1941 (1979) / Comedy-War
MPAA Rated: PG for brief nudity, sexuality, violence and language (would be PG-13 today)
Running time: 118 min. (146 min. director's cut)
Cast: John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, Robert Stack, Warren Oates, Dan Aykroyd, Bobby Di Cocco, Slim Pickens, Wendie Jo Sperber, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, John Candy, Eddie Deezen, Frank McRae, Joe Flaherty, Michael McKean, Audrey Landers (cameo), John Landis (cameo), Mickey Rourke (cameo), James Caan (cameo), Penny Marshall (cameo)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Review published June 22, 2007
The Japanese didn't plan an assault on Hollywood, Spielberg did.
One of his few misfires, but it's a big one, 1941 sees director Steven Spielberg (Duel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) having fun playing with a "sky's the limit" budget and as much madness and mayhem as you could ever want to throw at the screen, and still ends up making perhaps the worst film of his career. The late 1970s were marked by artistic excess, in music, television, and films, and this film was indicative of letting things run completely rampant as everything escalated to the point where no one could get a handle on keeping it all contained anymore.
The setting of the film is the coast of California, just days after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in 1941, where a German sub, under the command of the Japanese, are out to continue their attack on the US, hoping to score something big, like "Hollywood". Unrest fills the streets, as the military men and civilians have more trouble getting along with one another as it is, without worrying about a planned strike against the continental US from foreign forces.
Although considered a flop at the time of its release, making far less than the two previous Spielberg efforts, Jaws and Close Encounters, 1941 made a decent profit in the overseas market, who probably found the weird humor a little more zany than the more befuddled US audiences. If there is a word that could be used to describe 1941, that would be "overkill". Nearly every gag, bit of action, and attempt at whimsical romance is completely drowned out by the claustrophobic set pieces, constant need for noise at all times, and everyone playing their roles quite far over the top for no apparent reason.
Lots of star power is on display, and picking out the celebrities and future stars in the film proves to be one of the few pleasures most viewers will probably have for the duration. As fine as the performances are, there is just little sustained humor value in most of their interactions. Each individually have the potential for big laughs, but none are given enough screen time or much of a background to truly gain our interest long, before we see another random person shuffled in front of the camera. There are some amusing moments that emerge, such as a crazy dance sequence and a funny scene of a daft Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles, The Getaway) being interrogated on the submarine, but these are also one of the few sequences that are given the proper amount of time to develop. Most of the other scenes seem to be working overtime to cram in all of these characters and pieces of action, and the timing of the comedy -- the most important element of humor -- is completely wiped out.
Without much humor in the material, coincidentally penned by future Back to the Future creators, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, all Spielberg could do in order to try to give the semblance of comedy is to see all of these characters he created fight each other with the heavy artillery and machinery at their disposal. Large sets were constructed in order to just have them crashed down. Spielberg intentionally shot each scene in order to have as much destruction and chaos as possible within the confines of the comedy medium. Sadly, this approach only exacerbates the problem, as we find little amusement in seeing characters we hardly know doing and saying things they seem to have little motivation for. When Eddie Deezen (Grease, WarGames) pulls out a puppet of himself at random to talk for him, it only shows how desperate Spielberg was to inject comedy where there was none to be found.
Taking a step further, it's apparent when one looks over Spielberg's career that comedy isn't his strongest suit. Certainly, many of his films are made better through the use of comic relief -- Raiders of the Lost Ark is hilarious, even though it isn't a straight comedy. However, his forays into films that emphasize comedy over most else -- Hook, Always, The Terminal, and 1941 -- rank among his weakest of efforts. I suppose we should be thankful that his urge to get a comedy out of his system only emerges about once a decade.
Just having a funny premise isn't enough to make a funny film, and 1941 shows it. Once you set up the joke, you need a good punch line to go along with it, and unfortunately, Spielberg had none available. Rather than punch lines, he offered characters punching each other instead.
-- A much longer Director's Cut of the film was made by Spielberg for television showings, adding almost a half hour to the film's running length. This cut has also been released on laserdisc and DVD.
©2007 Vince Leo