In Defense of 1941
Unpopular Opinions is a new weekly column in which a writer takes a stand against popular opinion, whether it’s asserting the true merit of a supposedly guilty pleasure or dissenting against the universally lauded.
By now we know that Steven Spielberg is not an untouchable director. In 40 years of filmmaking, of course there are going to be some flops. But the World War II comedy 1941 (1979) remains one of his more famous disasters. Briefly, 1941 follows a large group of characters through one hysterical day in and around Los Angeles just after Pearl Harbor as everyone prepares for a possible Japanese attack. To say that it was hated is a gross understatement. Critics balked, audiences fled, studio execs were scolded, babies cried, a rain forest was destroyed, and Nathan Rabin wrote about it. It harbors a stigma that has become bigger than the movie itself, like Waterworld or Cutthroat Island — not esteemed company. 1941 didn’t completely flop at the box office, it just didn’t compare to Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It made money, but it didn’t achieve the blockbuster heights that Spielberg had established himself as capable of reaching. Still, 1941’s reputation for being a bloated, loud, messy, unfunny disaster of a movie holds firm.
But 1941 deserves another chance. Our cultural consensus of its comedic failure has been too tied up in our expectations of what a Spielberg movie is supposed to be. Freed from the burden of Spielberg’s name and reputation for making romantic adventures, 1941 is due for a cult classic revival.
1941 is one of those movies that was on constant repeat growing up thanks to my dad’s nerdy curating (others included Star Wars, The Pirates of Penzance, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Ice Pirates, The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride, and Labyrinth). So I won’t lie, my love for it is partially tied up with childhood bullshit. Regardless, because my dad loved it, my brother, sister, and mom all ended up loving it too. We’d even quote it at the dinner table. (We got a lot of mileage out of “You!” “You!” “You!” “You!…have a really serious wardrobe problem, kid!”) There wasn’t any Metacritic to check whether or not 1941 was OK to like. I just did.
But why should you care? Because even as an adult who knows things now, I stand by 1941. Funny, and charming, and full of star comedians just being goofy, it’s a more innocent, dorkier stepsister of Airplane — an equally cracked out comedy that came out only six months later. 1941 is a movie about hysteria and excess, which is a little bit like that moment in blockbuster comedies too.
In 1941 all of the characters are earnest fools who introduce accidental chaos everywhere they go. John Belushi’s Captain Wild Bill Kelso blows up a gas station. Dan Aykroyd drives a tank into a civilian’s home. Tim Matheson drops a bomb out of grounded plane’s cargo door, blowing up a press conference on the safety and security of Los Angeles. A tank drives through a paint factory, and a motorcycle through a vegetable and fruit stand. Gag after elaborate gag, this is how the movie goes. Spielberg knew what he was doing. He wasn’t out to make something quietly clever. He was out to make something larger than life — The Three Stooges meets It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
1941 IS big and loud and messy, and that’s exactly the point. The insanity works in the context of the movie. Thanks to the combination of a frenzied pace, the physical comedy of the many charming actors, the mood enhancing swing music, John Williams’ score, and the gee-whiz innocence of most of the jokes, 1941 ends up working. It works because they go all out with everything, and you can’t help but be captivated by even the silliest of jokes. One of the most technically complicated bits is the Jitterbug contest. It’s a masterfully choreographed dance, fight, and chase scene that builds till the whole thing devolves into an outright riot. It’s perfectly cliché (swing dancing in a WWII movie) and the stakes are low, but it’s believable and earnest, and ultimately one of the few scenes that required the skills of a director like Spielberg. He must have enjoyed it so much that he basically repeated it in The Temple of Doom in the Shanghai club.
1941 isn’t going to lift you out of a bad mood. If you go in prepared to hate it, you probably will. The shrill voices and epic crowd scenes sometimes makes it feel like an explosion-loving 12-year-old trying to make a Robert Altman movie. And I’ll concede that the movie is far too long. Many of the best sequences happen in the first hour. The second hour isn’t a total dud, but the unrelenting pace does sort of dull the senses. In general, Spielberg’s comedy is more effective in limited doses. In movies like E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, the comedy is woven into a story that stands on its own and serves as both a relief and a bonus. There’s not much of a story in 1941 — there are just a dozen little stories that don’t arrive at any larger point. Maybe that’s one of the main disappointments; audiences and critics came in for a Spielberg movie and got something else.
If you have your own Unpopular Opinion you want to make a case for, send a pitch to Jesse David Fox.
Lindsey Bahr thinks that you have a really serious wardrobe problem, kid.