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Steven Spielberg's 1941: A Viewing Guide

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After the double whammy of Jaws and Close Encounters, Spielberg’s follow-up 1941 is a Marmite movie, derided in some quarters but beloved in others. Read on for a comprehensive guide to the in-jokes, cameos, behind the scenes stories and directing tics in Spielberg’s cult curio.

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Steven Spielberg's 1941

00.36 1941 grew out of a Robert Zemeckis/Bob Gale screenplay called Tank! The famously politically incorrect John Milius, a producer on the film, dubbed the script The Nights The Japs Attacked. That evolved into The Night The Japanese Attacked, then The Great Los Angeles Air Raid. When Spielberg came on board the script underwent more title changes — The Rising Sun, Hollywood ’41 — before landing on 1941.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

03.27 Susan Backlinie, who played the ill-fated Chrissie Watkins in Jaws, reprised her role for the elaborate Jaws skit (the Great White shark is replaced by a Japanese submarine). Spielberg replays some of the camera moves — look at the tracking shot down the beach — and framing to the letter.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

04.17 For the role of Japanese submarine commander Mitamura, Spielberg initially offered the role to John Belushi. Over dinner one night, Spielberg mentioned the subject of his latest film to Belushi, who immediately launched into an improvisation of a Japanese submarine commander not unlike the Samurai baker character he performed on Saturday Night Live. Spielberg promised the actor the part if the movie ever got made but later had a change of heart, offering Belushi Wild Bill Kelso.

With the role vacant, Spielberg filled it with the legendary Toshiro Mifune, best known for his roles in the films of Akira Kurosawa: Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne Of Blood, Yojimbo. At their very first meeting, Mifune told the director that the actions of the Japanese crew were “inappropriate”.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

04.29 On a promotional tour of Close Encounters in Europe, Spielberg fell in love with the Louma crane, a lightweight remote-controllable camera perched at the end of an extendable fifteen foot pole that made previously impossible shots now feasible. The Louma was only supposed to be used for a few shots on 1941 but Spielberg loved it so much it became his A camera.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

07.57 Keep ‘em peeled here for a young Mickey Rourke as Reese, a member of Sgt. Tree (Dan Aykroyd)’s tank crew.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

09.55 This is Lucille Benson reprising her role as a gas station owner from Duel. The scene was shot in the same location in Aqua Dunce where the truck terrorised Dennis Weaver.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

10.47 The patron in the café is Elisha Cook Jr., best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane and The Killing.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

13.06 Nancy Allen plays Donna Stratton. At the time, Allen was the wife of film director and Spielberg compadre Brian De Palma.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

13: 33 This is a recurring shot in Spielberg, a camera tracking lovingly towards an aircraft. Also see Empire Of The Sun, Always.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

20.21 Spielberg initially offered the role of General Stillwell to John Wayne. Wayne spent an hour reading the script before spending the next hour dissuading the director from taking on the project: “I thought you were an American and I thought you were going to make a movie to honour the memory of World War Two. But this dishonours the memory of what happened.” Charlton Heston turned down the role on similar grounds. It was John Milius who came up with the idea of casting Elliott Ness himself, Robert Stack, who lends the crazy antics a quiet shred of dignity.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

23.20 Lorraine Gary, who played Chief Brody’s wife Ellen in Jaws, reunites with Spielberg to play Joan Douglas.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

31.23 At one point in the interrogation of Hollis P. Wood (Slim Pickens), Christopher Lee’s Von Kleinschmidt pulled out an instrument of torture and then preceded to hang his coat up on it. Spielberg cut the gag but loved it so much he saved it and used it to momentous effect in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

31.35 Hollis P. Wood sings the 1917 George M. Cohan’s song Over There. You may know this better as the Go Compare song.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

36.34 This shot is full of Spielberg alumni. Murray Hamilton (Claude) played Mayor Vaughn in Jaws. Eddie Deezen (Herb) played “Ringo” Klaus in the Spielberg-produced, Robert Zemeckis-directed I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

41.13 The dust-covered motorcycle messenger Mizerany is played by John Landis, the National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers director. Spielberg returned the cameo by playing a county court clerk in the latter. Landis’ wife Deborah Nadoolman designed the costumes for 1941.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

45.03 General Stillwell really did go and see Dumbo. In fact during December 1941, just as America entered the Second World War, Stillwell saw it twice.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

45.37 Penny Marshall, the star of Laverne And Shirley and director of Big, Awakenings and A League Of Their Own, plays the small role of Mrs. Fitzroy, the leader of the USO girls.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

46.25 More Laverne And Shirley links. Actors David Lander and Michael McKean, who played Lenny and Squiggy in that series, portray two soldiers named Willy and Joe, named for famous WWII comic strip characters by Bill Mauldin.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

51:06 The cue on the soundtrack here is called Swing Swing Swing, a John Williams parody of Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing Sing.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

51.57 Playing RKO talent agent Meyer Mishkin is actor Ignatius Wolfington. No really.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

53.04 Look out for actor James Caan as one of the sailors who starts the riot. Caan was passing the set and Spielberg rushed him to costume and invited him to join the fun.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

53.34 The soundtrack here is The Rakes Of Mallow, a traditional Irish tune that was used to score the fistfight in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

57.27 Here the riot seems like a dry run for the opening of Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom. The zoot suit riot actually happened in 1943, in which Latino boys fought running battles with Marines and sailors.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

58.05 J. Patrick McNamara, who played a similar supporting military type in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, plays Stillwell’s aide Du Bois.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.08.20 Dan Aykroyd’s tank is nicknamed Lulubelle, a reference to Humphrey Bogart’s tank in Sahara.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.07.39 This crazy series of events, resulting in a chandelier dropping a drip of punch on Wally (Bobby DiCicco)’s face, was inspired by Rube Goldberg, an inventor and cartoonist who created complicated gadgets that perform simple tasks in convoluted ways.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.09.49 The cigar-chomping commanding officer of Interceptor Command is played by Sam Fuller, the legendary B-movie director responsible for Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and The Big Red One.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.16.06 For these dogfight scenes, miniatures were flown using a sophisticated wire system that enabled the planes to fly upside down and barrel roll. The Louma crane was mounted on a tracking device and followed the planes in mid air. For this shot, a low-running camera cart motored down the streets, capturing the action as if from a speeding car.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.16.31 Delirious after a chandelier falls on his head, Wally sits on the floor muttering ‘There’s no place like home.’ This obviously apes Judy Garland in The Wizard Of Oz.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1. 20.45 As the plane crashlands in La Brea Tar Pits, Loomis and Donna are greeted by a T-Rex — Spielberg’s first dry run for Jurassic Park?

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.22.14 As the dummy spots the enemy sub, Claude utters the line, “Holy shit, Herb, the dummy’s right.” The phrase caught on amongst the production and soon became a slogan on crew t-shirts.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.23.07 The model Japanese submarine was latter repurposed as a German sub for Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.26: 35 Legendary physical effects expert A.D. Flowers launched an aircraft off a 140ft ramp across the Columbia lot. It fell disastrously short on the first attempt but hit the mark second time, even managing to hit a traffic signal and change the signal to STOP. Spielberg won the pool to guess where the plane would land.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1:33.33 To flag down Wild Bill Kelso on a motorbike, Maxine (Wendie Jo Sperber) hitches up her skirt, shows her thigh and tries to hitch a ride. The scene replays a moment from the Frank Capra classic It Happened One Night.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.34:34 A late in the day spark of Spielberg inspiration, the tank going through the paint factory was the last shot in principal production. It lasts 30 seconds on screen and cost the same as a three-bedroom California home.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.42.43 The Ferris Wheel was eleven feet in diameter, weighed 160lbs and contained 2000 light bulbs. It even includes miniature versions of Claude, Herb and the dummy the size of a paper clip.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1.49.29 1941 is the final appearance of Spielberg’s cocker spaniel Elmer. He previously came down the Mothership ramp in Close Encounters.

Steven Spielberg's 1941

1:58.55 1941 is dedicated to Charlsie Bryant, Spielberg’s script supervisor who died shortly after Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

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