EMPIRE ESSAY: 1941 Review

Hysterical Californians prepare for a Japanese invasion in the days after Pearl Harbor.

by Kim Newman |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jan 1979

Running Time:

118 minutes



Original Title:


IN THE MONTHLY FILM BULLETIN, Richard Combs — who listed 1941 as one of the Ten Best Films Of The Year — opened his review with a frank admission: "The first thing to be noted about 1941, and the only point to be made in the uniformly bad press which the film has received in the US, is that it is not very funny." Twenty years on, with laugh-free ordeals like Scary Movie (2000) or Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) listed among the most successful comedies of all time, it may well be time to revise the opinion.

There are good gags in 1941, some tiny (like the Japanese sub-mariner unable to get a huge radio through a hatch who muses, "We've got to find a way to make these things smaller") and some enormous (the tank careering through a paint factory and then a turpentine factory and emerging spotless). But on the whole, this is a film that is so in-your-face, to use an expression coined in later years, that it rarely jollies its audience into amusement. There are precedents, in 1960s efforts like The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and the star laden excesses of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but this is the biggest Three Stooges-style slapstick-fest ever made.

Like such later comedies of discomfort as Hudson Hawk (1991) and The Cable Guy (1996), it excited a disproportionate amount of hatred for its supposed excesses (of budget, as much as anything else) but may have become a pariah as much because of what it says than what it cost. A script rejected in disgust by John Wayne as anti-American, 1941 does attack America's self-image as, ''the greatest country in the world" (to quote Dan Aykroyd's character) by depicting a race of complacent goons who don't need any international enemies because they're so insanely intent on destroying each other ("That's one thing I don't want to see, Americans fighting Americans!") and even their beloved Christmas-decorated streets and homes. What Richard Dreyfuss does to his living room in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the entire cast of 1941 do to the Greater Los Angeles district, so enthused are they with the idea of war that they have one before the enemy even bothers to show up.

A rarely-noted contributory factor to the box-office loss of 1941 may be that it is a unique American WWII movie which ends with a Japanese victory (the recent Pearl Harbour couldn't bear to go there), although Robert Zemeckis wanted to end the film with the hero getting his revenge for losing the jitterbug contest by dropping the Hiroshima bomb. Toshiro Mifune's order "Fire at that industrial structure" results in the full-scale destruction of an "honourable target", the Santa Monica amusement park.

The germ of the idea for the film came from USC film school graduates Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who hooked up with John Milius to work on a script originally entitled The Night The Japs Attacked (see the feature on page 42). One of the inspirations for the film was a personal crusade by a Japanese sub captain who took it upon himself to blow up an unimportant stretch of the California coast where he had once fallen in a cactus. Originally a project for John Milius to direct, 1941 was picked up by Spielberg, on a hot streak after the one-two punch of Jaws and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. He went with the big blast comedy style subsequently associated with John Landis (The Blues Brothers was in the works at the time). "Comedy is not my forte," he admitted. "I don't know how this movie will come out. 1941 may be too intense for normal people. I just hope there are enough abnormal crazies in this world to make Universal and Columbia back their $30 million negative cost investment. If not, it will be the funniest two hours you've ever seen on The Late, Late Show a year from now."

For a flop, 1941 has been surprisingly influential — the "Hollywoodland" sign gag is in The Rocketeer (1991) and Randy Quaid in Independence Day (1996) is doing his best Jon Belushi Wild Bill Kelso act (indeed, ID4 is the patriotic "answer" to 1941 —and it was made by a German). Milius made an ostensibly more serious invasion epic, Red Dawn (1984), and Zemeckis had another trash at paint-splattered LA period chaos in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).

Spielberg, himself, has been chewing over the bones of the film ever since, coming back to the material from wildly different directions. It remains an acquired taste of a picture, but somehow its messiness and sheer attack — qualities that Spielberg still has but frequently represses — are deep down more interesting and more rewarding than such straightforward, universally-beloved successes as Raiders Of The Lost Ark or E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Oddly, Spielberg's one real return to big-scale slapstick comedy is the film that is now viewed as the real lemon in his basket, Hook.

Unfunny but amiable Spielberg misfire.
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