of the weaker aspects of an otherwise great and fun film). But here I think he delivers a better performance just in showing what a nasty SOB he can really be. Slim Pickins was also enjoyable in the film, although one of my issues was that his story never really felt resolved, and I felt his whole plot line could have been cut without having an impact on the main story. But I do think he is funny, and his story with the Japanese guys is enjoyable. Another character I loved was Robert Stack as Gen. Stilwell, a grown army general who can cry during Dumbo at the drop of a hat…well…I loved that scene. The tribute to Dumbo was nice, even if it was a bit long. Ah the days when Disney was much more lenient with the copyright of their films!
There is also something to be said about the look of this film and its production design. In a way, the film feels like something out of a 1940’s Hollywood film. It’s like the Hollywood fantasy version of what it was like in 1941. I think it many ways it adds to the satire. There’s a lot of great attention to detail. The miniature work for its time was very believable, and I loved all the shots of John Belushi’s plane flying through the towering buildings of Downtown Los Angeles. It’s one of those movies where the gags are hit and miss, but the gags seem to work best when they get really big and over the top. It’s all just part of the fun of it. Even though it doesn’t always work, this movie is still so much more enjoyable to watch than the much more flat dull jokes in Spielberg’s most recent movies (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull anyone? Yeech.)
I’ve read some stories that Spielberg was embarrassed by how this film turned out, but really I think he’s being to hard on himself. This was still the enlightened age of Spielberg when he was still young and not afraid to try new things. I’m glad he tried to get away from the emotional heart tug side that made him so successful, and just did something that was totally different, weird, and fun. I like that it actually makes fun of Americans in their reaction to Pearl Harbor. Apparently Spielberg got some flack from guys like John Wayne, who said World War II was nothing to make fun of considering all the millions of lives it cost. Maybe the guilt of Wayne’s comment set in and made him decide to do Schindler’s List and Private Ryan (I kid of course, those are both exceptional films). I actually kind of wondered what the reaction of this film would have been like had it been made 10 years earlier in the 1960’s, which is a time I’m sure this movie really would have spun some heads. It might even of had a much larger cultural impact and possibly even could have been more successful.
But for whatever reason, 1941 is what it is, and to tell you the truth, I think it’s an underrated gem. It’s got its problems yes, but it was made at a time when Spielberg’s youthful energy was at its prime. There is some really great stuff to look at in this movie. And it really is a lot of fun if you just allow yourself to sit back and enjoy it. If you haven’t seen this film, by all means it’s worth your time for at least one look. For me, I plan to watch it again and again. It’s definitely going on my list. Highly recommended to all.