Friday, January 13, 2017

Watching "1941" in 2017

"1941" was the last major film directed by Steven Spielberg that I hadn't watched. It had been a notorious flop, but I had my secret hopes that it would be a hidden gem. After all, it was made at the height of Spielberg's early career, right between "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in 1979. The ridiculously star-studded cast list includes Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Ned Beatty, John Candy, Slim Pickens, Nancy Allen, Treat Williams, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Christopher Lee, and Toshiro Mifune. Roughly thirty minutes of the original cut had been deleted for the initial release, which was later restored for home video releases. This was the version that I sought out.

Set just after the Pearl Harbor attacks, "1941" is billed as a raucous military comedy, about various characters in the Los Angeles area fearful of an attack on the California coastline. Indeed, there is a Japanese submarine, lead by Commander Mitamura (Mifune), headed toward Hollywood. However, the Japanese are a bunch of incompetents, and Mitamura is constantly clashing with a Nazi officer along for the ride, Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt (Lee). Meanwhile, the US armed forces are making preparations. Sergeant Tree (Aykroyd) installs an anti-aircraft battery in the backyard of gung-ho Ward Douglas (Beatty), who is disappointed that he's too old fight himself. His daughter Betty (Dianne Kay) is a hostess at the local USO club, and the sweetheart of dishwasher Wally (Bobby Di Cicco), but also the target of loutish soldier "Stretch" Sitarski (Williams).

Other notables include "Wild Bill" Kelso (Belushi), an overzealous ace fighter pilot, Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson), a general's aide who keeps trying to find ways to get reporter Donna Stratton (Wells) airborne, because she gets aroused by planes, Major General Stillwell (Stack), who just wants to watch "Dumbo" in peace, and Claude (Murray Hamilton) and Herbie (Eddie Deezen), a pair of Santa Monica locals watching for enemy planes atop an old Ferris wheel. On the fateful night of December 13th, 1941, a series of comic misunderstandings and wild misadventures spark a panic in Los Angeles, leading to plenty of combat and chaos for the whole cast.

Now Spielberg was warned by no less than John Wayne himself that WWII was an important war, and shouldn't be joked about. I don't think the Duke was entirely right, but WWII shouldn't have been joked about in the way that "1941" joked about it. There's an odd flippancy to the whole film, where none of the exceedingly silly characters seems to be feeling the direct impact of Pearl Harbor having happened less than a week earlier. Spielberg was clearly trying to evoke the zany slapstick of the broader comedies of the '30s and '40s, but there's a more modern, off-color sensibility to the scripting that comes across as tone-deaf, and clashes badly with the film's lighthearted tone.

I suspect that the script was the source of a lot of the trouble, displaying all the worst sensibilities of Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and John Milius. "1941" has not aged well, and comes off as more mean spirited than intended. I appreciate that all of the characters are treated as equally ridiculous, no matter what side that they're on, and the Japanese are handled pretty sympathetically. However, the casual racism of so many of the soldiers really grates. Worse are the scenes of Betty practically begging soldiers in the USO Club to be saved from the violent advances of Stretch. Stretch being pursued with equal vigor by the rotund Maxine (Wendie Jo Sperber) doesn't dispel the nastiness of the assaults.

On a more fundamental level, the film drags terribly through its first hour, not really picking up any momentum until nearly the hour mark, when the big fight at the USO club breaks out. I found it difficult to root for any of the characters, since they're so broadly drawn and few are very likeable. Wally and Birkhead display little heart or charm. Aykroyd's Sergeant Tree seem to be the only true patriot, but his role is explicitly secondary, and he soon becomes a walking pratfall. Actors I adore, like Mifune and Lee, were given little to work with. Too many characters made me cringe - Slim Pickin's red faced rube, Eddie Deezen with his dummy, and the whole doofusy Douglas family. They were played for laughs, but weren't funny. Even the opening gag, nodding to "Jaws," went on for too long and was in poor taste.

What does remain impressive are the huge scale action scenes and the effects work. The planes crashing in downtown Los Angeles, the systematic destruction of the Douglas house, the various shenanigans with the submarine, and the whole final sequence with the Ferris wheel are still fantastically fun to watch, and reminiscent of Spielberg's best work. The model work and the stunts really do still hold up. And it's so much easier to appreciate a finale full of explosions when you know the explosions are real.

Spielberg, to his credit, acknowledges "1941" was a failure, and probably an important one, as it would temper his ego going into the '80s. However, the film features good work from so many familiar names. The John Williams score is excellent. William Fraker's cinematography is a blast. Michael Kahn was the editor. This was the feature film debut of Aykroyd and Mickey Rourke, and also the last credit of effects legend A.D. Flowers.

And thankfully, it was Spielberg's last attempt at a comedic feature.


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