Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 25, 2018)
Hero Takes a Fall, Part One! Steven Spielberg's career progressed on a nice track during most of the 1970s, as he started out the decade with a well-respected TV movie called Duel and released his first theatrical film, The Sugarland Express in 1974.
While few took notice of that picture, the same cannot be said for his next movie, 1975's Jaws, which went on to break box office records and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Spielberg enjoyed continued enormous success with his next feature, 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which also made scads of money and snagged Spielberg his first Academy Award nomination as Best Director.
After such a great run, expectations seemed sky-high for Spielberg's final film of the decade, 1979's 1941, and unquestionably some critics were gunning for him. We love success in the US - just as long as someone doesn't stay on top too long. When that happens, fairly or unfairly, many folks will search for some sort of Achilles heel to bring that person back to Earth.
That dose of reality slapped Spielberg squarely in the face with 1941. Critics reviled it as puerile and overblown and audiences largely avoided it. After a terrific run of both artistic and financial success, Spielberg finally had a flop on his hands.
You know what? He deserved it, as 1941 remains a big, stinking pile of a movie.
Days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, residents of California remain on high alert, as they hear the combatants will assault them next. A rogue Japanese sub does attempt to pursue this goal, but mostly the residents of Los Angeles create havoc due to their own anxieties, so wild, wacky shenanigans result.
Spielberg took his own skills, a script from the talented duo of Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis (who together made I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Back to the Future), a huge cast of fine actors, and an immense budget. With all that, he wasted it on one of the most nonsensical pieces of loud, annoying tripe to come down the pipe in quite some time.
Whenever a movie bombs on this many levels, inevitably a counterculture of supporters appears who urge you to believe that the film was simply misunderstood and that it's actually very good. This tendency becomes even more likely when a) some time has passed since the film's release, and b) someone with an excellent track record made the film.
These apologists have definitely exist in regard to 1941 as these revisionists try to convince the public that it's something of a "lost gem" from Spielberg's canon. Heck, the director himself pops up at the start of the disc's documentary and tells us how the Europeans loved it and that we Americans just didn't get it.
Don't believe the hype. Later on in the documentary, Spielberg pretty much acknowledges the faults of 1941 and comes close to saying that he shouldn't have made it – while he doesn't quite get there, but he seems to at least tacitly admit that the movie's something of a dog.
And a dog it is - a smelly, flea-bitten one at that. While 1941 never becomes unwatchable, it fails in two significant ways: it's boring and it's unfunny. For an action-comedy, those are sins about as unforgivable as they come.
Watching 1941 lets me understand how that reporter who viewed the Hindenberg's crash felt: oh, the humanity of it all! The project wastes so much talent for so little reward. Spielberg clearly attempted to emulate the wackiness and huge all-star cast of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but all he got was a crappy, crappy, crappy, crappy movie.
It's not easy for me to write this, as I've been a Spielberg fan for most of my life, and although I think he' got a little preachy over the years, I still think he's one of the most talented filmmakers alive.
How did this fiasco happen? All I can figure is that the success got to Spielberg a bit. When you do as well as he did from 1975-1977, you start to think you can do anything. Spielberg seemed to suffer from the "bigger is better" syndrome; he tried so hard to make 1941 a huge, overwhelming experience that he lost all sight of any direction he may once have had.
For the most part, 1941 tries to gets its laughs through violence. Man, that's about all we see in this movie; smashed up this, beat up that, blown up everything. If there’s any subtlety on display here, I can't find it.
“Over the top” isn't necessarily a bad thing, as sometimes crude and rude works well. Unfortunately, that ain't the case here.
I think I chuckled a few times during the movie, as I liked the bit with the kid who ate soup through his gas mask, and I also enjoyed the reveal of Herbie’s (Eddie Deezen) puppet. All the rest remains something of a blur.
Actually, most of the entertainment value of 1941 stems from your memories of its performers work in much better films, as we get whole chunks of casts from other ventures. You have two from Animal House (John Belushi and Tim Matheson, plus a cameo from director John Landis that I won't count), two from Saturday Night Live (Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), two from SCTV (John Candy and Joe Flaherty), three from Jaws (Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary, and Susan Backlinie), three from Laverne and Shirley (Penny Marshall, David L. Lander and Michael McKean), and no fewer than four actors from I Wanna Hold Your Hand (Deezen, Nancy Allen, Bobby DiCicco, and Wendie Jo Sperber).
Add to that fine list this roster of talent: Robert Stack, Toshiro Mifune, Treat Williams, Slim Pickens, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, Warren Oates, and even budding psycho Mickey Rourke. With that many quality performers, shouldn't something entertaining have happened more frequently than it did?
Cripes, one look at that roster makes me wonder if Spielberg didn't intentionally tank 1941! It just doesn't seem possible that so many talented people can collaborate on something and have it turn out so badly.
I certainly don't blame the actors for the movie's failings, as all perform competently, though I'd be hard pressed to choose any real standouts. The actors ride along with this disaster and seem afraid to try anything terribly different.
I suppose that they were afraid to make themselves more noticeable because they didn't want to become targets for the inevitable attacks that 1941 would provoke. I probably enjoyed the work of Deezen and Sperber the best, but that's probably just my own personal preference at play. Heck, even they barely register here, as my memories of their interactions in I Wanna Hold Your Hand amuse me much more than did anything in this film.
On the positive side, the film's effects are very well produced, and the film enjoys a massive scope, so you can definitely see where the money went. At times, I actually felt startled by the scale of the picture, just because I couldn't stop thinking about how expensive the damned thing would be nowadays.
I'd guess this sucker'd cost at least $200 million, maybe more. I'm not one of these people who attacks large budgets just on principle, so if James Cameron needed $200 million to make Titanic, that was fine- at least the ends justified the means. The same clearly cannot be said for this fiasco.