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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: 1941 – The 40th Anniversary

“Come Back, Plane!” A 40th Anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s screwball wartime comedy spectacle “1941”. Written by “Back To The Future” creators Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale in their first big studio script. “1941” was a financial and critical disappointment but has since gained a cult status. Deemed the biggest failure of Spielberg’s career, that even John Wayne advised Spielberg to not make the film. Even Stanley Kubrick had some feedback. Personally I love the film, especially Spielberg’s director’s cut, running 2hours and 43minutes. “1941” is one of his best films and his most underrated. This is the story of “1941”….

“I Often Describe 1941 As Having Your Head Stuck In A Pinball Machine While Somebody Is Hitting Tilt Over And Over Again”.

-Steven Spielberg-

The name Steven Spielberg is synonymous in cinema with the words icon, influential, legend and ground breaking. Spielberg’s no question one of cinemas greatest visionaries. He has dabbled in every genre there is since his first feature film with 1971’s “Duel”. Directing everything from action/adventure films, dramas to historical films. Other than romantic comedies, one genre he hasn’t really dabbled in is comedies. 

Unfortunately many people had no idea that Spielberg actually did direct a comedy. In 1979 Spielberg teamed up with up and coming writer and director Robert Zemeckis (“Back To The Future”, “Cast Away”, “Forrest Gump”) and writer Bob Gale (“Back To The Future”) for the wartime screwball comedy “1941”. The comedy takes place after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, where residents of California descend into a wild panic, afraid that they might be the next target. 

Often regarded as Steven Spielberg’s first failure, which it actually wasn’t as it was “Sugarland Express” with Goldie Hawn (great movie btw). “1941” that was made in the screwball comedy tradition of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad Mad World”, was actually a moderate box office success, earning $92 million worldwide on a budget of $35 million. But when compared to his two previous films before “1941”, “Jaws” (1975) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), it didn’t meet expectations that were already expected from Spielberg. 

According to audiences and critics, the problems with “1941”, has been said that it’s a loud, chaotic, overproduced comedy that isn’t all that funny. Legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has allegedly told Steven Spielberg that the movie was “great, but not funny”. According to Steven Spielberg, Kubrick suggested that “1941”should have been marketed as a drama rather than a comedy.

Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were the creators behind the film as the two were just starting their careers and knocking on different studio doors trying to get jobs. They had written a script on spec, that they were using as a writing sample to show different studios. Zemeckis and Gale went to director John Milius (writer of “Dirty Harry”, “Apocalypse Now” and writer and director of “Red Dawn” and “Conan The Barbarian”). Milius Read their script, really liked it and he liked Zemeckis and Gale. John Milius told them, “Boys, I want to do for you what Francis Coppola did for me, when he hired me to write Apocalypse Now and give you a break. Do you have any ideas for movies?”.

Bob Gale said in a 2015 Los Angeles Times interview “We told him about this incident that we’d come across, in which there was a false alarm air raid over Los Angeles in February 1942. John was a history buff and he knew about that incident. He also knew that General Joe Stilwell had been stationed in LA in the first three weeks of the war, so he said let’s move it to a week after Pearl Harbor so we can put Stilwell in it. And we set the project up at MGM”.

“We wrote two drafts with John’s supervision and John starts telling Steven Spielberg, about this crazy script that these two lunatics he hired out of USC had written”. While Zemeckis and Gale were going to write the story. Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters”) was first hired to write a draft of the screenplay, but was fired due to creative differences between executive producer John Milius and Director Steven Spielberg.

Steven replied, “Ive gotta read this, John, I’ve gotta read it”. Spielberg read the script and immediately got excited about the idea of a dogfight in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard and a tank battle on the Santa Monica Pier and all the insanity that they had put into the script. Spielberg told Milius, “I want to direct this movie, John”. Spielberg filmed it at Universal to co-produce, because he wanted to fulfill a contractual obligation with the studio. From there Spielberg got involved and would be the start of the journey for “1941”. 

Starring some of the biggest names in comedy at the time, “1941” is Steven Spielberg’s most underrated film of all time….

It’s December of 1941, and the people of California are in varying states of unease, ranging from a sincere desire to defend the country to virtual blind panic in the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Thus begin several story threads that comprise the “plot” of this strange period comedy, a sort of satirical disaster movie, from Steven Spielberg. The stories and story threads involve lusty young men, officers (Tim Matheson) and civilians (Bobby Di Cicco) alike, eager to bed the young ladies of their dreams; Wild Bill Kelso, a nutty fighter pilot (John Belushi) following what he thinks is a squadron of Japanese fighters along the California coast; a well-meaning but clumsy tank crew (including John Candy) led by straight-arrow, by-the-book Sgt. Tree (Dan Aykroyd), who doesn’t recognize the thug (Treat Williams) in his command; and homeowner Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty), who is eager to do his part for the nation’s defense and, despite the misgivings of his wife (Lorraine Gary), doesn’t mind his front yard overlooking the ocean being chosen to house a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. 

There is also a pair of grotesquely inept airplane spotters (Murray Hamilton, Eddie Deezen) who are doing their job from atop a ferris wheel at a beachfront amusement park; a paranoid army colonel (Warren Oates) positive that the Japanese are infiltrating from the hills; a big dance being held on behalf of servicemen, being attended by a lusty young woman of size (Wendie Jo Sperber) eager to land a man in uniform; and General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell (Robert Stack), in charge of the defense of the West Coast, who can’t seem to get anyone to listen to him when he says to keep calm. 

And there’s also a real Japanese submarine that has gotten all the way to the California coast under the command of its captain (Toshiro Mifune) and a German officer observer (Christopher Lee), only to find itself without a working compass or usable maps. Its captain won’t leave until the sub has attacked a militarily significant, honorable target, and the only one that anyone aboard ship knows of in California is Hollywood. By New Year’s Eve, all of these characters are going to cross paths, directly or once-removed,

“1941” is also notable as one of the few American films featuring Toshirō Mifune, a legendary popular Japanese actor who worked with Akira Kurosawa regularly. It is the only American film in which Mifune used his own voice in speaking Japanese and English. In his previous movies, Mifune’s lines were dubbed. 

Both John Wayne and Charlton Heston were originally offered the role of Major General Stilwell with Wayne declining, he was still considered for a cameo in the film. After reading the script, Wayne decided not to participate altogether due to ill health, but also urged Spielberg not to pursue the project. Both Wayne and Heston felt the film was unpatriotic. Spielberg said, “John Wayne was really curious, so I sent him the script. He called me the next day and said he felt it was a very un-American movie, and I shouldn’t waste my time making it. John Wayne said, ‘You know, that was an important war, and you’re making fun of a war that cost thousands of lives at Pearl Harbor. Don’t joke about World War II’.”

“1941” would be the theatrical U.S. movie debut of Dan Aykroyd playing Sergeant Frank Tree. It would also be the debut of Mickey Rourke who had a small role as character Reese. John Belushi‘s role (and fan favorite character) of Captain Wild Bill Kelso was originally a minor character. It was expanded once John Belushi was signed on for the role. It was known on set that Belushi failed to show up on a couple of occasions because his infamous nightlife that made him too tired to work. Belushi had a t-shirt made for the film after it failed to ignite the box-office. Belushi was spotted around Los Angeles wearing the t-shirt, upon which was emblazoned, “Steven Spielberg 1946-1941”.

Belushi also appears as a secondary character in the films USO riot scene, when a military police officer is tossed into the window of a restaurant from the fire truck. Belushi plays the patron eating spaghetti in the restaurant. He is presented in makeup to resemble Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”, whom Belushi famously parodied in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Belushi told Spielberg he wanted to appear as a second character and the idea struck Spielberg as humorous. Also featured at the beginning of the USO riot, one of the “extras” dressed as sailors is actor James Caan. 

In an homage to Spielberg’s previous films actress Susan Backlinie reprised her role as the first victim as she did in Spielberg’s “Jaws”, by appearing as the woman seen swimming nude at the beginning of the film and is picked up by a Japanese submarine as a sailor yells “Hollywood!”. Also paying homage to another of his films, the scene at the gas station that Wild Bill Kelso accidentally blows up early in the film, is the same one seen in Spielberg’s 1971 TV film “Duel”. 

In this particular scene John Belushi, in character as Captain Wild Bill Kelso, unintentionally fell off the wing of his airplane and landed on his head. It was a real accident and Belushi was hospitalized for several days, but Spielberg left the shot in the movie as he felt it fit Kelso’s eccentric character.

Spielberg has said in interviews: “Because of the films failure some people think that it was an out-of-control production, but it wasn’t. What happened on the screen was pretty out of control, but the production was pretty much in control. I don’t dislike the movie at all. I’m not embarrassed by it. I just think that it wasn’t funny enough”. Steven Spielberg had shot “1941” in the length that Coppola shot “Apocalypse Now” by shooting one million feet of film over a long two hundred forty-seven shooting days.

“1941” had a hard release date of competing during Christmas time, 1979. The movie went over schedule and over budget, so Spielberg was scrambling to get the movie edited in time to make the release date. Bob Gale has said that “If Steven had a few more weeks in the editing room, he would have gotten the movie balanced more properly. But, as it was, he was worried that the audience might not want to sit so still for some of the exposition that we had in the first hour of the movie, so he cut a lot of stuff out in that part to get to the air raid quicker”. Gale continued saying “The stuff that he cut out is the bulk of the new material that’s in the extended version”.

The theatrical cut was previewed at approximately two and a half hours. While Spielberg was worried about cutting it down due to the exposition, Universal Pictures has felt it was too long to be a blockbuster hit. The initial theatrical release which was already edited by Spielberg himself was edited down even further to just under two hours, against his wishes.

After the success of his 1980 special edition of “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”. Spielberg was given permission to create his own extended cut of “1941” to represent his original vision as the directors cut. The directors cut was done for network television and was only shown on ABC once, but was seen years later on the Disney Channel. 

It was first released on VHS and Betamax in 1980 and again in 1986 and 1990. A similar extended version (with additional footage and a few subtle changes) was released on LaserDisc in 1995. It included a 101-minute documentary featuring interviews with Spielberg, cast and crew. This set also included an isolated music score, three theatrical trailers, deleted scenes, photo galleries, and reviews of the movie. The directors cut was later released on VHS in 1998, and later on DVD in 1999. The DVD included all features from the 1995 Laserdisc Set.

Spielberg’s much better Directors Cut featured 27 additional/extended minutes and a longer alternative scene. The directors cut is the definitive cut of “1941”. In the Cut, Steven Spielberg cut director John Landis’ cameo out Of the film, due to their falling out after their joint producer collaboration on “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983), which resulted in the tragic deaths of Vic Morrow and two child extras. In the later Blu-ray release, Landis’ cameo is reinstated. 

On October 14, 2014, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released 1941on Blu-ray as part of their Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Collection box set. The disc features both the theatrical (118 minutes) and extended version (146 minutes) of the film, a documentary of the making of the film, production photographs (carried over from the LaserDisc collector’s edition), and theatrical trailers, although the isolated score that was included on the Laserdisc and DVD releases is not present on the Blu-ray. 

“1941” was recognized at the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. It took home no Oscars. 

In a 1990 interview with a British magazine, Steven Spielberg admitted that the mixed reception to this movie was one of the biggest lessons of his career, citing personal arrogance that got in the way after the runaway successes of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. He also regretted ceding control of the action and miniature sequences (such as the Ferris wheel collapse in the finale) to second unit directors and model units, something which he made sure to not do on “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. 

A movie this massive, this dedicated to craziness, and this fun doesn’t need to justify itself on any level. “1941” is built on spectacle (being a Spielberg film, that’s no surprise). It boasts Hollywood’s finest miniature and special effects work seen up to that date. The vision on the screen is purely that of director Steven Spielberg. Screenwriters Zemeckis and Gale are daring in their attempt to intertwine five or six different distinct storylines into one coherent tale. “1941” may have become a cult classic status, but it really is a great film, especially Spielberg’s directors cut.

I put this right up their in Spielberg’s top 10 best films and anyone who knows the career of Spielberg knows the massive amount of culturally influential films he has made. People fail to see “1941” as one of those influential films, while I wouldn’t consider it influential per se, but it is one of his best.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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