1941 (1979)

STEVEN SPIELBERG

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB

USA, 1979. , , . Story by , , , Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale. Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Pauline Kael warned Steven Spielberg that the runaway critical and commercial successes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind would lead to a savage takedown of his next project if a critic could find anything wrong with it. Her words came true with the release of this 1979 war comedy, considered his only true failure thanks to a mountain of bad reviews (though not from Kael) and still believed to be a financial bomb even though it turned in a tidy profit at the box office (but did not reap Jaws-level revenue). This many years after the fact, with Spielberg restoring scenes originally cut out of the theatrical release and good-naturedly labeling the film the result of his own hubris, it’s still pretty easy to see why the film didn’t connect with audiences and exasperated the patience of anyone who had to write about it after surviving its soulless 145-minute running time.

It begins with a parody of the opening of Jaws, in which once again goes for a nighttime dip but is this time impaled on the scope of a submarine, rather than the snout of a great white shark. It’s a sequence meant to set us up for the ribaldry that will follow, in which the heroic enthusiasm of World War II morale-boosting propaganda films is combined with the spirit of Animal House. It’s only five days after Pearl Harbour and the country is paranoid about another attack on American soil, the west coast particularly concerned that the Japanese army will be attacking California shores; a number of sequences are based on real events, with screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis treating the paranoia that looks ridiculous in retrospect into moments of all-out comedic slapstick (comedy really is tragedy plus time, which will become clear when someone makes a post-9/11 comedy in the coming decades).

While a Japanese submarine led by travels the ocean waters in search of its intended target of the inland city of Hollywood, a General () who is supposed to be in charge of keeping California safe spends the evening watching Disney’s Dumbo over and over again in a Los Angeles movie theatre. His secretary () catches the eye of his assistant (), who spends the whole movie trying to get into her pants but must secure an airplane to do so, as she is only erotically inspired when in the cockpit. A tank crew (led by and ) runs roughshod over the city, and one of its members (played by ) spots a beautiful blonde () and tries to steal her away from her dance partner and boyfriend (). Plus there’s a loose-cannon, cigar-chomping pilot () who tears through the skies looking for enemies to shoot but mostly destroys local property, and a suburban couple (, ) who are given an anti-aircraft rifle by the U.S. Army to place on their cliffside property.

The spontaneous manner in which these characters and their situations are combined should result in something far memorable than what we have here; overwhelmed by a magnificent budget that puts no limit on exploding vehicles, large crowd fights and impressively ornate sets, this film swallows up the personalities of so many terrific actors who are involved and doesn’t give anyone a chance to shine.

Academy Award Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Visual Effects; Best Sound

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