Original US release date: December 14, 1979
Production budget: $35,000,000
Worldwide gross: $92,455,742
In 1979, Steven Spielberg was already riding high. His two previous efforts in the director’s chair, Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, were massive hits, with Jaws being the highest-grossing film of all-time up to that point and the first to cross $100 million in domestic box office receipts. Spielberg’s confidence had grown (deservedly so) and for his next film, he decided to try something different: a World War II comedy written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale that would end up being entitled 1941. This was the first time that Steven Spielberg directed a pure comedy. This was also the last time that Steven Spielberg would direct a pure comedy.
The plot of 1941 is simple and straightforward. One week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American military forces in California brace for another attack, as fears and rumors suggest that their state will be Japan’s next target. Spielberg really loaded the cast up, landing John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd in his feature film debut, Ned Beatty, John Candy, Mickey Rourke (also in his feature film debut), Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Christopher Lee, and Dianne Kay for various roles. And the presence of Belushi, Aykroyd, Beatty, and Candy would suggest that 1941 is an easy, slam-dunk comedic effort, but that’s not exactly the case.
Spielberg’s willingness to not take himself so seriously is apparent right out of the gate as the opening scene is a parody of the famous opening scene from Jaws, in which Spielberg goes so far as to attain Susan Backlinie to retain her part as the naked swimmer from that iconic moment. It’s a solid start, but Spielberg has trouble maintaining the momentum, though it’s not from a lack of trying. The entire film is a nonstop assault of jokes, gags, and slapstick, with everyone in front of and behind the camera throwing everything they can find at the wall. Unfortunately, only a handful of those projectiles actually stick.
The fact is that Spielberg simply isn’t a comedian. It isn’t his specialty – or one of his many specialties, to be more precise – and that’s really all there is to it. What he attempts here is another of the zany blockbuster comedies that were so prevalent at the time. But, since comedy isn’t his forte, he leans heavily on what others had done before him, rather than his own ideas and abilities, preventing him from being the ingenious filmmaker we all now know him to be. The overwhelming majority of the humor is rooted in slapstick and, even though I must admit that one particular instance of it got a laugh out of me, it, like most slapstick, is nearly entirely derivative of previous work. It’s not necessarily “bad”. But it’s tired and generally falls flat.
On the other hand, the film features some extraordinary special effects and miniature work that was especially revolutionary for its time. This sort of thing has, of course, always been in Spielberg’s wheelhouse and, even if much of the material around it doesn’t quite click, that’s no different in 1941. Perhaps the most impressive effect involves a Ferris wheel and, if you didn’t know it was a miniature . . . well, you wouldn’t know it was a miniature. It’s easy to overlook this aspect of the film while waiting for it to be funny, but that would be unfair. Technically, as always, Spielberg delivers the goods.
Also expected is backlash from certain viewers, both then and now. Some at the time accused the film of being disrespectful towards veterans. In fact, both John Wayne and Charlton Heston turned down the role eventually filled by Robert Stack for this very reason. Today’s audiences would be more likely to accuse the film of being insensitive towards the Japanese. Proponents of either point of view would need to think long enough to realize that the film is a parody of the hysteria taking place around World War II, and not a parody of the war, itself. In fact, many of the events in the film, played for comedy, were based on actual events, rather than being fictional creations aimed at mocking one group or another. In order to be disrespectful or insensitive towards someone, a statement about them must be made. No general statement about the military or the Japanese is made in the film, instead focusing on specific characters and their own personal foibles.
As is typical of audiences even today, many accused 1941 of being a “flop”, simply because it didn’t measure up to the success of Spielberg’s two previous films. That wasn’t true; as you can see at the top of the column, it made enough money to qualify as a financial success, albeit a small one. But it was not a critical success – a rarity for Spielberg – and that’s understandable. The film isn’t awful or poorly made, but it’s presented as a comedy and it simply isn’t all that overwhelmingly funny. The cast was there, but they had little to work with. From a technical perspective, the film succeeds, but that’s just not enough. Spielberg, himself, in a 1990 Barry Norman interview, stated that he was “arrogant” coming into this film and it was a huge lesson for him. And he learned it, as, from this point on, we got to see him take his position as a leader in filmmaking and not as the follower that he was, here. It’s a film to be seen for the sake of historical significance and to follow the path of Spielberg’s career, but 1941 is certainly one of the lesser efforts on Spielberg’s résumé, even if the effort to break out of his comfort zone is to be applauded.
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