Review Written by: Bill Slocum
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG (for language, brief nudity and violence)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale and John Milius
Produced by: Buzz Feitshans
Starring: Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, Lorraine Gary
Studio: Universal Pictures
was a film that carried great expectations when it was released at the end of 1979. The two most versatile stars of the season's biggest TV comedy hit, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd of Saturday Night Live
, were brought together for the first time on the big screen. The subject, LA panic in the days right after Pearl Harbor, promised trendy iconoclastic fun at the expense of the War Years generation and their uptight, stuffy values in a Tora, Tora, Tora
meets Animal House
kind of way. And the director, one Steven Spielberg, was coming off two of the biggest films of this, or any other, decade: Jaws
and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
. What could go wrong?
Like Casino Royale
the previous decade, 1941
is the sort of comedy that defines the excesses and exaggerated stereotypes of its audience. It also manages the same ratio of one decent joke per name actor. Aykroyd does okay in the role of a tank crew commander, with his big spiel about whether a crowd of maniacs want to put Tojo in the White House. Belushi is just embarrassing in a bigger role with no laughs, as a pilot who smokes a never-extinguishing cigar stump and can't seem to sit in his cockpit for five seconds without going ass over feet. Aykroyd and Blutto don't even meet, a bit of a cheat.
The whole gimmick of the War Years gone loco seems just stupid. You could probably make good fun at the expense of the Greatest Generation if you had a decent script, but this is a hackneyed slog through the Big Muddy with pointless crashes, monotonous explosions and strange, mid-punchline editing and pumped-up orchestration that positively screams flailing desperation. Consider that Americans had every right to feel war nerves as they recovered from the gut kick of December 7, and the forced laughs of 1941
feel doubly inappropriate. The Japanese weren't Nazis, but the distinction would have been lost on a number of U.S. and Allied POWs in Bataan and other places, not to mention countless Chinese and Koreans. Yet this film treats them as if they are the best kind of people on the planet, Pearl Harbor or not. Simply put, I hope I'm not around by the time someone decides to make a movie with Al-Queda operatives in the role of cute, fuzzy Ewoks running rampant through Seattle.
Which leads to Spielberg. Yes, you get the famous director from such films as Jaws
(self-referential opening), Always
(fascination with planes), Empire of the Sun
(fascination with the Japanese warrior spirit), along with the suffused lighting (Close Encounters
, Saving Private Ryan
) and nasty Germans (entire opus) that, among other things, distinguishes Spielberg's work. His work isn't just subpar here, it's bad, strangely so given he obviously put real heart into it and that despite his commercial success, he's a truly great director worth knowing and celebrating for the whole of his work, even crap like The Color Purple
and Jurassic Park II
I guess what annoyed me most about the movie, as an American, was the moronic treatment of my own (and Spielberg's) nationality, especially as it is contrasted with the noble Japanese (whose quest for honor is about the only thing this film sees fit to honour). In a very good documentary that accompanies the DVD, Spielberg reveals that both John Wayne and Charlton Heston declined the role of Joseph Stilwell, complaining the movie was anti-American. Bless those boys. Having my country bashed around isn't so awful in itself, it's a strong nation that's withstood worse, but if you want to take on Old Glory, the material better be a bit better than the likes of "My name's Wild Bill Kelso and don't you forget it" or a house falling into the Santa Monica coastline.
Hey, I did like the dummy, however.
John Belushi attempting to fly an airplane in Steven Spielberg's 1941.