1941 (1979)

The first thing you need to understand about 1941 is the level of talent - both in front of and behind the camera - is unmatched in its genre. The cast includes Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, John Candy, Slim Pickens, Christopher Lee, Ned Beatty, Patti LuPone, and Toshiro Mifune, just to name a few. It was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who served as producers alongside John Milius. The movie was scored by John Williams, who belongs on the shortlist of greatest film composers of all time. And speaking of "greatest of all time," it's directed by Steven Spielberg.

The second thing you need to understand is the movie is absolutely godawful. Just horrible. An utter mess of a film. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe you should flip those two bullet points, so "it sucks" is the first thing, and "it's made by unbelievably talented people" is #2.

Before I go on, I need to specify there are two cuts of this movie. Right now, I'm reviewing the theatrical cut, which is - at least as of the time I'm writing this - the only version I've seen. My understanding is the extended edition was somewhat better received. I'll watch it later for context, and if my opinion is significantly different, I may even review it separately. But I wanted to make sure I wrote up my thoughts on the theatrical without having to worry about getting them confused.

So, what is this? The easy answer is a slapstick comedy set in Los Angeles right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but I find that description unfulfilling for a number of reasons. First, it doesn't shed any light on what Spielberg was trying to accomplish here, which to me is by far the more interesting question.

The war elements, the inclusion of Slim Pickens, and even some thematic choices feel as though he's drawing inspiration from Dr. Strangelove. The presence of Belushi and Aykroyd of course imply Saturday Night Live may have been a factor. Structurally, the movie also emphasizes comedic bits evocative of skit shows, though they feel more like facsimiles of Monty Python than SNL.

All that said, it's difficult to pick out specific reference points, because everything I can think to compare this to is good, while 1941 is most decidedly not. Aside from a few decent sequences, the movie isn't at all funny. To be clear, I'm not just saying this isn't funny compared to other slapsticks - I believe this might be the least funny Spielberg film I've ever seen. 1941 is aggressively unfunny in ways that drain humor from your experience.

It's not like anything else fills the void. There's virtually no story, which is why I'm stalling before getting to the plot synopsis. The editing is bizarre and haphazard - it feels like there are important sequences missing... and maybe there are - again, there's an extended edition that's substantially longer. Like I said, I'll give that a watch and see if the experience is significantly different. 

To be fair, some of the movie's themes are at least interesting, but these aren't presented in a compelling or effective way. I appreciate the attempt to take the piss out of the so-called "greatest generation" and American culture as a whole, but I'm not grading for effort here.

All right. I put this off long enough. Let's at least try to unravel the plot of this thing.

Following a crawl about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the movie opens with a parody of Jaws in which a nude swimmer (played by the same actress killed by the shark in Jaws, in fact) winds up stuck on an emerging Japanese submarine, the captain of which - played by legendary actor, Toshiro Mifune - is tasked with carrying out an attack on Hollywood in order to demoralize the United States. Since one legendary actor isn't enough, Christopher Lee is also present as a German consultant. The woman, incidentally, is only noticed by one member of the crew, who no one listens to. Eventually, the submarine submerges and she presumably swims back to shore, where she... doesn't report the Japanese sub, I guess? She never comes up again, so I guess she's just here as a one-note joke.

The Japanese sub, on the other hand, comes up quite a bit, and probably not in the way you'd expect. Arguably, they're the movie's protagonists: they're basically the only characters who are pursuing their objectives with any kind of relatable human motivation or competency (albeit barely - they're definitely still treated as comedic caricatures; they're just not as cartoonishly stupid as the Americans). And, to the extent anyone achieves anything in this movie, they technically succeed in their goal.

But while they're sort of the movie's protagonists, they're not the main characters. The closest we really get along those lines is Wally, a lovesick kid who - unlike most of the characters - isn't serving in the military. Instead, he wants to dance with his girlfriend, Betty, at a USO competition he's not allowed into. Meanwhile, Betty picks up another admirer in the form of Sitarski, a corporal who spends most of the movie trying to... well... mostly he's trying to get Betty alone to rape her. This isn't explicitly stated, but it's extremely clear from both his actions and Betty's growing fear of him, all of which is played for laughs.

Meanwhile, Betty's friend, Maxine, is trying to prevent this by... sigh... basically, she seems to be trying to rape Sitarski (or at least force him into romantic situations with her). The whole thing plays out as a sort of Looney Tunes-style chase with Wally fighting Sitarski while Sitarski chases Betty and Maxine chases Sitarski. It's all played for laughs, but even if you overlook the blatant subtext of sexual assault, it's just not well executed. And - again - this is essentially the A-plot: they just keep doing variations of this on and off through the movie.

If that's the A-plot, I guess the B-plot is Birkhead and Stratton. Birkhead is a captain pretending to be a pilot to seduce Stratton, who's sexually aroused by planes but otherwise uninterested in Birkhead. Aside from wasting an astonishing amount of the audience's time with euphemistic puns and adolescent sex jokes, they're mainly here to wind up in an airplane Wild Bill Kelso mistakes for a Japanese bomber.

Who's Wild Bill Kelso? He's the C-plot. Or maybe D-plot - there are a lot of plots in this thing. He's sort of a lunatic pilot obsessed with finding a hidden Japanese landing strip in California. John Belushi plays him as a parody of the heroic maverick type. We're supposed to laugh at his antics, which amount to a series of one-note, exaggerated actions, such as taking a drink of coffee, immediately spitting it out, then repeating three more times as other characters randomly hand him cups of coffee. The jokes are very one-note, and they're done ad nauseum. If you care, he ends up captured by the Japanese sub at the end.

I wish I could say this takes us through the principal cast, but honestly, it's not even close. I never got to Dan Aykroyd's character, a sergeant who sets up an anti-aircraft gun in the front yard of Betty's parents' house at the beginning. And of course, Betty's father winds up using it to fight the submarine at the end, though he really only manages to destroy his own home. Both the sergeant and Betty's father are significant characters, to the limited extent anything in this movie can be described as significant.

Slim Pickens plays a tree farmer who gets captured (and eventually escapes) from the Japanese early on. He gets quite a bit of screen time that could be cut without impacting the story one bit. Like the woman at the beginning, once his scenes are done, he vanishes from the narrative.

I could keep going: this thing is teeming with minor characters and recurring gags that go nowhere, mean nothing, and aren't remotely funny. Rather than continue, let's take a step back and look at what it all adds up to (again, with the caveat we're being very generous in acting like it adds up to anything at all).

The basic idea is that the Americans - as a result of a violent, paranoid culture - are doing far, far more damage to themselves than their enemies are achieving. The Japanese sub destroys an empty dock and a Ferris wheel and calls it a victory. The Americans, on the other hand, essentially wage a war that engulfs Hollywood as they fight against an imaginary enemy.

That's a neat idea, actually - it's a shame this movie isn't funny. That theme would have been extremely relevant through the Bush years (and still relevant to this day). But good themes are enough for thesis papers, not for movies. 1941 fails to translate its idea into a story or even a series of farcical bits. You can see what it's trying to say, but the message doesn't come across in a way that makes it enjoyable to watch.

Moving on. Let's talk about a few positive things. Not everything in 1941 is awful, which shouldn't be at all surprising - again, it's still made by one of the greatest directors who ever lived. There's a sequence in the middle of movie set at a USO dance competition which devolves into a sort of dance fight. If "dance fight" and "Spielberg" immediately make you think of his remake of West Side Story, you're on the right track. The section is beautifully staged and shot, and the physical humor works better here than anywhere else in the film.

Likewise, the actual areal battle over Hollywood is a remarkable achievement of miniatures and effects work. This is really more a technical success than anything else - the lack of an interesting story or characters keep the stakes from seeming at all important - but it's still impressive to look at.

Unfortunately, that more or less ends the "good parts" section of the review, though I'll note the whole movie still looks pretty good. Honestly, though, seeing something this bad that looks like a Spielberg movie almost makes it worse at times, like the atmospheric visuals are constantly reminding you that you should be getting something far better than what's in front of you.

Somehow I've made it this far without mentioning Christmas, so we should probably rectify that. There's actually quite a bit to discuss here, both in historical context (multiple historical contexts, in fact), and in content. Let me explain that "multiple historical contexts" thing first.

The most obvious historical footnote is the literal one: Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7th, so a story about America after that attack would naturally be one set at Christmas. That said, it's worth noting the specific events of this movie were loosely inspired by two actual historical events occurring in Los Angeles, neither of which actually happened around Christmas. Setting this during the holidays was therefore a choice based on content. And, to a degree at least, that brings up to the second sense in which I referred to historical context.

The movie's climax occurs in the city, surrounded by Christmas decorations that are blown apart, knocked over, and otherwise demolished. This is a film in which Christmas is quite literally blown up, and it's done for laughs. The 1980s would see similar imagery as Christmas action became common, (Die Hard, First Blood, Lethal Weapon, Invasion USA, etc.). But as far as I can tell, this is the first time this sort of widespread yuletide destruction was captured on film. Sure, there are cases of Christmas trees falling over, but the all-out literal war on Christmas with the trappings of commercialization caught in the crossfire seems to have started here.

I have no idea whether this is a case of subsequent films drawing inspiration from this or if it was just the zeitgeist of the era, but either way, this seems like a fairly significant footnote to an otherwise mostly forgettable movie.

I also don't want to lose sight of the comedic aspects of holiday destruction, independent of its place in action movie history. The holidays in this movie are, like everything else, the butt of numerous jokes. Nothing is sacred in this movie, and Christmas is no exception. The film ends with Betty's father delivering a speech about American perseverance and the holidays, then proceeds to nail a wreath to his door as a symbol of those ideals... only to have his entire house collapse as a result. Christmas represents American culture in this movie, and as such it's tacky and mostly destroyed by our own lack of self-awareness. None of this is treated as dark or profound; it's really just here as a tribute to absurdity.

I'm not sure what else to say about this, other than it's astonishing a movie made by people this talented turned out this bad. It really doesn't even work as a farce: the jokes just aren't funny enough, and the pacing is off (it's pretty clear Spielberg's out of his element here).

It's also worth reiterating this movie includes a great deal of humor at the expense of a woman in danger of sexual assault. For what it's worth, the movie does make it clear the man trying to assault her is the clear villain, but the audience is still encouraged to laugh at the predicament.

There's also a similar issue around the film's depiction of racism. In some ways, I think elements are progressive (i.e.: Americans' racist attitudes towards the Japanese are tied to their idiocy, and the Japanese captain might be the one character you sort of wind up respecting), but - again - the jokes are still jokes. Likewise, the movie also contains a sequence utilizing blackface. The context isn't as bad as it could be, but it's still a long way from okay.

The most egregious racist element might be that of omission, though. One of the historical events the movie references is the Zoot Suit Riots, in which Mexicans and other minority groups were attacked by servicemen. The movie's version removes the Mexicans entirely - in a way, they're replaced by a white character. That does a disservice to the individuals and communities targeted.

Ultimately, there's not much to recommend here. I will say the movie offers some value in spotting imagery and ideas that Spielberg would later incorporate to better effect. The most obvious example is the dance sequence, but there are elements drawn from serials he'd reference in Indiana Jones, scenes that resemble shots from '80s Amblin movies, and more. Is it worth watching 1941 to search for ideas he'd recycle later into far better movies? No, not really. But if you find yourself ignoring my advice and watching this damn thing, it's probably your best bet for getting something out of the experience.