Late to the Party: Spielberg’s 1941

The Context

Film folks often think of The Discourse as a byproduct of social media: an endless series of bandwagons onto which critics and viewers alike are encouraged to jump. But mass media has always encouraged this kind of consensus-forming about the movies. Steven Spielberg certainly seems to think his epic 1979 comedy 1941 was a victim of such pop-cultural narrative-making.

“Mainly the film was sort of dismissed as a picture that, you know, was the inevitable conclusion of two great hits for me,” Spielberg says in the making-of documentary included on the Blu-ray I watched of the film. “It was inevitable that I would make a film that wasn’t such a big hit.”

The “two great hits” he’s referring to are Jaws (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which made massive amounts of money while also drawing praise from critics. Now, it’s not entirely impossible that Spielberg’s hot streak had people itching to get the knives out, eager for reassurance that this newly unstoppable Hollywood juggernaut was a fallible mortal after all, and that 1941 was merely the vessel for that backlash. Critics at the time were pretty harsh on the movie, a consensus summarized by Rotten Tomatoes as “Steven Spielberg’s attempt at screwball comedy collapses under a glut of ideas, confusing an unwieldly scope for a commensurate amount of guffaws.” Contemporary audiences didn’t seem to like it much, either: not a flop,1 but not what the studio was expecting for their investment.

That reputation has dogged 1941 and become entrenched as part of the narrative arc of Spielberg’s career: riding high off Jaws and Close Encounters, hubris supposedly got the better of a hot young filmmaker and led him to indulge his most excessive cinematic impulses, resulting in his first great folly. As arguably the most successful director of his day,2 he’s maybe a little unused to perceived failure and comes off as defensive, however genially so, in the documentary segment; he claims that to appreciate the film, you have to be “as crazy as Bob, Bob, myself, and John Milius,”3 extending viewers a potential invitation into an exclusive little coterie of people who really “get it.” And, as he points out, “Of course, Europeans love it.”

Fortunately for Spielberg, when The Discourse forms a narrative, it must also spawn a counternarrative. Over the years, 1941 has been re-evaluated by commentators who have grown up watching the movie on TV and home video, where so many children of the ’80s and ’90s first discovered Spielberg and grew to love his work through constant exposure and repetition. So today, you can find plenty of people willing to go to bat for this movie as a subversively brilliant farce and a rare insight into the wilder, more anarchic side of Steven Spielberg. 

“A lot of the [initial] analysis actually faulted the film for being too chaotic and too noisy,” the man himself says, “and in fact, I think looking back on the movie, one of the most enjoyable things about the film for me is that the film is pretty much no different than playing Doom 2 or, you know, on your computer today.” (This documentary, it should be noted at this point, was made in 1996.) “I think it was way ahead of its time coming out in 1979, but perhaps was a little more current to today’s CD-ROM, uh, superinformation highway generation.”

I am part of this CD-ROM superinformation highway generation,4 and I share the love and reverence that many in my age group have for Spielberg. But I actually had never seen this particular film until it came in a Blu-ray box set of Universal-released Spielberg movies I recently got on sale. I did know it by reputation, however, and it’s always sounded pretty strange on paper. 

It’s an ensemble piece set six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when Los Angeles—and by extension, America—was paranoid about the possibility of full-on invasion by Japan; but instead of the sober, reverent drama that premise might suggest, it’s an anarchic comedy in which the Americans are largely portrayed as hysterical idiots afraid of their own shadows. It stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi at their height of their Saturday Night Live fame and coolness, but also film-nerd icons like Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune. The screenplay was written by the lovable dorks who’d go on to create Back to the Future, but the story has input from the filmmaker who brought us Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian, and Red Dawn. Laden with a massive cast, extensive miniature work, and destructive setpieces, the film cost $35 million in 1979 dollars; to put this in perspective, Spielberg was able to send Indiana Jones on a globetrotting adventure, visualize God’s wrath on Earth, and blow up planes, trucks, and Nazis for only $20 million two years later. And to top it all off, it’s between two and two-and-a-half hours long depending on which cut you watch.5

So what is 1941? A bloated and self-indulgent mess, or a strange passion project too cool for the squares?

The Review

Well, first off, I didn’t really find it all that funny.

I was a bit frustrated by this, because it’s hard to articulate exactly why almost nothing here got me laughing. Humor is so subjective anyway, but if you generally know what you like and what you don’t, you can usually at least figure out what isn’t clicking. Not here, though; not for me. 

I mean, there are any number of theoretical complaints to be made here. The characters are very thinly drawn, and we’re not given even a basic emotional connection to get us invested in any of them. The scope of the story makes for a pretty baggy narrative, with various plots and characters dropping in and out and then sometimes disappearing altogether. The satire is lacking a clear target and feels unfocused. It goes for cheap laughs. 

All these things are probably true, and all of these things are probably going to get you dinged if you were to submit 1941 for a screenwriting review. But you could level a lot of these same claims against most Mel Brooks movies, or Pink Panther movies, or Marx Brothers movies, or any number of fast-paced, hit-the-audience-with-everything-you-got comedies. And I love those kinds of comedies. Am I gonna sit here and tell you that 1941 is lacking meaningful stakes for its characters when something like Duck Soup is right there? Am I gonna watch History of the World, Part I and then complain about cheap laughs?

So it was hard to write about 1941, because I kept thinking, “Why does this hit so many of the same buttons as movies I find hilarious but deliver none of the payoff?” Why can John Landis put Aykroyd and Belushi into the chaos of The Blues Brothers and make a comedy classic, but when Spielberg deploys that same duo at the start of America’s entrance into World War II, it falls flat?

It’s tempting to theorize that the scenario itself kills a lot of the potential for humor; isn’t this like making a comedy called 9/12/2001 or Coronavirus Lockdown: The First Month? But I actually found it refreshing and even endearing for Spielberg to try to draw comedy out of how irrationally panic can make us act; it holds up a mirror to the way we all respond to crises and invites us to laugh at ourselves. Less endearing are the ethnic slurs that were no doubt in common use right after Pearl Harbor but are an impediment to laughter despite whatever claim to historical accuracy they might have. There’s also a subplot where serviceman Treat Williams is trying to assault a young woman, played as sort of a live-action Bluto-and-Olive Oyl thing. These are understandable dealbreakers depending on your tolerance; it’s probably only from a position of my own privilege that I can basically say, “Okay, but what else didn’t I think was funny about this?”

At this point in my little review here, the Spielberg-skeptics among us might be forming a theory of their own to explain 1941. Spielberg is such a calculating filmmaker, right? He’s not loose enough for a farce! Squeezed all the life out of the comedy, no doubt. But actually, the most staged parts of the movie are what I thought worked the best. The highlight of the movie is a dance sequence that turns into a brawl, meticulously choreographed, each step and punch and fall setting up the next gag like a Rube Goldberg machine. That’s when the movie reminded me of what Spielberg would go on to do with the Indiana Jones movies, which are, for all the blood and explosions, propelled by the same sort of screwball comedy as the dance sequence. 

And then you remember—hang on a minute—Spielberg is funny. He may not make pure comedies, but he absolutely knows the kind of comic timing you need to land a punchline. (“Nice try, Lao Che!”) And he’s got the attention to detail to pull off any visual gag you can think of. It’s precisely this precision and dedication to craft that’s his great strength in selling comedic beats. Which points to what I think the actual letdown of 1941 is: Steven Spielberg seems determined not to play to his own strengths, but to others’. 

This is a movie made by a nerd trying to seem cool.

It seems completely obvious to me now. It’s the ’70s. Everyone else is smoking dope and doing blow, having the skeeviest sex they can manage, and making movies about Vietnam. Spielberg, meanwhile, suddenly becomes painfully self-aware that he and his buddy George Lucas have spent the last decade standing in the corner drinking Coca-Cola and reminiscing about old adventure serials. “I’ll show the other kids that I can hang with them!” he says. “I’ll make the biggest comedy of them all! A movie about how the U.S. military is full of clowns and psychos! A movie with edgy racial humor! A movie where two characters’ entire arc is them searching for opportunities to have sex in an airplane because the woman has some sort of fetish for it!”

But however much Spielberg wants to fit in by making an outrageous comedy, it’s not a good fit for him. There’s a sequence of FoxTrot strips from the 1990s where nerdy adolescent Jason, wanting desperately to connect with his dad and older brother who talk about nothing but sports, stays up all night memorizing a book of baseball trivia; the next day Jason just rattles off random facts and stats while his family stares blankly at him. Jason’s heart isn’t attuned to sports, so he legitimately doesn’t know how to have a conversation about it; all he can do is repeat what he’s observed. 

Similarly, Spielberg has tried really hard to make a hip comedy for hip people. I don’t think this was cynical trend-hopping; I think he genuinely loved Animal House and its ilk and wanted to do one of his own. But like Jason, his heart isn’t attuned to that sort of movie. So instead of coming up with funny ideas and impressively mounting them, he comes up with impressive mounting and then has to plug gags into them. The ultimate result is that he composes all these inventive Hollywood shots and sets up elaborate stunts and amazing effects—all the things Spielberg is the best at—and all he can manage to put in it for comedy is people running around acting horny and out of control, screaming a lot and smashing things. He just seems to trust that this will generate laughs, because it seems to in other people’s movies. John Landis is also a big nerd, but he’s authentically horny and out of control, so he’s totally in his environment with something like Animal House. Spielberg keeps thrusting women’s crotches at men’s faces and the camera, then looking over at us for approval. “This is what you like, right?” But even if it is, it isn’t when Spielberg’s doing it. This is not the kind of thing we come to him for.

So he can tell me on the making-of documentary that he made a subversive movie for Europeans and various American oddballs that I’m just not with-it enough to dig. But I just don’t think it’s funny. Fortunately for me—for all of us—Spielberg didn’t try it again. He’d use all the experience he got working with stunts and miniatures and do Raiders of the Lost Ark next, which is something Spielberg’s heart is so attuned to that he doesn’t just replicate it, he elevates it into one of the greatest films ever made.6 And after that, instead of trying to appeal to National Lampoon readers,7 he’d make E.T. for suburban kids whose parents split up, just like his did.

Spielberg is who he is, and maybe 1941 at least helped him realize that a little more clearly.