Monday, November 7, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.3: Steven Spielberg's 1941

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. This week, his 1979 World War II-era farce, 1941.

Grade: 18 (D)

Steven Spielberg’s fascination with World War II is understandable. His father fought in the war, and the fallout of that war was a major shaping factor in the lives of the Baby Boomers. Spielberg’s look at World War II has ranged from very serious (Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) to escapist entertainment (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). His first look at the war, the big-budged action-comedy 1941, falls in the latter category and serves as an interesting precursor to Raiders of the Lost Ark with its elaborate action set-pieces and irreverent humor. In its own way, it is an impressive, amazing film. This is not to say that the film is a success. Not in the least.

The “plot”, so to speak, involves a Japanese submarine at the coast of California a few days after Pearl Harbor. Commander Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune) and German ally Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt (Christopher Lee) plan to attack Hollywood. The U.S. army is chaotic and disorganized. They include the aptly named Captain “Wild” Bill Kelso (John Belushi), tech-whiz Motor Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd), horndog Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson), crazy Colonel “Madman” Maddox (Warren Oates), and collected Major General Joseph Stilwell (Robert Stack), among others. Kelso flies around California looking for Japanese planes. Tree and his company bug the locals (Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary) to put an anti-aircraft gun in their yard. Birkhead tries to bed Stilwell’s assistant (Nancy Allen) by indulging her airplane fetish. Maddox claims Japanese soldiers are parachuting down. Civilians are caught up in the madness when a spat between civilian Wally Stephens (Bobby Di Cicco) and bullying Corporal Chuck “Stretch” Sitarski (Treat Williams) turns a jitterbug contest into a full scale riot. And General Stilwell just wants to get away from it all and watch Dumbo on the big screen, damn it.

1941 didn’t have to be a disaster. With a little more discipline (OK, a lot more), it could have been a Dr. Strangelove-esque satire, or a MASH style counter-culture comedy. Hell, many of the same plot points could have been a tense war-drama (or satirical war-drama), or even a rousing adventure film. The film features many major themes from Spielberg’s finest works: systems breaking down, untrustworthy or incompetent authority figures, men trying to keep control of something uncontrollable, men fighting a seemingly unstoppable force, and men fighting each other while trying to fight said unstoppable force. Certain plot points, played at a different level, could have been brilliant: the animosity between civilians and soldiers, the Axis powers taking the war to America, the soldiers who want nothing more than to get laid, the paranoid generals and sergeants.

The film has a hell of a cast: Belushi and Matheson fresh off of the great comedy Animal House; Belushi’s fellow SNL alumnus Aykroyd; legendary Japanese actor Mifune; great character actors Stack, Oates, Beatty, and Lee; future stars Williams, Allen, and John Candy (Mickey Rourke even has a tiny role). It has a script by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (then famous as the writer-director of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, later for Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?), a story conceived by Gale, Zemeckis, and John Milius, and a terrific John Williams score. Oh, and Spielberg had just made two knockout films.

There’s a teensy, tiny problem: none of it is funny. Spielberg’s films are often very humorous, but the difference between Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1941 is that in the former, the action and comedy move the story forward, whereas 1941 hardly has a story, only relentless action and slapstick. Spielberg’s best films, while often full of great, loose moments (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind) have a solid through line. The perpetually chaotic 1941 is a bunch of stuff happening, rapidly, and only tangentially connected to each other.

Spielberg’s talents don’t lend themselves to lowbrow goofball comedy, and most of the performers spin out of control without his guidance. Belushi’s films with John Landis (Animal House and The Blues Brothers) are great, but in 1941, his flailing, mugging, and screaming grows unbearable. His Animal House co-star Matheson is just as bad; his idiotic innuendoes get old fast. It gets worse: several of the more well-crafted characters (Aykroyd’s tech-whiz, Slim Pickins’ hick, Williams and De Cicco’s rivals) are lost in dumb gags (a dazed Aykroyd buzzing like an insect with oranges over his eyes, Pickins in a labored “Who’s On First” routine) or badly handled plot developments (Williams’ creepy, rapist-like pursuit of a girl is played for comedy, and ostensible protagonist De Cicco isn’t developed enough until the very end).

 Most of the other characters are irritating (Eddie Deezen is particularly obnoxious) or caught in stupid slapstick. And the film’s use of anti-Japanese slurs is distracting and troublingly frequent. Those lines, combined with John Candy’s brutally unfunny moments as a racist tank-man bickering with a black soldier, might be true to the period, but the execution is tone deaf. Tone deaf, really, is a way to describe the whole process. 1941 is relentlessly busy, bloated, and way too damn LOUD, often drowning out John Williams’ score (the best part of the movie) in cacophonous din. The whole thing becomes headache inducing by the end. It’s like a World War II-era It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only without the laughs or memorable characters.


With some reluctance, it most be noted that the film isn’t a complete waste. Straight-man Stack is given some choice lines that often double as unintentional commentary on the film (“Madness!”), and his scenes watching Dumbo inside the theatre show a powerful man escaping from the madness and the horrors of war (the scenes showing him laughing at the racist-caricature crows, again accurate, are still distracting). The film looks great. Some of the set-pieces, while still not funny, are often impressive, most notably the jitterbug sequence and a scene near the end involving Stack visiting the survivors of the previous night. The film radiates potential, but mostly, 1941 is a painfully unfunny comedy that is irritating at 40 minutes, punishing at two hours, and finally exhausting in the final 145-minute director’s cut. The ambitious film’s miscalculation can be summed up in one line: “It’s going to be a long war.” That’s not very funny, guys.

This week on Director’s Spotlight:

Thursday: Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark
Saturday: Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist

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