Ah, the critics back there in 1979. They didn’t know. They hadn’t grown up on TV reruns of Our Gang and The Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny. Walking into Steven Spielberg’s epic slapstick farce 1941, they didn’t realize they were in for a live-action cartoon. They also didn’t know what was coming just two years later.
Perhaps it’s only because I first happened to catch 1941 on cable around the same time Raiders of the Lost Ark came out, but it has always been my belief that 1941 was no more or less than a dry run for the Indiana Jones films. It has the same look, the same sound (John Williams’ score is hysterically over-amped); with a tweak here and there, it could plausibly be unfolding in the same reality. Indy fights Nazis in 1936; five years later, one of them (Christopher Lee) turns up on a Japanese sub. One sight gag involving Lee and an apparent instrument of torture didn’t come off well and was deleted, but Spielberg later revived it for Raiders. Tim Matheson, one of the initial contenders for the role of Indy, turns up here and delivers the exact same sardonic “Ah-ha-ha-haaaa” laugh Harrison Ford does in the Well of Souls.
So if you go into 1941 looking at it as Indy’s scrappier younger brother, with its pants around its ankles and firing a pistol into the California night sky, you might have a better time with it. The movie is explicitly Spielberg’s attempt to wield farce on the level of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, stuffed with stars and chaos, a gigantic Mad-magazine parody of itself (Mad never parodied the film, perhaps reasoning that its work had already been done) with each frame jammed with Jack Davis or Mort Drucker caricatures. Everyone in the huge cast bellows and shrieks, and for good measure they all reprise their screaming during the end credits. 1941 is loud.
Coming as it did during the late-’70s era of excess — The Blues Brothers and Heaven’s Gate were right around the corner, and critics had already boggled at Apocalypse Now and New York, New York — it became a stick with which to slap Spielberg down. He’d had two big hits in a row; now he would be made to eat dirt. But really there’s nothing to be ashamed of here. There’s a surfeit of diversions here, legions of characters chasing each other around, locked into their own violent, fearful or sexual obsessions. The perversity runs wild: the movie kicks off with a goofball riff on Jaws (the nude swimmer is even played by the same actress, Susan Backlinie); the then-hot comedy team of John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd are in the movie but never share a scene; if there’s an actual protagonist, it’s hoofer Bobby DiCicco, who just wants to enter a USO dance contest. (Whatever happened to Bobby DiCicco? He was a great dancer and not a bad comic presence. His last credit, according to the IMDb, was as a voice in 1996’s All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.)
If, on some level, you can’t relish the scenes between Christopher Lee and sub commander Toshiro Mifune — especially when Slim Pickens drops in for some cornpone scatological yucks (Mifune’s crestfallen “This has not been honorable” always cracks me up) — well, I don’t know what to tell you. Similarly, the meeting of Belushi’s deranged Wild Bill Kelso and Warren Oates’ equally deranged Colonel “Madman” Maddox — two grizzled icons of different generations squinting at each other and taking one another’s demented measure. (The sequence always makes me envision Belushi in a Peckinpah film.) Or Treat Williams’ scummy corporal who has a thing against eggs. Or Ned Beatty allowing an anti-aircraft gun on his property, to the consternation of wife Lorraine Gary. Or the way Aykroyd looks perfectly at home as a sergeant rattling off tech specs. Or Robert Stack’s Major General Stilwell — the film’s only voice of sanity — shedding tears during a screening of Dumbo. Or the truly weird combo of Murray Hamilton, Eddie Deezen and a ventriloquist dummy atop a ferris wheel, which eventually gets unmoored and rolls out of control, which a lot of critics adopted as a metaphor for the film itself, which I do, too, but not disapprovingly.
There’s no way a movie this massive, this dedicated to craziness, and this fun needs to justify itself on any level. It is — unless you count Catch Me If You Can — Spielberg’s sole official comedy to date, although he did go over the top into physical farce in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, emboldened by the success of Raiders. There’s a lavish, colorful entertainer at work in 1941 and the first two Indy films that now seems long lost. 1941 is the closest Spielberg has ever come to mounting a full-fledged musical, and I wish it had done better at the box office if only so that we could’ve gotten more brilliantly inspired sequences like the jitterbug number, which degenerates into a messy brawl, which a lot of critics adopted as a metaphor for the film itself, which I do, too, but … well, you know.
1941 is chaotic because it seeks to tell, in slapstick terms, a story of American hysteria — the script by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis was based loosely, in part, on the actual “Battle of Los Angeles,” in which a still-unknown thing in the sky led to the Army pretty much losing their shit and perforating the night air with shells. 1941 shows that Spielberg was not always the somber WWII chronicler of Saving Private Ryan, prostrating himself at the graves of the Greatest Generation. Here, the Greatest Generation is a bunch of morons. America is stupid. But Japan is stupid, too — they don’t even have a working compass on their sub. Everyone (except Stilwell) is stupid. It’s a farce, an anti-patriotic farce post-Vietnam.
Is it, uh, perfect? Getouddahere. The women tend to be floozies, ditzes or straight-up nymphos (Nancy Allen as a reporter who gets wet when she’s up in a plane, much to Tim Matheson’s delight). The racism of the day is exploited for laughs (more so in the extended cut on DVD, which fleshes out the conflict between Frank McRae and John Candy). But, again, pretty much everyone in the movie is a suitable case for treatment. Charges of sexism/racism don’t stick to a happy clusterfuck like this movie, which sprays everyone with the same mix of soot, slime and raw eggs.
I love 1941. I don’t apologize to you, or my fellow critics, or even Spielberg for that. I saw it at precisely the right time, eleven years old, grew up on the Little Rascals and “Nyuk nyuk nyuk” and Looney Tunes, and therefore knew what I was watching. Does the rest of the world know what this film is? I guess not.