Widely slammed at the time by many a film critic, 1941 was far from the box office failure that people perceive it to have been. While it might not have made the type of money Spielberg and the studio execs were now used to, thanks to the wild success of the likes of Jaws, it can’t, in all truth, be described as a box office failure (as writer Bob Gale points out in the documentary accompanying this disc “both Universal Studios and Columbia have come out of it just fine”).
As for the critical arrows thrown in its direction, these are fair game. Having never seen 1941 until now, I went into the film knowing all about the haphazard nature of the film and its production, that it was a disparate, epic farcical comedy about the Los Angeles panic following the attack on Pearl Harbour whose parts simply didn’t add up to a coherent whole. And that’s exactly what it is, as well as being just too damn loud to sit back and enjoy. If people aren’t screaming at each other one minute, they’re blowing things up the next. And when you approach the film’s extended set piece outside the dance hall, well, all hell really does break loose.
And yet, I can equally see why the film has achieved cult status. There is much to admire about 1941, not least Dan Aykroyd’s marvellous performance as Sgt Frank Tree. Sure, he’s merely playing the Dan Aykroyd we all know so well, but, man, I forgot just how wonderful lines sound when uttered from his mouth. He’s funny, mesmerising even, when on screen and when he’s given his big moment to shine when rallying the troops about midway through the movie, he shines.
John Belushi deserves mention for obvious reasons. His crazed, wildly over-the-top outing as Kelso managing to stand out over a bunch of other wildly over-the-top performances. The ensemble case is one of the largest, and finest, the big screen has seen: John Candy, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, Slim Pickens, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Warren Oates, to name but some, and there’s great fun to be had in watching them all play their part.
You also can’t deny that the score, provided by the always-reliable John Williams, is truly wonderful, the March From 1941 standing out defiantly as one of his finest pieces of work. I would urge you to buy the soundtrack, in fact. It’s a treat.
That long riot of a set piece, too, is quite wonderful, showcasing Spielberg’s directorial talents as well as how much he was enjoying his time on set, and how much the actors were throwing themselves (quite literally in many cases) into the script. Indeed, taken as individual scenes on their own, the film has much to admire.
Ultimately, however, beyond the intrigue of watching Spielberg’s beleaguered movie and star spotting in between the film’s high points, there is far too much flab and flat jokes for 1941 to really be considered the classic that some people deem to bestow upon it. Is confusing the name Hollis Wood with Hollywood really that funny? Can the central premise of all-out panic in Los Angeles being brought about by a horny officer and a plane-obsessed lady really have been the height of writers Robert Zemeckis and Gale’s talents? Is it excusable that the film barely raises more than a few laughs?
The answer, I’m afraid, to all three of these and many more queries I had about the film is no.
1941 makes for an interesting curio but beyond that, some adroitly choreographed scenes and the Aykroyd-Belushi factor, it’s a film that’s hard to watch in the one sitting. An average film with some very duff gags (Spielberg simply isn’t the director to handle this kind of comedy), perhaps he was right when he said, “I almost made it into a musical. In hindsight, that would have helped the movie.”
If you are a fan of the film then you are in for a real treat as, aside from the smattering of deleted scenes (one of the most notable being the capture of Lee’s Nazi officer by Slim Pickens) and a neat touch with some production photos (given gag captions over the top), is a truly exhaustive documentary on the film, the filmmaking process, its reception and anything and everything you would want to know about the film.
All the major players are involved, thankfully, including Zemeckis, Spielberg and Gale, and the revelations come thick and fast. Spielberg, for example, freely admits that US audiences simply didn’t get it, asserting that it was far better received in Europe, stating that, “It’s a very small, insane group that enjoys 1941.” It’s very candid about the film’s failures, as well as its successes, and stands up as a more enjoyable, coherent watch than the film itself.
Another welcome addition is the wealth of scathing reviews that are included here, lines like, “Watching this mammoth World War II farce is like being stuck in a pinball machine for two hours.”
Throw in the standard trailers (three of them) and some fabulous marketing material and it’s a feature-set worthy of the Special Edition name.
1941 is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.