Today, I am continuing a new segment on bad movies by good directors, called “Worst of the Best.” Today’s specific feature is 1941, a 1979 comedy by the legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg.
1941 was written by the duo of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who are best known for Back To The Future, with an additional story credit given to producer John Milius, who also wrote Apocalypse Now, Magnum Force, and wrote and directed flicks like Red Dawn, Dillinger, and Conan The Barbarian.
1941 was, as mentioned previously, directed by one of the most commercial and accomplished directors in Hollywood history: Steven Spielberg. His films have ranged from commercial blockbusters like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to science fiction films like Minority Report, War of the Worlds, A.I., E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to acclaimed award-winners like Lincoln, Schindler’s List, and Munich.
The cinematographer for the film was William Fraker, who shot movies such as SpaceCamp, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Rosemary’s Baby, Bullitt, The Exorcist II, WarGames, and Street Fighter, among many others over his career.
1941 was edited by frequent Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn, who also cut the movies Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, The Goonies, Fatal Attraction, Twister, Reindeer Games, Catch Me If You Can, War Horse, and many others.
The team of producers for the movie included co-writer John Milius, editor Michael Kahn, Janet Healy (Shark Tale, Despicable Me, The Lorax), and Buzz Feitshans (Total Recall, First Blood, Tombstone).
The musical score for 1941 was provided by the legendary John Williams, who is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable film scorers of all time. His other credits include Catch Me If You Can, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Jaws, SpaceCamp, Jurassic Park, Sleepers, and Superman, along with countless others.
The special effects team for 1941 inlcuded A.D. Flowers (The Godfather, The Poseidon Adventure, Apocalypse Now), Donald Myers (Waterworld, Blade Runner), Steve Lombardi (Once Upon A Time In America, The Philadelphia Experiment), Steve Galich (Face/Off, Maximum Overdrive), Eugene Crum (The Postman, North), Ken Estes (Lawnmower Man 2, Thinner), Logan Frazee (Dollman, Willy Wonka, Chinatown), and Terry D. Frazee (Point Break).
The 1941 visual effects unit included Robert Short (Chopping Mall, Splash, Piranha), Matthew Yuricich (Die Hard, Ghostbusters, Logan’s Run), Frank Van der Veer (Orca, Flash Gordon), Gregory Jein (Laserblast, The Scorpion King), Ken Swenson (The Core, The Faculty, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and Robin Dean Layden (Judge Dredd, Ghostbusters).
The massive cast of 1941 includes notables like John Belushi (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers, Dragnet, Grosse Pointe Blank, Ghostbusters), Ned Beatty (Network, Captain America, Deliverance), Christopher Lee (Dracula AD 1972, Horror Express, The Wicker Man, The House That Dripped Blood, Gremlins 2, The Man With The Golden Gun, The Lord of The Rings), Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo), Lorraine Gary (Jaws, Jaws: The Revenge), Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, Dillinger, Badlands), Robert Stack (Unsolved Mysteries), Slim Pickens (Doctor Strangelove), John Candy (The Great Outdoors, Spaceballs, Uncle Buck, Vacation, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles), Nancy Allen (RoboCop, RoboCop 2, RoboCop 3), Treat Williams (Dead Heat, Night of the Sharks), Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, Jaws), Dick Miller (Chopping Mall, Gremlins, A Bucket of Blood), John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Darkman), and Mickey Rourke (Sin City, Iron Man 2, The Wrestler, Double Team, Angel Heart).
Hysterical Californians prepare for a Japanese invasion in the days after Pearl Harbor.
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, who were cast members together on Saturday Night Live and close friends/collaborators in real life, share no screen-time in 1941 outside of a single deleted sequence.
Surprisingly, 1941 wound up nominated for three different Academy Awards: Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It ultimately lost out in all three categories.
1941 was the feature film debut for both Dan Aykroyd and Mickey Rourke, who have gone on to have significant successes on screen, though in very different ways.
Cinematographer William Fraker was reportedly fired and replaced late into shooting on 1941 due to creative differences with Spielberg, but still received full credit for the work. As mentioned previously, he was even nominated for an Academy Award for the cinematography on the movie, which is a particular rarity for someone who was fired from a film.
Despite its reputation as a public failure, 1941 did ultimately make a profit, though it relied heavily on foreign box office returns to bring in $60.7 million of its eventual $92 million take. Domestically, however, it dramatically underwhelmed, particularly for a work by Steven Spielberg. Likewise, 1941 currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.9, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 32% from critics and 49% from audiences. This makes it an incredible rarity in the career of Steven Spielberg: a disappointment, both commercially and critically.
One of the biggest problems with 1941 is summarized in the New York Times review of the movie by Vincent Canby:
It may possibly be that Mr. Spielberg has chosen gigantic size and unlimited quantity as his comedy method in the awareness that he has no gift whatsoever for small-scale comic conceits. The slapstick gags, obviously choreographed with extreme care, do not build to boffs; they simply go on too long. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the director or of the editor, but I’ve seldom seen a comedy more ineptly timed.
Essentially, my opinion is that 1941 is a movie with an immense amount of talent behind it on all levels, but the humor within it is spread incredibly thin over a poorly-paced run time and across an unnecessarily large cast, which dilutes a movie that should have been a classic into something that is only vaguely entertaining through relying on “gigantic size and unlimited quantity.” Some of the sight gags and slapstick moments work, as Canby notes in his review, but they hang just a little too long. For instance, a number of moments in the club brawl scene and subsequent riot are funny on paper, but are drawn out far too long on screen.
Likewise, the opening to Roger Ebert’s review of 1941 is spot-on if you ask me, and compares the film to Doctor Strangelove, which struck me as a key inspiration for the film:
It’s not fair to say Steven Spielberg’s “1941” lacks “pacing.” It’s got it, all right, but all at the same pace: The movie relentlessly throws gags at us until we’re dizzy. It’s an attempt at that most tricky of genres, the blockbuster comedy, and it tries so hard to dazzle us that we want a break. It’s a good-hearted, cheerfully disorganized mess that makes us appreciate “Dr. Strangelove,” just a little bit more.
I can’t help but agree with this assessment: 1941 is a loud and zany movie, to the point of being exhausting and obnoxious. There’s a reason that Loony Tunes cartoons are usually short: if they go on too long, they lose their entertainment value and become abrasively annoying, which is exactly the case with 1941 if you ask me.
People certainly seem to have softened on 1941 over the years, at least in part due to the involvement of John Belushi, for whom 1941 was one of his precious few prominent film roles. That said, while his contribution is a highlight, he is a very limited part of the movie. The whole film is filled with astounding performers, who unfortunately all fail to live up to their potential given the limited nature of the ensemble structure. I can’t help but imagine what Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee on screen together could have been like under different circumstances and under someone else’s direction. In any case, there is a novelty aspect to seeing all of these performers under one large roof, but excellent ingredients don’t always make for an excellent product. At best, 1941 is a mildly charming curiosity, and an experience worth having for the sake of trivia alone. I’d loosely recommend checking it out, but I can’t do so with a whole lot of enthusiasm.