Sunday, December 16, 1979.
1941. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Music by John Williams. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Excerpt footage from from Walt Disney's Dumbo (1941). Running time: 117 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: Frequent very coarse language and swearing, occasional nudity.
NOT LONG AGO, IN a moment of consumer advocacy, The National Lampoon published a chart comparing itself to several other magazines on the market. When it came to "boffo laughs per issue,” NatLamp’s editors rated themselves significantly higher than U.S. News and World Report.
Applying the same standards to motion pictures, I am delighted to report that, when it comes to “boffo laughs per dollar spent,” Steven Spielberg's 1941 is way ahead of Apocalypse Now. Spielberg's picture is awesome, outrageous and utterly original, a $30-million-plus project that takes the 1970s out with a huge, ham-fisted bang.
Here is a picture that left me limp, not from laughing but from the sheer scale of the thing. Breathtaking and unrelentingly spectacular, it is full of hilarious bits. Taken as a whole, though, it's just too big for its own good.
No, 1941 is not a success.
On the other hand, it's not to be missed, either. A major cinema event, it confirms Spielberg's reputation as one of the decade’s most daring directors, a filmmaker whose talent falls short of his ambition, not because he's short on talent, but because his ambition is boundless.
His new movie is a war-nerves comedy that mixes together elements of Norman Jewison's The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) with Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964). A manic vision, it tries for supercomedy, something that hasn’t been attempted since Stanley Kramer hired every clown in Hollywood for his 1963 feature It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. (Spielberg settled for a more succinct title, thank goodness.)
1941 recalls a particularly unhinged moment in American history, the week after Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Spielberg, the director of Jaws, figured out a really nifty way to set the scene.
His new film opens on a beach. “The Northern California Coast, December 13, 1941. 7:01 a.m.” reads the subtitle. A young woman with a Polar Bears Club crest on her bathrobe doffs the garment and runs naked into the surf.
That girl! Why, she looks just like actress Susan Backlinie, the girl who ran down the beach at the beginning of Jaws.
It is Backlinie! And what do we hear on the soundtrack?
You guessed it. Composer John Williams is reusing the shark theme that he came up with for the 1975 Spielberg blockbuster.
And now Backlinie is reacting with shock and surprise. There's something in the water, something rising up beneath her, something . . .
Suddenly, she's rising up out of the water, clinging to the periscope of a surfacing submarine. Yes, it’s the Japanese, come to strike fear into the hearts of their new enemy, the United States.
Fear? Well, truth to tell, the West Coast was already pretty tense.
“Madness,’’ says General Joseph Stilwell (Robert Stack) upon his arrival in Los Angeles, “that's the only word to describe it. This isn’t the state of California. It's a state of madness."
Spielberg has assembled a huge cast and compressed a number of actual incidents to produce a composite picture of that madness. Like Nashville (1975), 1941 tells several interconnected tales. Among them are:
● the submariners. Commander Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune) is determined to honourably engage the American military, no matter what his German advisor Von Kleinschmidt (Christopher Lee) says.
● the lone pilot. “Wild Bill” Kelso (John Belushi), having commandeered a P-40, is in the air to defend his homeland.
● the lovers. Capt. Birkhead (Tim Matheson) never won his wings, but the general’s secretary Donna (Nancy Allen) only becomes amourous when airborne, so . . .
● the embattled family. Ward (Ned Beatty) and Joan (Lorraine Gary) have a house that overlooks the Pacific, and an antiaircraft gun has been set up in their yard.
● the motor pool. Sgt. Tree (Dan Aykroyd) and his men deliver artillery tanks and patriotic speeches at a moment's notice.
● the triangle. The Douglases’ daughter Betty (Dianne Kay), a USO hostess, is torn between Wally (Bobby DeCicco), her zoot-suited boyfriend, and Sgt. Sitarski (Treat Williams), a soldier with one very violent temper.
● the spotters. Herbie (Eddie Deezen) and Claude (Murray Hamilton) are stationed high atop the Ocean Park ferris wheel, watching for enemy aircraft.
● the warriors. Col. “Mad Man” Maddox (Warren Oates) is sure that his munitions supply depot is under siege.
Through much of the action, General Stilwell sits in a movie house watching Disney’s latest cartoon feature, Dumbo. Stilwell is virtually the only non-crazy in sight, and this works to the picture's disadvantage.
1941 was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the team responsible for a little-seen comic masterpiece called I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978). In their earlier film, they understood that hysteria can be a basis for comedy, but such comedy is only satisfying when the characters change and grow as a result of their experience.
Zemeckis and Gale used teenaged hysteria (Beatlemania) in much the same way that director John Landis used frat house hysteria in Animal House. If 1941 is ultimately less satisfying than these films, it's because it shows us hysteria in adults, something that is more bizarre and grotesque than humourous.
Even though it fails as great comedy, 1941 succeeds as an event. You can feel the party atmosphere that must have existed on a set that brought together the alumni of Jaws (Backlinie, Gary, Hamilton), Animal House (Landis, Belushi, Matheson), Toronto's Second City (Aykroyd, John Candy, Joe Flaherty) and I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Allen, DeCicco, Deezen, Wendie Jo Sperber).
Spielberg and his special effects crew have created scenes that have to be seen to be believed. The best of these, a USO jitterbugging contest that turns into an inter-service riot, stands as a masterpiece of both choreography and comic invention.
No, I didn't laugh as often, as long or as hard as I thought I would. But 1941 is full of hilarious bits, many of them executed on a scale hitherto unknown in the annals of comedy. I wouldn't have missed it for all the dilithium crystals in the Federation.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: Steven Spielberg’s fourth theatrical feature, 1941 was a classic curate’s egg: a cinematic failure that I considered a must-see movie for the parts of it that were very good. Coming after the director’s 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it was an epic demonstration of what Hollywood’s special effects technicians could do circa 1979. Looking back on my review, I’m reminded of how the talents of traditional matte artists, model makers and animators made the picture’s visual excesses possible. The words “computer-generated imagery” had not yet entered our vocabulary for the simple reason that CGI technology was still in its infancy.
It turns out that Michael Crichton, not Spielberg, was the first feature filmmaker to dip into the new electronic toolbox. His 1973 picture Westworld pioneered the use of 2D computer animation to show us how things looked from the point of view of the theme park’s renegade robot gunslinger. Four years later, George Lucas would include some 3D wire-frame graphics in Star Wars, though the effects were limited to displays of computer imagery. It wasn’t taken to the next level until 1981, when Michael Crichton introduced audiences to Cindy, the first CGI human character, in his thriller Looker.
Recognized as the coming thing, CGI underwent considerable development in the 1980s and 1990s. James Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the first to offer realistic human movement by a CGI character. In 1995, John Lasseter’s Toy Story entered the record books as the first feature-length CGI animated movie. Today, we take it for granted that anything that an artist can conceive can be given visual existence on his or her computer. In her 2019 social history Comic Books Incorporated, communications scholar Shawna Kidman poses the question “why comic book movies, and why now?” Among the major reasons, she cites “the rise of CGI technology.” For the moment, it seems, audiences are living on a diet of curate’s eggs.