In 1979, anything Stephen Spielberg proposed would get the green light, after his unprecedented back to back hits Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is the only way, 1941, a madcap, screwball comedy set during the paranoia of Southern California in December 1941, managed to get made. 1941 was the first sign that not every Spielberg film would be a critical and popular hit-in addition to garnering some scathing reviews that saw the film as insulting the generation that fought WWII, the film didn’t make its 35 million budget back in the U.S., although it did turn a profit internationally. While films occasionally take some time to find their audience, 1941 deserved this reception. 1941 is a sprawling film, akin to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, with a large budget, long run time, a conviction that a lot of frantic energy and expensive sequences would equal comedy and a too-big cast. Unlike the earlier film, though, there are so many plots and subplots that 1941 never coheres, and while there are some well-known comics in the film-John Candy (Armed and Dangerous), John Belushi (The Blues Brothers), and Dan Aykroyd (Doctor Detroit), for instance, the cast isn’t stuffed with them, and too much screen time is given to unknowns who remain unknown for a reason.
A Japanese crew manning a German sub with a German naval attaché (Christopher Lee, The Oblong Box) are cruising Southern California attempting to bomb Hollywood. At the same time, various Angelenos get caught up in the hysteria of the time, try to get laid, try to win contracts with RKO, and so on. Eventually all of these plot threads intersect in a riot and air battle that reference the Zoot Suit Riots and the “Battle of Los Angeles”, an epic exchange of American AA fire prompted by various mistaken reports. In Spielberg’s film, the Battle is caused not by mistakes but by a horny American officer (Tim Matheson, Fletch) flying and making out with a woman who only gets excited by aircraft (Nancy Allen, Out of Sight) while he is pursued by a crazy slob fighter pilot named Captain “Wild” Bill Kelso (John Belushi). The film ends with a battle between the sub, a homeowner with a 40mm AA gun (Ned Beatty, White Lightning), two aircraft spotters on a Ferris wheel (Murray Hamilton, Hysterical and Eddie Deezen, Laserblast), and eventually a Grant tank (crewed by Aykroyd, Candy, and Frank McRae of Used Cars).
1941 was released at 118 minutes, but the director’s cut on DVD is 146 minutes long. It’s impossible to tell if the cut down version would feel leaner and better paced, or if it would just make even less sense than the over-stuffed director’s cut. The director’s cut, however, suffers from a few problems. Spielberg and his collaborators Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), John Milius (Red Dawn) and Bob Gale (Back to the Future) seem to think that explosions and a lot of screaming equal comedy, to the films detriment. As stated earlier, there are far too many characters, and the “romantic lead” couple (Dianne Kay and Bobby Di Cicco, The Big Red One) are (possibly deliberately) underwhelming, but Spielberg spends too much time on them if they’re meant purely as a parody/tribute to the fresh-faced kids of 1940s films.
This is not to say that there aren’t comedic moments. Deezen and Hamilton on the Ferris wheel get a ton of laughs, as does Beatty demolishing his house in an effort to destroy the sub. Warren Oates (Race with the Devil) is very funny as a crazed army officer who believes there are secret Japanese airbases in the alfalfa fields , Robert Stack (Bwana Devil) makes a wonderful, exasperated straight man as General Stillwell, and Slim Pickens (The Howling) is a great as a tree farmer kidnapped by Toshiro Mifune’s (Drunken Angel) sub crew. Aykroyd is at his pompous best as a tank Sgt. prone to impromptu pro-American speeches, though Candy and McRae are stuck with an unfunny racism skit, while Belushi’s part consists of him mugging for the camera. Still, all of these talented performers can’t help the scattered, rambling script or the lackluster direction, which focuses more on the FX and hardware than on successful comedy.