Well they can’t all be winners. After the phenomenal success of both Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind Steven Spielberg was on top of the world. He could do no wrong—or so they thought. For his third feature Spielberg directed the Pre-World War II comedy 1941. Taking place a few short days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor it chronicles the hysteria that occurred as America prepared for war. Considering it covers a time period that is rarely touched upon there is some inherit intrigue to this story. Unfortunately that initial intrigue does not last long. 1941 is a mess on nearly every level. The comedy is a constant misfire of bland jokes—a combination of disjointed editing and a lackluster script makes it one of Spielberg’s worst films by far. Even with surprisingly well done special effects it is challenging to take anything of merit away from this effort. 1941 remains proof that even the greatest hitters strike out from time to time.
Looking at this film on paper it has all the makings to be a comedic gem. Not only does it have Spielberg as a director, but it also has a script written by Robert Zemeckis as well as a cast that includes John Belushi, Dan Akyroyd, Ned Beatty, Robert Stack, John Candy, and Ned Beatty. So the question remains why is it such a failure? One can find an answer to that question in a number of different areas. For one it is never able to get a hold of its interchanging story arcs. The film focuses on a number of California citizens who fear they will be Japan’s next target. Battle stations are drawn and trigger fingers are at the ready as everyone prepares to protect their homeland. Of course with everyone on edge it leads to a number of misbegotten escapades of chaos. Complicating matters a Japanese sub is lost off shore attempting to locate the heart of United States—Hollywood—and destroy it for the glory of Japan.
With such an collection stories that include an everyday family who has their front yard replaced with an antiaircraft gun, a love triangle between a young citizen and a punch happy army vet, an off his rocker fighter pilot who believes he is following an Japanese air squadron, and a USO New Year’s dance that turns into a citywide riot. These are only a few of the storylines that overflow this convoluted plot. Multiple storylines are nothing new for comedies. Many 1940’s comedies this film homages are full of constant interchanging subplots. The key it to make it work is in the editing. Editing is one of the most underappreciated aspects of comedies. What relies more on timing than a joke? Here not only are the jokes ill-timed, but the editing as a whole never allows the film to feel coherent. You can see the connective tissue—it just jolts you along at such a rigorous manner it is impossible to get an understanding of where the stories are going. As the film reaches its finale things become much clearer, though it reads like a first draft attempting to rewrite itself to fit the initial purpose.
A lot of the comedy is based on slapstick gags and outlandish set piece clownery. There is a nostalgic feel similar to the big boisterous comedies of the 50’s and 60’s. Spielberg has indicated he once thought of making the film a musical, and that transition would be quite easy. The set pieces are extraordinary in their scope. A big band swinging contest that continues to escalate to a larger and larger scope had particular impressive choreography. It was big, bold,…and empty. Hyperactive energy was surely on display, but it came off as a loud soulless noise. In many ways it was the prefect representation for the film as a whole—resulting in a frenzy bedlam of mass confusion. Everything was forced along with reckless abandoned with no end destination in site. Happenstance felt like driving force keeping the plot going. Humor was thrown at the screen with little disregard as if it wanted to distract you from the mess you are being dragged into.
Another issue is the humor lacks one very important element—it isn’t funny. There’s a marathon of running jokes, like a woman who is sexually infatuated with aircraft or a general’s obsession with Dumbo, that long overstay their welcome. Spielberg’s last real attempt at comedy was with his first feature Surgarland Express, and it is apparent he has a difficulty conveying his comedic ideals on-screen. Comedy requires a certain distinct mindset very few have. There’s a reason many great directors like Spielberg falter when they enter the genre of comedy, or why the directors who succeed in comedy tend to stay there. Part of it is knowing how to let the funny people be funny. John Belushi for example does bring a great deal of energy, yet he too feels held back from giving his all. Whether it was the direction or Belushi’s well documented night life at the time his potential feels unfulfilled. Other comedians like John Candy and Dan Akyroyd—who are in two of their earliest roles—do little with their time on-screen.
One surprising positive element of the movie is the great special effects. Despite the fact that Spielberg and great special effects are synonymous with one another 1941 never gets its just due. L. B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were at the helm for the special effects, and their blending of blue screen and miniatures work remarkably well. Images like a Ferris wheel spinning off a dock into crashing ocean waves looks absolutely fantastic. An aerial dogfight above Los Angles was additionally as noteworthy. With antiaircraft guns lighting up the night sky and harrowing maneuvers in-between the cramp corridors of city streets it felt like a modern version of the classic Star Wars Death Star finale. While that similarity may have been nothing more than pure coincidence, there were a number of times where Spielberg poked fun of himself. Moments like opening the film with a Jaws parody showed he was willing to show he doesn’t take himself too seriously—a trait his not really known for. It is just too bad that was one of the few jokes that actually worked.