‘1941’ Was Spielberg’s First Casualty

Steven Spielberg is pretty much one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and the entertainment industry but he isn’t infallible. While his adaptation of West Side Story is getting rave reviews, the reported $100 million production has only garnered $15 million at the box office. In his defense, there is still a Covid pandemic that isn’t ending anytime soon and people are still cautious about going to the movie theaters.

At 74, Spielberg has had his ups and downs. Remember the late 1980s when it seemed his more serious movies like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Always were shunned because he had moved away from the “popcorn feature” blockbusters. I would argue with a lot of other movie buffs his movies released during the 2000s were some of his best ever.

As much as we seem to like celebrities when they make great achievements, we seem to revel in their less than stellar moments. Look at what happened to M. Night Shyamalan.

Spielberg’s began the 1970s as a hotshot young director who directed the TV movie, Duel, in which Dennis Weaver plays a businessman on the road in the California desert who gets on the bad side of a truck driver who spends the rest of the day making every mile of his journey a living hell. It was an impressive body of work. So impressive was that Spielberg was given more money to add additional scenes and it was released theatrically. Many TV movies at the time were about 70 minutes or so with commercials.

The Sugarland Express was his first real feature film debut and it got good reviews and a good box office, but the ending was a little too depressing for some filmgoers. Then, there was Jaws, the movie that changed summer movies and put Spielberg on the map. But despite some clever filmmaking, most people were quick to dismiss Spielberg, who wasn’t even 30 as they said Verna Fields, the film editor, deserve more credit.

Then, he made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pet project that he wrote and directed about friendly aliens coming down to Earth. Nearly 45 years later, it still remains a well made and directed movie. While most movies about aliens showed them as violent and aggressive, this was for people who grew up watching the Space Race who always looked to the sky wondering what was out there.

So, naturally if you’ve had two successes, you can pretty much make whatever movie you want. Yet, I’m sure a lot of head scratching went around Tinseltown as Spielberg would direct a screwball WWII comedy, 1941. Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis before they hit paydirt with the Back to the Future trilogy, the movie is about the mass hysteria that came out following the Pearl Harbor attacks.

First off, many people were probably asking, what’s so funny about Pearl Harbor? Well, nothing. But this was about Americans were acting following the events. Set the following weekend in the Los Angeles area, the movie is an ensemble combining young actors with veterans. I think what Spielberg and company were trying to make It’s A Mad, Mad World War II.

With Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, fresh off their success on Saturday Night Live, headlining it, I think some audiences were expecting the two actors to have bigger roles, even though they are part of the ensemble. Aykroyd and Belushi don’t even appear in the same scene together.

If there is a lead role, it goes to Wally Stephens (Bobby Di Cicco), a young man more interested in dancing than enlisting. He wants to be with his young girlfriend, Betty Douglas (Diane Kay) and dance with her at a club later that night where the winner will receive a movie contract. Unfortunately for Wally, the club is only letting in men who are in military service. And since Betty and her friend, Maxine Dexheimer (Wendie Jo Sperber) are USO girls, they’re only allowed to dance with military guys.

On the same day, the U.S. Army Armored Division, led by Sgt. Frank Tree (Aykroyd) parks an anti-aircraft battery cannon on the lawn of Betty’s family home on the Santa Monica coast. Her father, Ward (Ned Beatty) is enthusiastic and even honored to do his part for the war effort while his wife, Joan (Lorraine Gary) isn’t. Their sons are more than excited as they’re little boys who love big guns.

It’s a good thing they did because Ward later ends up using it when a Japanese Imperial Navy, led by Commander Akiro Matimura (Toshiro Mifune) with Nazi Capt. Wolfgang Von Kleimschmidt (Christopher Lee) onboard, has surfaced off the California coast with a goal to destroy Hollywood. However, their compass malfunctions. Japanese sailors go on land and kidnapped a gruffy lumberjack, Hollis Wood (Slim Pickens) mistaking him for Hollywood. When he refuses to show them where Hollywood is, one of the Navy soldiers find a small compass in a CrackerJack box, which he quickly swallows. So, they force him to drink prune juice so he’ll pass it in his stool.

In the Los Angeles area, Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell (Robert Stack) is wanting to get his mind off the war while attending a theatrical showing of Dumbo. When a messenger shows up at the movie theater with a message from Col. “Madman” Maddox (Warren Oates) out in the desert near Barstow about wanting them to send more troops out of fear that the Japanese have already invaded other southern California towns, Capt. Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) volunteers to go out there. Birkhead has a history with Stilwell’s secretary, Donna Stratten (Nancy Allen) who gets sexually aroused around airplanes.

Loomis and Donna drive out to Barstow and he’s able to talk his way into Maddox letting him fly an airplane with Donna to do reconnaissance. Unfortunately, the plane doesn’t have a radio but Maddox assures him, they’ll contact interceptor command. But after a rough takeoff, the radio at the Barstow base is destroyed. And Capt. Wild Bill Kelso (Belushi) lands immediately after that. Both Kelso and Maddox share the same paranoia about the war, so when Maddox tells them about the Japanese infiltrating Pomona, Kelso goes out in the direction.

With two Army aircrafts in the sky and no one telling them they’re Americans, confusion and paranoia sets in as both aircrafts find themselves targeted by military and those in Civil Defense. An amusement park owned by Angelo Scioli (Lionel Stander) on the Santa Monica Coast has two men, Claude Crumm (Murray Hamilton) and Herbie Kazlminsky (Eddie Deezen) elevated in the air on a Ferris Wheel to watch the ocean. Claude is afraid of heights and finds Herbie, whose also brought along his dummy, annoying.

It’s a complicated plot. To discuss more would make it more confusing. There are some good moments, but there are some not-so-good moments. A scene in which Wally, dressed as a sailor, dances with Betty with others at the USO club is staged and directed to look as if you’re back in the 1940s. Unfortunately, once the siren alarms sound and everyone starts shooting at the aircrafts, it seems to resort to non-stop destruction of building, cars, Santa Claus decorations, billboards, etc. You don’t have to be a genius to know that the amusement park and its destruction plays a part in the movie’s climax.

The theatrical cut was about two hours long with credits. A director’s cut, about two and a half hours long, was released only to show why the scenes were cut to begin with. While these scenes show more of the armored division and give Mickey Rourke in his first role as Private Reese more than being a glorified extra, they’re really not needed. John Candy in one of his earlier roles comes off more as a racist as Private First Class Foley as he argues and fights more with Private Jones (Frank McRae) who has been assigned to their unit. This explains why Jones isn’t with the armored division earlier in the movie when they’re eating breakfast at a diner.

Incorrectly considered a box office bomb, 1941 actually was a few million shy of making $100 million at the box office as it’s final tally was just under $95 million, which still wasn’t bad for this time period. The problem was the criticism of the movie hit hard. Even Spielberg’s friend and mentor, Stanley Kubrick, said while he thought it was well made, it wasn’t funny. There’s so much destruction you can watch before it gets tiresome. It doesn’t help that you can clearly see some of the special effects, especially at the amusement park, are miniatures.

Spielberg said he was not satisfied with the special effects and he didn’t oversee the second unit as much as he would later do on his movies. Later when he directed Raiders of the Lost Ark, the advertisement omitted this movie as one of his accomplishments, which is a little harsh. You can’t knock it out of the ballpark all the time. Maybe they should’ve had Aykroyd and Belushi in scenes together. Maybe even for 1979 audiences, it seemed a little sexists, misogynistic and racist. The military members come off more as frat boy date rapists trying to nail every woman they see. And some of the slurs directed at the Japanese didn’t sit well with audiences. Yes, people in 1941 probably said it.

History sometimes has an ugly side. It’s hard to make it funny. As for the Japanese sailors, they go past the tired “Me so solly” joke that might have been common during the middle of the 20th Century. Considering that everyone in this movie is a buffoon or goofy, it’s par for the course, the Japanese would also be portrayed as foolish.

1941 doesn’t mock WWII and those who served. Having been a reporter during and after 9/11, I could see similarities with the way people acted. Ironically, many of the events in 1941 actually happened at one time or another. A huge fight that breaks out among service members and members of the Latinx movie dressed in zoot suits occurred in 1943. The Army did put anti-aircraft weapons on private land but it was on the Maine coast.

On Feb. 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine shelled a refinery in Ellwood, Calif. but missed. It did incite an invasion panic attack that both Army and Civil Defense ended up shooting up into the air thinking a firebombing raid was going to happen.

The truth is stranger than fiction. Looking back decades later, you can laugh about these things and I think that’s what the filmmakers were intending. I’m not sure a comedy about the anthrax scare following 9/11 would be made about four decades later or at all. Filmmakers always use wars as settings, so it’s only the law of probability that every now and again, a comedy would be made.

As the old saying goes, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

And thankfully, the careers of Spielberg and Zemeckis didn’t die.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

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