Today marks the most trivial of cinema milestones: the same length of time has elapsed from the original release of director Steven Spielberg’s notorious film comedy 1941 to the present, as from the date of the events depicted to the film’s theatrical bow (38 years on either half of the divide).
From the writers of Back to the Future and the co-writer of Apocalypse Now came this episodic tale loosely inspired by the heightened sense of hysteria stateside following the attack at Pearl Harbour. Japanese submarines spotted off the coast of the United States. Anti-aircraft flak over Los Angeles. A torpedo fired at the American coast. Zoot Suiters rioting against American military personnel. All of these surprisingly true events were amplified and thrown together into a frenetic hodgepodge by scribes Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale and John Milius.
Although not the box office bomb it was made out to be, 1941 perhaps can best be described as a failure of manic over-inventiveness. Imagine Frank Tashlin, John Landis, the Mike Nichols of Catch-22, the Stanley Kramer of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Jacques Tati’s Playtime nightclub all falling upon a giant mountain of cocaine, and you have a reasonable snapshot.
Spielberg’s relentlessly clever stagings do not automatically translate to strong visual gags with payoffs, which may be 1941’s most grievous flaw. Technically it is an extremely well-crafted film, but the gags are thought of in terms of boldness and brashness first and foremost. There’s a general vibe of outlandishness to the n-th degree, with Spielberg wanting to prove he’s funny rather than deliver the actual goods.
1941 has its moments: John Belushi and Warren Oates bending over backwards to out-crazy each other onscreen; frequently great cinematography by Bill Fraker (save for perhaps too much diffusion in the early scenes); a phenomenal, overlooked John Williams soundtrack; and miniature photography that remains singularly impressive.
Is it entertaining? In its own way, perhaps. If you can ignore the repeated use of the slur “J**s,” a potentially triggering threat of rape near film’s end, and casual moments of racism and sexism endemic of the film’s era, I’d say go for it. My wife perhaps summed it up best: “Well, for a ‘70s comedy about World War II, it’s not as racist or sexist as it could’ve been, I guess.”
Or, even more succinctly:
1941 is great, but not funny.
– Stanley Kubrick
- One of the set painters is credited as “Hillery Clinton”.
- Spielberg’s self-references: he recreates the opening of Jaws featuring the same actress, Susan Backlinie; and Wild Bill Kelso lands his P-40 Warhawk at the same roadside gas station seen in Spielberg’s TV movie Duel, with Lucille Bensen playing the proprietor in both films.
- Beyond the overt homages to Stanley Kubrick (the casting of Elisha Cook and Slim Pickens, and the latter’s parody of his own “checklist” scene in Dr. Strangelove), in the Japanese submarine’s bridge, mixed low on the soundtrack and presumably representing a sonar, is the repeating radar ping from David Bowman’s pod while chasing Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
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