Spielberg once made entertaining movies. These days, unless it is about Jews, his heart just isn’t in it. Early on, before daddy issues and cash-ins took over his once magnificent gift, he could craft entertainment that had mass appeal while retaining an undefinable, personal quality. An unabashed joy lay at the heart of Raiders of the Lost Ark for those action serials from his childhood, and with Close Encounters of the Third Kind for human connections that may bring us hope and a link to a higher intelligence. 1941 was an expensive flop at the time, and is considered one of his worst films made during his most creative period. Crafted as a big-budget comedy, it assembled an astonishing cast in a film that was BIG in all capital letters. There are huge setpieces of astounding complexity, a city is reduced to a smoking crater, and the whole affair is so chaotic that 1941 resembles the toybox of a child. As a child, I remember setting up elaborate battlefields utilizing the troops of GI Joe, the Transformers and Masters of the Universe to create a massive skirmish defiant of the laws of physics or common sense. This is Spielberg’s toybox, his invasion of Hollywood, and a nostalgic look back to a Norman Rockwell youth. Over the course of two and a half hours he gleefully burns it all down. In the most revealing shot, the iconic Hollywood sign actually gets gunned to pieces. To get an idea of the tone, the end credits roll over each cast member screaming their asses off. 1941 is loud, dumb, and cheerfully idiotic. Still, I prefer this unpolished duh to the absurdly serious calculation of his later films.
Spielberg was all over the place in terms of how to treat the subject matter; it ended up as a comedy, but he also considered turning it into a drama and/or musical during filming, so the tone is confused at best. The screenplay was by John Milius, so it should come as no surprise that every single structure, vehicle, and object not made of granite is reduced to molecules by the end. Some real events inspired this film, including the hysteria that gripped the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and an incident where a Japanese submarine shelled Santa Barbara. In 1941, that Japanese submarine, commanded by Toshiro Mifune moves to attack Los Angeles…
Meanwhile, the people of the West Coast place themselves on a war footing. Actually, that is what would happen in a sanitized version of things. In reality, the population panicked, everyone stocked up on guns, anyone Asian was herded into concentration camps, and false reports of invasion echoed through the hills. In that respect, 1941 captured the national mood, where anything and everything was expected and feared. The preparations were strange and wonderful, including placing an AA gun in the backyard of a home, making the house a target. Lest we forget, these are humans we are talking about, and the focus will either be on blowing shit up or trolling for poon, both activities pursued with maniacal glee by the characters. Tim Matheson plots to steal a plane in the midst of war to seduce some chick who gets horny when airborne. This is Nancy Allen we are talking about, so this is somewhat reasonable. In another story thread, a part time dishwasher who is a great dancer is working to get his girlfriend into a dance competition, the catch being the dance is at a USO and he is not a soldier. That he assaults an MP to get the uniform goes without saying. A few other subplots, amongst many:
Ned Beatty proudly accepts an AA gun placement in his yard. He is so patriotic that he gives his daughter, who just joined the USO, a pep talk as she is going to entertain soldiers at a dance: “Those men only want one thing… show em a good time, hon.” Kind of fucked up, but a great parody of the misguided nationalism displayed in times of fear, where family takes a backseat to the glory of country.
John Belushi is a maverick fighter pilot chasing nonexistent Japanese bombers. He spends his time doing nothing, shooting down only one plane (ours), scratching his nuts, and getting captured by the Japanese. I like to think that the standard ‘lone action hero’ trope would turn into this guy in the real world. Free of any bureaucratic shackles, he would also be free of any intelligence or coordinated effort, would end up wasting time, killing the wrong people, and becoming a gleeful POW delivering badly worded one-liners to captors in a death camp.
Dan Aykroyd is a sergeant in command of a tank, and his rapid-fire delivery has never been better utilized as he instructs Ned Beatty in specifically how NOT to use his AA gun to destroy enemy targets, which he should NOT be doing. He is angered by Americans fighting Americans, which is what 1941 is all about. His crew is made up of Mickey Rourke (his first role), a unnecessarily racist John Candy, and a person referred to only as a ‘giant Negro’. Candy and anonymous Negro go at it throughout the movie for no reason whatsoever, giving us this shot that pretty much encapsulates the Civil Rights movement:
Warren Oates plays himself as an insane Army colonel who is guarding vending machines in the desert, and demands divisions of troops to defend himself against nonexistent paratroopers and an enemy airbase. In Pomona. He has his soldiers screen all visitors for potential Japanese spies by ‘checking them for stilts’. Spielberg manages to prove that racism can be hilarious.
You probably guessed that Slim Pickens is in this, as Hollis Wood, a hick captured by the Japanese sub crew and interrogated as to the location of Hollywood. “Horrywood… WHERE?” “Here!” He also manages to swallow the sub’s only working compass, leading to a tense scene where the crew feeds him laxatives to retrieve it. As the commander shuts the door to the toilet, and Pickens begins screaming, he remarks “This has not been honorable.”
Treat Williams is a self-righteous Army douche who tries to steal the dishwasher’s girlfriend, to whom he is entitled because he is, after all, bravely fighting for his country’s freedom. An asshole to the core, but also a succinct portrait of the delusional twits who:
1. Selflessly volunteer in the armed forces to serve and protect the United States, and
2. Demand effusive congratulations and constant public honor for their sacrifice, even if that sacrifice entailed serving the interests of multinational companies that have nothing to do with international peace or safety.
In a related thread, some random fat chick pursues Treat Williams, and is willing to knock out cold anyone who gets between her and her man. This has no point, except that fat people are funny.
There are a lot of other groups of characters and subplots, but so many are tightly packed in this labyrinthine mess that it would take a forensic psychologist to tease them out. 1941 is not a good film by any measure, but it is a great parody of war films. Not war itself, mind you, which is a inherently dishonorable, hateful enterprise that robs us of our humanity, dignity, and life. So why are war movies all about how war ties in with honor, duty, and the noble sacrifice of incinerating our fellow man? The Americanization of Emily is the last word on the subject, but 1941 makes a joke out of every war film ever made, sucking the subject dry of any honor, wit, or the notion of duty. In times of war, we actively destroy ourselves and sink lower than the beasts, pursuing our narrow interests even as lives around us are lost. The insane and the sociopathic rise to the top, while cooler heads keep in the trench until the madness blows over.
In this handy chart, we shall examine how 1941 responds to the criminally overused tropes of the war movie:
The threat is presented with invasion or strategic target
The enemy moves on the good guys
The good guys rally and win despite insurmountable odds
A callow young hero rises to the challenge, redeems self
An ethnically diverse ragtag group triumphs through unity
The target is destroyed and the day is saved
There is no invasion, and the enemy is made up of idiots
They decide to bomb Hollywood (sorry – ‘Horrywood’)
The good guys fight each other and level a city
A callow young idiot commandeers a tank and destroys rest of LA
An ethnically diverse group acts like racist dickheads
Destroyed: two planes, tank, Ferris Wheel, house, factory, Nancy Allen.
Large and dramatic setpieces are the central feature of 1941, involving impressive special effects and a cast of hundreds for each scene. The USO dance is elaborately staged, briskly paced, and a great deal of fun to watch as it devolves into a brawl that is as tightly choreographed as the dance. It rages on and on, and manages a riot of visual gags featuring the aforementioned fat chick clocking guys at random and gratuitous nut shots. Keeping it classy, the chaos ends with the USO host bidding the mostly comatose crowd goodnight. “Maybe in the future we’ll have some negroes come in and stage a race riot.” Ah, you had to love Spielberg before he became respectable. The Japs get the brunt of the racism, starting with never being referred to as anything but Japs, slants, and yellow commie bastards. In a climactic speech, Dan Aykroyd hypes up the soldiers with “You think the Japs believe in Santa Claus? Instead of turkey for dinner, how about raw fish heads and rice!” That and the statement about ‘Donald Duck at Pearl Harbor’ brings a tear to my eye. Not because they make sense in any way, but because the climactic battle speech is such a ridiculous and overdone cliche that 1941 buries it permanently. Speeches make good cinema, I guess, but in real battles there is generally little time for being verbose. As General Anthony McAuliffe said, when German troops demanded his surrender in World War Two, “Nuts!”
Weaponry can solve all problems in a reactionary world, and it is refreshing to see such a massive expenditure of ammunition for no good reason. Even the average American patriot gets to enter the fray by manning the AA gun in his backyard. Rather than notify the armed forces, he takes it upon himself to shell the submarine because, hey, he has a gun. This is the unspoken dream of any American who proudly boasts of their nation’s military might and how it justifies their exceptionalism. He misses the sub completely, but at least he levels his own house first. The point is that something got destroyed, and somehow that equals the spirit of Christmas. At least that is the point he makes at the end of the film as his house slides into the sea. Another thing 1941 gets right is the fetishization of weapons. War is aggression and sexual frustration channeled into killing our fellow man. Well, in this movie, it gets channeled right back into fucking. Tim Matheson elaborates on this in his description of a bomber for the benefit of Nancy Allen:
“It’s big. The biggest one here. You know what else? It’s got a lot of range. You know what I mean by range, don’t you? I mean it can stay up for a long time. A very long time. And it’s built firm and solid. Because it has to be. Because of its tremendous forward thrust. And when this baby delivers its payload… devastating.”
For all of its faults, lack of wit, and generalized stupidity, 1941 is not only a great satire of war movies, but is also our romanticized vision of warfare boiled down to its essence. Battle! Dames! S’plosions! Who cares that for nearly three hours only Americans shoot at each other, nothing is accomplished, while a major city is razed to the ground by our own Army? As for the enemy invasion, the Japanese sub manages to shoot down a Ferris Wheel and escape. This is what warfare is about, namely itself. Useful ends are rarely served once a disagreement becomes armed conflict. 1941 manages to make this vision crystal clear. Never has so much been so destroyed for so many grinning idiots.