The Story Of 1941
How Steven Spielberg's controversial comedy came about
STORY BY IAN FREER
"Every Frame Of The Movie Is Filled With Some Sort If Incredible Mayhem. "
It is the exception that proves the rule. The movie albatross that hangs tight to his shoulders. The overblown mess of a comedy that to this day stands for Spielberg creativity gone horribly awry. So, what on earth was going on with 1941?
"I really thought it would be a great opportunity to break a lot of furniture": Spielberg shows method in his madness.
Robert Zemeckis (co-writer): Bob Gale and I had written a screenplay called Tank which we gave to John Milius. We had known John through the USC film school connection. John wasn't crazy about the story but liked the way we wrote and asked, "Have you guys got any other ideas for any other movies?" And we came up with this outrageous concept about hysteria on the home front in the days following Pearl Harbor.
John Milius (executive producer): The three of us formed a group. Our motto was, "Civilis Sine Prudentia", "A Citizenry Without Prudence" which basically means social irresponsibility. Originally we wanted to call 1941 The Night The Japs Attacked. Or just plain Japs.
Zemeckis: The movie is based on three actual historical events. One involves a Japanese submarine that was sighted off the coast of Santa Barbara in February 1942. A day and a half later, that led to what's now known as, "The Great Los Angeles Air Raid." People were so nervous that someone got an itchy trigger finger and started shooting at the sky. The panic spread and all the guns in Los Angeles were trained on invisible targets. For five hours, one night, the sky was illuminated by anti-aircraft fire — and there were no planes up there. Then in 1943 there were the zoot suit riots: fights between sailors and zoot suiters. The zoot suit was the badge of anti-authority, the black leather jacket of the 1940s. The sailors, who were about to go off to war, didn't like the idea of people running around in these suits. That caused a lot of tension that led to these riots.
Steven Spielberg (director): The script came to me in a funny way. I was shooting skeet with John Milius at the Oak Tree Gun Club and these two young proteges of mine and John's, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, brought me this first draft to read for an opinion. I don't think there was one comic line in the entire first draft, but there were some wonderfully visionary set-pieces.
Milius: Steven had this cheap Super-8 camera and he had all this film of us eating at Tommies (a burger bar) and covering ourselves in chilli and throwing up all over the car, doing imitations of Bigfoot, wonderful stuff. Great howling mad evenings out there at the range,out of which came 1941.
Spielberg: I must say that there's a part of me, in my nice conservative life, that is probably as crazy and insane as Milius and the two Bobs. I really thought it would be a great opportunity to break a lot of furniture and see a lot of glass shattering.
Zemeckis: The thing that interests me about this is that the screenplay fell into the hands of the only person on FLarth who could have even attempted to think about making a movie on this scale. So the planets were lined up pretty well there.
Clockwise from left: John Belushi; Christopher Lee, Spielberg and Toshiro Mifune plan the bombing; Robert Stack as General Stilwell.
Milius: I got to be a real producer. I got to go make deals for the actors. That was really fun going to the agents and buying the actors. I had this wonderful technique. I'd offer a ten per cent increase on what the actor had got before and I'd say, "You have until four thirty to accept the deal. Then at five o'clock, I'm cutting it $ 5000. At six o'clock $5000 more. They'd usually get back to me the next afternoon. I'd say, "Let me see, we're down to such and such." I made all these agents cry. I loved it.
Spielberg: My first choice for General Stilwell was Charlton Heston. But my real first choice for Stilwell was John Wayne whom I had met at Joan Crawford's memorial service at the Academy. We became telephone friends, we'd talk on the phone about once a month.1941 came into my life about that same era. I said, "I would love to send you the script to see if you would play General Stilwell." He must have read it that same day because he called me the next day outraged. He thought it was the most anti-American piece of drivel he had ever read in his life. He said, "I was so surprised at you. I thought you were an American. I thought you were going to make a movie to honour World War II. This dishonours the memory of what happened." He said, "Don't even make this film. I'll be very disappointed in you if you wind up making this picture." So the next choice was Charlton Heston who also believed the film was a slap in the face of America. Our next choice was Robert Stack who probably turned out to be the greatest Stilwell of all the aforementioned actors because he looked a lot like Stilwell.
Robert Stack (General Stilwell): If you want the truth, I never fully understood the script. It was a strange script. Just plain strange.
Bob Gale (co-writer): Wild Bill Kelso was originally a minor character in the script. He became a bigger character when John Belushi was cast.
Spielberg: Working with John Belushi was in itself a motion picture experience. That's a whole other story. I loved John and had a great time working with him. He's still missed today.
Zemeckis: We had Toshiro Mifune, Slim Pickens and Christopher Lee acting together speaking three different languages. That makes my day.
Gale: An interesting story about the two look-out guys on the Ferris Wheel. We wrote this great routine for Jackie Gleason and Art Carney (from US T V institution The Honeymooners) and then we found out they refused to work together which was really kind of sad. So we rewrote the part for Flddie Deezen whom we discovered on I Wanna Hold Your Hand. When Murray Hamilton finally met Eddie, Murray went up to Steven and said, "Steven, I'm not gonna have any trouble playing this part. I hate that little bastard."
"I really thought it would be a great opportunity to break a lot of furniture": Spielberg shows method in his madness.
Spielberg: It was sorta like going in for X-ray treatments each day and you realise the cure is worse than the disease. Every day I'd go onto the set, it would just get worse and worse. The utter pressure of having to deliver funny material. We had to come up with it privately, or in a great crazo outcry of, "Make me laugh asshole!"
Milius: Once the movie started there was very little you could do but sit back and watch. It was a snowball. It was out of control. I came to the set every day and witnessed Steven's ideas like driving a tank through a paint factory. I said, "Do you really need to do this?"
Spielberg: I really didn't know what I was doing on this movie. I think one of the reasons it came out so chaotic is I really didn't have a vision for 1941. If Bob Zemeckis was the director, I'm convinced he would have done a much better job because that was really the kind of film the author should have stepped forward and directed.
Zemeckis: Our first intentions with those early drafts of the screenplay were that it was supposed to be very dark and very cynical. And a lot of that was tempered by Steven and a lot of the cast that came in. So the film shifted from this very dark satire to a screwball comedy.
Spielberg: All the actors seemed to get caught up in a kind of civic madness. No one wanted to be normal as much as I tried to normalize certain relationships — "There was very realism is the cement floor of comedy. But everybody was watching John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd perform... Some of our characters wanted to be just as crazy. I failed at toning them down. It was sort of like trying to stop a herd of kids at your local Toys R Us.
Dianne Kay (actor, Betty): It was crazy from start to finish. You did these wild things and you never thought about ever getting hurt. It felt like we were in a cartoon.
Spielberg: I think the most satisfying experience for me in making 1941 was shooting the Jitterbug contest.
One of the things that confused our approach is that I always saw 1941 as an old fashioned Hollywood musical and had fantasized with John Williams abo,ut doing eight musical song and dance numbers as well. But I didn't have the courage at that time in my life to tackle a musical. So inside 1941 we have the jitterbug sequence which is sort of a fragment of what I really wanted to do. I always regret not making 1941 a real old fashion, golden era musical.
The Visual Effects...
Spielberg: I had had it [with] waiting a year to see the film on Close Encounters so I decided to make a picture the way they used to make 'em. I'd had it with matte work and motion-controlled cameras. Everything
here was done the way it would have been done by D.W.Griffith.
Bobby Di Cicco (actor, Wally): The miniatures were amazing. The details were incredible. Little machines really worked. Little cars drove. Tanks... airplanes...lights that were detailed down to the wall sockets. You felt like Gulliver watching those miniatures at work.
Gale: Steven fell in love with his miniature footage, which, in my opinion, is the best miniature stuff ever, filmed. But he used every single shot he did of the dogfight and I think the sequence is probably 30 per cent too long. How many times can you watch planes go up and down the street? Sometimes, you can't see the forest for the trees and I think that's what happened with 1941.
Spielberg: Before 1941 I had experienced three great previews on The Sugarland Express, Jaws and Close Encounters. So I had found this one theatre in Texas called the Medallion that was my good luck theatre, so naturally I wanted to do the 1941 screening there. But that preview was not like the first three previews. I actually looked over the entire audience midway through the film and at least 20 per cent of the audience had their hands over their ears. I knew we were in big trouble at that point.
John Veitch (executive in charge of production): When we opened with that sub surfacing and the [Jaws] music and so forth, the people just flipped, we thought we had something very special. Then it started to dissipate. They applauded but it was not the thunderous applause that you were hoping to get after a Steven Spielberg picture. 1 think the audience expected a whole lot more than what was actually up there on the screen.
Spielberg: At the end of the preview, Sid Sheinberg to his credit came over to me and said, "There is a movie somewhere in this mess. We should go off and find it." The rest of the executives didn't even want to talk to me. It was a very unhappy experience for all of us.
Milius: They had this great big premiere. It was like old Hollywood with the searchlights, all of these stars and all of these critics. It was a great premiere to go to because the press just hated it and the audience didn't laugh and they were all so snotty. It was a wonderful thing. We really didn't care. Belushi and Aykroyd were there, they didn't give a damn. They were like, "Screw 'em if they can't take a joke."
The Final Thoughts...
George Lucas (director's mate): Steve's direction was brilliant. The idea was terrible.
Gale: I think the movie is still under-appreciated. It went down in the history books as a flop. It didn't make as much money as Steven's other movies but it was by no means a flop. Certainly there is a stigma that a lot of critics have about slapstick. The public recognises that the Three Stooges are great but there are a lot of critics who don't wanna mention the Three Stooges in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin.
Milius: We knew that everyone was gunning for Steven. Even the most powerful filmmaker around is desperately afraid of having a financial failure. The business is ruled by bean counters and boring bean counters at that, arrogant young punks. There ought to be an enormous bloodletting, a real night of the long knives where everyone in a suit is hanged.
Zemeckis: Every frame of the movie is filled with some sort of incredible mayhem. I think it was [ renowned critic] Pauline Kael who said it was like having your head stuck in a pinball machine for two hours. I'm very proud of that. I'd put that on my resume.
Spielberg: We would have been better off with $10 million less, because we went from one plot to seven sub-plots. But, at the time, I wanted it — the bigness, the power, hundreds of people at my beck and call, millions of dollars at my disposal and everybody saying "Yes... yes... yes!" 1941 was my "Little General" Period.
Steven Spielberg: Director's Collection Blu-ray box set available to order now.