“Madness. It’s the only word to describe it.” --Gen. Stillwell, 1941
In the life of every filmmaker there is at least one movie that haunts them for the rest their career, at least one movie that seems to represent massive miscalculation and failure on the part of the director, at least one movie that is considered a major "flop" and perhaps even their "worst film." Nobody is immune to this phenomenon. Even the greatest of directors is capable of making a bad movie (or simply a movie that doesn't appeal to the masses). Some directors have several works of this nature and while Spielberg has produced his fair share of disappointing films (from either an artistic or commercial standpoint) there seems to be one film that, in the eyes of many, dogs him as his biggest folly. That film is 1941. As Spielberg himself said, “I will spend the rest of my life disowning this movie.”
Almost thirty years after 1941 crashed and burned at the theatre, one can't help but wonder if the reputation is deserved. Is it as bad as it has been called? Is it the monumentally embarrassing turkey that many have said it is? Does it merit all of the ill will and venomous criticisms that have been aimed at it over the years or does it in fact seem to improve with age? Do more people "get" it now than got it back in '79? Is it, in fact, not really a "bad" movie but simply a misunderstood movie?
Well, that depends.
As with many poorly-received films, it has achieved a certain level of cult status. There are indeed hordes of people who love the movie and decry any attempt to label it as Spielberg's worst film. Certainly 1941 is not without its charms. There are several amusing elements in it and the technical aspects of the film are extremely well done. It is also perhaps fair to hypothesize that had 1941 been made by another director it might have been met more sympathetically by critics and audiences (since several of those involved in the film chalk up its overwhelmingly negative reception to people simply “gunning” for Spielberg, more or less waiting for him to misstep). Of course, it’s also possible that if 1941 had been made by another director it would have been a better movie, because in the end (regardless of how many people have affection for it) 1941 is still a colossal mess and the passage of time has, alas, still not revealed it to be anything other than that.
The screenplay for 1941, originally entitled The Night the Japs Attacked, was written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (the team responsible for the films I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars and the later Back to the Future trilogy) and tells the fictional story of an evening in 1941 (a time when, because of the then recent bombing of Pearl Harbor, the country was at the height of its wartime paranoia) when a Japanese submarine attacks Hollywood and the numerous mishaps, misunderstandings, foolishness, confusion and just general mayhem that accompanies it. Interestingly, its premise stems from an actual event that occurred during WWII where air raid sirens were sounded in Los Angeles, the city blacked out for several hours and frightened Americans fired thousands of rounds of ammunition into the air at something that they couldn’t see. Whether anyone was actually up there or not it is still unknown, but Gale and Zemeckis saw this as a rather revealing episode about the irrational fear and hysteria that gripped America at that time and decided to use it as the basis for a black comedy. Spielberg read the script and liked it so much that he wanted to direct it as his next film. Certainly the subject matter of WWII was appealing to him but most likely Spielberg was intrigued by the prospect of doing something he had never done before: a comedy. Also, as he later proclaimed, he “didn’t really have anything better to do at the time.” Probably not the best reason to start production on a big-budget movie.
In 1941 Spielberg’s episodic tendencies come to a head. The film is little more than a collection of isolated vignettes with virtually no structure to connect them. Looked at one way the film could be said to have almost no story. Looked at another way the film could be said to contain too many stories, since there are at least thirty different characters with about twelve different subplots all operating simultaneously and occasionally intersecting. Spielberg’s frenetic cutting between them is awkward and clumsy and seems to illustrate his ability to work better with one or two storylines at a time. 1941 also demonstrates Spielberg’s discomfort at working only in the genre of comedy. While there is much humor to be found in Spielberg’s other films (Jaws is, I think, particularly hilarious), it is usually in place to help counter-balance another strong emotion (such as fear or awe) and it is always rooted in a strong, dramatic backbone; a story that is more about people than it is about effects. 1941, on the other hand, is a film more concerned with gags, many of them big and loud (Pauline Kael likened watching the film to being "trapped inside a pinball machine for two hours") and only a few of them actually funny.
In an attempt to compensate for his lack of experience and confidence doing comedy, Spielberg cast a lot of “funny” people in the movie (talented comic actors like Jon Belushi, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd) hoping that perhaps they’ll make the movie funnier. However, unless one gives comedians something to work with, then they end up being just there; they're merely present in the movie without contributing anything substantial to it. In fact, many of the so-called "funny" people in the film come off as merely annoying (particularly Belushi's crazy maverick pilot "Wild" Bill Kelso) and it is the more serious "straight" actors (Toshiro Mifune, Robert Stack and Christopher Lee) that actually provide some laughs. Robert Stack's General Stilwell is particularly good. The sequence where he smiles like a little kid while watching Disney's Dumbo (an actual historical event and one of the few truly hilarious moments in the film) is a real gem. To some extent, Stillwell is the deepest and most interesting (certainly the sanest) character in 1941. He almost exists in his own separate movie and one can only imagine what a film made solely about Stilwell (with the great Robert Stack in the lead role) could've been like.
Admittedly, the cast of 1941 is pretty extraordinary (Warren Oates, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Eddie Deezen, Slim Pickens, Treat Williams, Penny Marshall, Nancy Allen, Dub Taylor, etc) but as is proved by Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, a great cast does not a great movie make. The characters in 1941 aren’t really characters so much as they are character "types" (the young boy, the girlfriend, the overprotective father, etc). Indeed they come off more as caricatures then actual people. It's almost as if someone had restricted the filmmakers/actors to allowing each character to have one personality trait only (Dan Aykroyd can't stand seeing Americans fighting Americans, Bobby Di Cicco wants to dance, Treat Williams hates eggs, Wendy Jo Sperber likes Treat Williams, Murray Hamilton is afraid of heights, etc). Perhaps if Spielberg had cut the number of characters by at least half and given each of them slightly more depth, and a bit more to do, the film wouldn't have felt as disjointed and chaotic as it did.
Among other things, the film suffers from a case of "too many cooks in the kitchen." It seems as if every possible idea for a joke was considered valid and so everything went into the soup and the final film, as a result, went "into the pot." 1941 is like one of those huge, lumbering animals that just keeps going and going, not knowing when to stop (neither in length nor in scope): the characters just get louder and angrier (there's a lot of screaming in this movie), the explosions get bigger and more frequent and the running length, clocking in at around two hours at the time of its original release, has now grown to become a two-and-a-half hour "collector's edition" for DVD. One particular scene in the film serves as a good example of the "going too far" syndrome that seemed to plague 1941's production. At one point in the story Slim Pickens' character Hollis Wood (a name which provides an amusing little "Who's on first?" exchange since the Japanese are searching for Hollywood) is kidnapped and taken aboard the Japanese sub. As they search through his pockets pulling out common everyday items (an homage to Dr. Strangelove), they find a Cracker Jack box with a tiny compass inside it. Since the compass on their own ship is broken they start to rejoice. This is a very funny idea and merits a good laugh. Although it is absurd it still has that delicacy and "lightness" of touch that good comedy is supposed to have. Immediately, Slim Pickens grabs the compass and swallows it to prevent the enemy from finding Hollywood and "bombing John Wayne's house." This is perhaps not as funny as the "Cracker Jack box" gag but it is still moderately amusing. Very shortly, however, the Japanese are standing guard by Slim Pickens, as he sits on a toilet, awaiting a bowel movement so they can retrieve the compass. Pickens tells them he needs privacy and proceeds to fake them out by making loud grunting noises as they listen at the door. At this point the situation has ceased being funny and has simply become crude, obnoxious and over-the-top. Again, Spielberg and company didn't know quite when to stop and they pushed the scenario too far until all the humor drained away from it. What began as a cute and clever idea eventually ended in a scene that has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. As Toshiro Mifune's character aptly laments: "This has not been honorable."
One last sequence serves as an indicator of how "out of his element" Spielberg was. At the film's finale, as all the characters gather at the home of Ned Beatty's character Ward Douglas, Ward makes a speech about not letting the enemy ruin Christmas. He proceeds to hang a wreath on the front door and after the first strike of the hammer, the entire house starts to slide away from Ward and his wreath (although the door and its frame remain stationary) towards the cliff and eventually crash into the rocks below. It is a spectacular moment and could have been quite satisfying if it were not merely one more in a seemingly neverending array of loud, violent gags. Had Spielberg built up to it with a series of escalating mishaps rather than "blowing the wad" so early on it might have provided the thrilling capper to the whole thing that it seems it was supposed to. And yet, what is truly puzzling about the scene--what seems to demonstrate that Spielberg didn't know what he was doing--is that in the conception and execution of this moment nobody seemed to ask: "Why doesn't Ward hear the house rumbling?" The noise that the house makes as it pulls away from him is tremendously loud and no amount of hammering could possibly cover it. Not only does this kind of question remind us why this level of enormously "grad-scale" slapstick comedy seemed to work better in silent cinema but it makes us wonder why Spielberg wouldn't address such a glaring inconsistency. Perhaps it didn't occur to him or perhaps he just felt that Ward doesn't hear it because "that's what happens in these kind of movies." Either way, had Spielberg applied the same kind of logic, reason and realism (or even plausibility) to 1941 that he did in Duel, Jaws and Close Encounters, the events would've seemed less incomprehensible (especially since Spielberg could have easily solved the problem by establishing early on that Beatty's character was simply hard of hearing).
Some have actually derided the film for being racist (an accusation that will be levelled at Spielberg again for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) in its portrayal of the Japanese and in it's handling of the prejudicial dynamics that existed between American white soldiers and black soldiers in that period (as seen in the contentious relationship between John Candy and Frank McRae). While one could make the argument that the film is actually addressing these racist realities by depicting them in their most extreme and absurd light (in a manner similar to All in the Family or Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles) it seems pretty clear to me that the film is not really dealing with them at all. They are just subjects serving as more potential fodder for comedy in a film that takes absolutely nothing seriously. In a way, to be offended by it is to give the movie too much credit. Having said that, the frequent appearance of epithets like "Jap," "Kraut," "Slant" and even "yellow bastards" (without any sense of weight, purpose or context to their use) certainly don't help to allay people's concerns.
To be as fair as I can to the film, there are several excellent aspects of 1941 that deserve mentioning. Without a doubt the miniature work is top shelf. As the panicked response of the people of L.A. reaches idiotic heights, we are treated to some amazing effects shots (including one spectacular sequence where a fully-lit ferris wheel rolls down a pier and splashes into the ocean). Cinematographer Bill Fraker shot the effects through fog to increase their apparent size and texture and it makes for some very visually stunning shots. Unfortunately, in an attempt to ensure that the look of the effects shots matched with the regular photography, Fraker employed fog in just about every scene in the film giving 1941 a dark, dour aesthetic (as if everything were seen through a sort of murkey "haze") that makes it hard at times to tell what's going on and which seems incongruous with the intended comic tone of the story.
Something should be said about the music score as well. As always, John Williams provides something that is solid, tuneful and memorable. His "1941 March" (meant to represent Belushi's energetic character) is a rousing and self-consciously patriotic anthem that would surely have become a classic had it been associated with a more successful movie. Furthermore, Williams composed a thrilling Big Band-style number similar to Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" (appropriately titled "Swing, Swing, Swing") that plays during what is probably the film's greatest set piece: a marvelously choreographed jitterbug contest that again displays Spielberg's gift for staging hugely elaborate sequences. In fact, Spielberg has admitted that at one point he considered making 1941 into a full-blown, old-fashioned Hollywood musical (to this day Spielberg has confessed a desire to direct a musical of some sort) and the effectiveness of the jitterbug scene is another reminder of what 1941 could have been had Spielberg the courage to follow his convictions.
Invariably, when a hundred different darts are thrown at once at a dartboard, some of them are bound to hit the bull's eye. Naturally there are a few gags in 1941 that work, including the aforementioned Stilwell/Dumbo scene and a sequence where a tank crashes through a paint factory--getting covered in brightly colored paint in the process--only to crash subsequently through a turpentine factory and emerge immaculately clean. One of the funniest jokes actually comes about as a result of Spielberg being willing to poke fun at himself.
In the film's opening scene, a young woman goes skinny-dipping in the water and as she swims out farther and farther from the shore John Williams' familiar shark theme is heard. At this point the audience notices (if they haven't already) that the young girl is Susan Backlinie, the actress who played the first victim in Jaws. As the music gets scarier and scarier bubbles begin to form in the water around the girl until a giant periscope emerges lifting her high into the air as a Japanese submarine surfaces beneath her. If the rest of the film had been as clever as this opening, 1941 might actually have worked.
In the end, what could have been a clever and intriguing satirical comedy in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Mike Nichols' Catch-22 eventually turned into something more along the lines of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World : a film which, let’s be honest here, despite it’s intent to be the “comedy to end all comedies,” isn’t really that funny but is instead rather tedious (some folks have even dubbed 1941 "Animal House Goes to War," a nickname which I am not in a position to comment on as I haven't yet seen Animal House). Like Kramer, spectacle had always been a major component of Spielberg’s work but in previous films like Jaws and Close Encounters the spectacle didn’t make the movie. There was more to the cinematic experience than just the "ride." Spielberg has since claimed that he never really had a vision for the 1941 and, as brilliant as I think Spielberg is, I can't help but feel that he was the wrong director for this picture. Had Zemeckis directed his own material the film could've turned out much stronger (it would surely have been a "purer" translation of the original script penned by the "two Bobs," which Zemeckis has said was conceived as a much darker, more cynical piece). Perhaps even a director like Joe Dante could have brought the necessary organization to the mad-cap Hellzapoppin' sensibilities of the film. In either case, 1941 still might not have ended up being a superior movie but it might have a better chance at it. As the years have passed, Spielberg has acknowledged the film as a failure but he has also said that he learned a great deal from the experience. At the time he really thought he was "made of teflon," infallible and untouchable. The poor reception of 1941 brought him back down to Earth, humbles him and reminded him to be more discriminating in his choice of scripts and more disciplined in his approach to whatever material he did choose to work with.
In some ways 1941 holds a special place in my "31 Days of Spielberg" project because it was a discussion about this film at Dennis Cozzalio's Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule that first prompted me to undertake this task. Still, I was not looking forward to watching 1941 again (I have tried on three separate occasions to view the film in its entirety, each attempt proving unsuccessful) and I was even less thrilled about the prospect of writing on it since I have long considered it to be easily Spielberg's worst film (beating out even the major disappointments that were Always, Hook and Lost World) and I knew my friend Dennis, whom I love and respect very much, had a great deal of affection for it. I was actually pleasantly surprised to learn, when I reviewed it recently, that I didn't hate the movie nearly as much as I thought I would. I still think it's an awful film but the anger I felt toward it previously seems to have subsided somewhat. Now, whether that was evidence that I was actually starting to like it--that it was beginning to "grow on me"--or whether I was slowly acquiring an immunity to its atrociousness--like building up a "tolerance" to an unhealthy drug--I don't know. Either way, I have concluded that as fond of Spielberg as I may be, it's not a bad idea to rewatch his "failure" every now and again to remind myself that the man does not walk on water.
TOMORROW: A hero is born