Movie Review: 1941 (1979)

“A Comedy Spectacular!”

1 Stars


1941 (1979)

1941 (1979)


Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Treat Williams

Synopsis: Hysterical Californians prepare for a Japanese invasion in the days after Pearl Harbor.

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At some point towards the end of the epic folly that is 1941, gunfire from a Japanese submarine releases a brightly-lit big wheel from its moorings  and it ponderously trundles along a pier before crashing into the ocean.   It’s a moment that provides a fitting metaphor for Steven Spielberg’s spectacular misfire: a lumbering, unwieldy vehicle careering towards its inevitable climax.

Spielberg was in his early thirties when he made 1941 – hardly a callow youth, but still young enough, apparently, for the runaway successes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to have him believing he could do no wrong.   He had no experience in the comedy genre, and the only real forerunner that could provide a rough template for the kind of big, sprawling movie he had in mind was Stanley Kramer’s bloated all-star extravaganza, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World – and we all know what a laugh-an-hour that particular clunker was.   But Hollywood believed Spielberg possessed a Midas touch, so Paramount was prepared to allow anything he wished.

1941 takes place immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, a time when the American nation was in shock, and the people of California in particular were fearful of an imminent Japanese invasion.   Screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale chose to develop this scenario on a grand scale: they had fighter planes speeding through the streets of Los Angeles, a mass brawl between the various factions of the armed services and Zoot Suiters, an entire house toppling over the edge of a cliff.  They didn’t have many laughs to hand, though, and every now and then it feels like all of those spectacular stunts are merely window-dressing to disguise the fact the comedy was missing.

The large cast run around, each engaged in their own small portion of plot.   They make a lot of noise, but don’t really have much to say.  Susan Backlinie repeats her famous early-morning skinny dip from Jaws, only this time she finds herself hugging the periscope of a Japanese submarine as it rises from the sea.   John Belushi (Goin’ South, Neighbors) cements his wild man image by failing to remove the cigar from his mouth as he chugs Coke from a broken bottle.  He’s a fighter pilot in pursuit of a Jap fighter he thinks he might have seen.   Tim Matheson is the pilot of the plane he latches onto.   He’s not Japanese, though – he’s a horny All-American Army Captain who borrowed the plane in the hopes of having sex with his boss’s new secretary (Nancy Allen – Carrie, Dressed to Kill), for whom flying in a plane is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Other sub-plots swirl around this one like comets caught in its gravitational pull, but they only occasionally collide.   There’s a patriotic householder (Ned Beatty – Network, Toy Story 3) who finds he’s the country’s first line of defence when the Army plants an anti-aircraft gun in his garden.   Treat Williams (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) plays a hot-headed soldier who takes a shine to Beatty’s daughter, even though she already has a sort-of boyfriend who doesn’t take kindly to the military muscling in on his girl.   Dan Aykroyd (Neighbors, Get On Up) is in it too, and so is Slim Pickens (The White Buffalo, The Howling), who attained celluloid immortality when he rode a bomb in Dr. Strangelove, and here finds himself kidnapped by a Japanese submarine crew in need of directions to Hollywood.   Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch) shows up for a while, as does Robert Stack (Airplane!), although he spends most of his time watching Dumbo in a movie theatre.

On and on it thunders, unyielding and unstoppable.  Its two-hour journey feels immeasurably longer.   It trundles along, and you begin to feel a little fearful for whoever might be steering.   How will he ever bring it to a stop?   Well, he does – eventually – and he even manages to avoid total disaster, although he leaves a rueful trail in his wake.  If movies had necks to rub and backs to stretch, that’s what 1941 would be doing after that house topples over the cliff and the credits start to roll.   That big wheel I told you about at the start of this review?   There were a couple of men sitting in it, trapped in their seats, their fates inextricably linked to that of the wheel.   Fortunately for us, we can leave the ride any time we please…

(Reviewed 2nd April 2016)


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