1941: A Schlocky Rorschach Test From Mr. Spielberg

Forget Schindler’s List or The Color Purple: this infamous buffet of slapstick bombast is the most controversial entry in Steven Spielberg’s filmography, hands down.  Some consider it a disaster that played a role in hastening the fall of the 1970’s movie-brat generation.  Others consider it to be a flawed but potent comedy designed to be appreciated in the same orgiastic frame of mind in which it was conceived.  Neither side of the argument is entirely right or entirely wrong: 1941 is a fascinating mess of a film that veers from delightfully insane to jaw-droppingly inane, resulting in a genuinely topsy-turvy viewing experience.

The overstuffed plot starts shortly after the events of Pearl Harbor, depicting a group of California coastal dwellers who get crazed with war-mania.  The storyline takes the form of a gaggle of plot threads: an aspiring dancer (Bobby DiCicco) tries to save his best girl from being manhandled by a horny soldier (Treat Williams), a crazed pilot (John Belushi) flies around in search of kamikaze planes, a general (Robert Stack) tries to maintain peace as the soldiers around him lose their marbles and a patriotic dad (Ned Beatty) is tempted by the anti-aircraft gun that the military places on his seaside home.  There are even more subplots but this review will err on the side of brevity.

Unbeknownst to all of the above, a Japanese sub (including Toshiro Mifune, plus Christopher Lee as a Nazi guest!) lurks off the coast as its commander tries to locate and destroy an important Los Angeles target before returning home.  Their presence, combined with the paranoia of the townies, snowballs into one epic slapstick setpiece after another.  People scream (a lot) as countless buildings, vehicles and any other objects in the vicinity get battered, detonated and crushed.

It’s easy to see why this film was critically savaged during its original release.  The script is an unfocused ramble that loses track of its story as it rushes to get to the next smutty gag or epic-scale moment of destruction.  The cast is packed with hilarious comedians, yet there are so many characters and plot threads that a most of them end up having nothing to do: Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, John Candy and Joe Flaherty are among the many underused sources of humor here.

More importantly, one gets the feeling Spielberg was just too excited about making the film because he overdoes everything – the tone is consistently hysterical, destroying stuff is confused with humor and pretty much every character is an outlandish caricature.  When a film starts with all its amps cranked to 11, it’s got nowhere to go.

That said, 1941 remains interesting for film cultists despite its inability to work on conventional terms.  First of all, the film’s got a subversive streak a mile wide: the military are depicted as macho wackjobs, the upright townspeople are easily-swayed dupes and patriotism is portrayed as a sucker’s game.  Some of the actors carve out memorable performance amid the chaos: Treat Williams in particular is stunning as the most barbaric of the soldiers, Lionel Stander steals a few scenes with some subtle, wordless comic technique and the lovable Eddie Deezen naturally embodies the screwball wackiness that the rest of the film strives for.

Finally, Spielberg’s chaotic direction does work in fits and starts: a sequence where DiCicco tries to elude the fists of Treat Williams while participating in the jitterbug contest is dazzlingly choreographed and an extended scene where a kidnapped Slim Pickens matches wits with the Japanese navy hits its lowbrow humor mark with unexpected precision.  If the viewer is willing to let him/herself go, the sheer enormity of the film’s quest for destructive humor is occasionally mesmerizing – a good example is the scene where Beatty goes haywire with his anti-aircraft gun.

Ultimately, 1941 is a cinematic Rorschach test – what one sees in it depends on their tastes and tolerances.  That said, anyone who can stomach its gargantuan explorations into psycho-slapstick will be left slack-jawed by the trail of carnage it leaves in its wake.  Spielberg has never been this off-the-rails gonzo before or since.

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