Posted on 6/09/12 03:44 PM
The general rule with Steven Spielberg is that he is at his best doing light-hearted, popcorn-friendly fare like Jaws, Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. When he attempts something more serious, like Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan, he starts with the very best intentions but quickly gets bogged down or loses his nerve. But there are a couple of his so-called 'fun' films which are the exceptions to this rule. One is Hook, his bloated and cynical retooling of Peter Pan, and the other is 1941.
Before fans of the film start rushing to its defence, it should be pointed out that Spielberg has publicly admitted that his film wasn't any good. When interviewed by Mark Kermode for a Culture Show special to mark his 60th birthday, he said regarding 1941 that he took responsibility for what he deemed "a complete failure", and that afterwards he had needed to go into "a Betty Ford clinic for undisciplined filmmakers". That Betty Ford Clinic turned out, of course, to be friend and producer George Lucas, with whom he developed Indiana Jones.
1941 was made at a time when Spielberg was seen as a wunderkind who couldn't fail. Having learnt his craft on Duel and The Sugarland Express, he had taken North America by storm with the monumental success of Jaws in the summer of 1975. The huge commercial success of both Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind helped to gloss over the fact that both projects overran considerably on time and budget. While 1941 wasn't technically a flop, grossing $92m on a $35m budget, its indulgence marked a wake-up call to audiences, Spielberg and the studios that employed him.
You know you're in trouble when the opening scene of a film finds the director parodying himself with wanton abandon. The scene in question features a woman running into the sea naked and skinny-dipping - not only are there the same movements as Jaws, but it's the very same actress performing them. The Jaws music comes in, and then instead of being sucked down by a shark, she ends up suspended on a submarine's observation pole, being ogled by a Japanese sailor shouting "Hollywood!". It's the kind of joke that might have made it into Porky's two years later, but which isn't befitting of Spielberg's pedigree or sensibility.
We can see in 1941 hints of everything that made Indiana Jones so great. There is the battle-related slapstick, the pantomime depiction of Nazis, the impressive vehicle-based stunts, and the action set-pieces where characters weave in and out of each other. Some of the jokes which made it into Raiders of the Lost Ark were the result of Spielberg failing to shoehorn them into 1941, the most famous being the joke about the folding coat-hanger. But while Raiders and its sequels have sustained B-movie charm to compliment the extravagant spectacle, 1941 relies solely on its zany tone to carry us forward. After 20 minutes the initial pleasure of the zany tone has gone and every joke falls dead flat on its face.
The central problem with 1941 is that Spielberg left out the two things that any comedy film needs: a good, efficiently told story and interesting characters. It is ironic that a director who has become known for his heart-warming sentimentality should have crafted a film with no discernible emotional core. What's even more ironic, and depressing, is that Spielberg managed to assemble such an impressive cast of comedic talent and then found no good use for any one of them.
The film is a big collection of outrageous characters, all of whom deserve their own film. We can imagine John Belushi's hard-drinking pilot tearing across the Pacific Ocean, leading the US attack while generating much ire among his pun-pushing superiors. His character is the love-child of John Wayne, Major Kong and Bluto from Animal House; like the latter, he has no manners, little self-respect and a bumbling physicality. There are further hints of Dr. Strangelove in the mad general played by Warren Oates, who like General Jack D. Ripper is convinced of an incoming threat and well past the point of no return. The love triangle or square between Stretch, Wally, Betty and Maxine is a whole film in itself, especially when you take account of Wally's talents as a dancer. And there is the frustration of Captain Birkhead (Tim Matheson, another Animal House graduate), who attempts to seduce Donna by exploiting her fetish for aeroplanes.
What we have is not so much a film as a collection of scenes and characters from a dozen films, which cross each other's paths completely at random and without any form of internal logic. Marshalling all the different stories together is like herding cats: there is no much separating the characters, and so much plot contrivance, that even Robert Altman would have struggled to hold it together. There is no central protagonist we can gravitate towards, we don't get enough time with any of the characters, and when we do get time they all seem either too stupid, too wet or too thinly-drawn to care about.
When it comes to the actual comedy of 1941, it's few and far between. The big gag about a panic surrounding a Japanese invasion of America is given so little screen time that it may as well not be happening. You get the sense that the characters would have behaved this stupidly and anarchically whatever the circumstances, which in turn makes them even less appealing. The recurring images of stocking tops and cigars, coupled with the dim-wittedness of the Japanese submarine crew, smack of a director aiming for the broadest laugh possible, resorting to adolescent Freudian imagery because he cannot handle anything more refined.
Because it never makes the effort to build the comedy, either around a key event or a certain character, the tone of 1941 becomes progressively more hysterical until it becomes totally unbearable. In the last 20 minutes much of the dialogue is reduced to shouting and gurning as characters suffers huge, oh-so-hilarious pratfalls. The best example of Spielberg's poor record for out-and-out comedy is to be found in the destruction of Ned Beatty's house with the anti-aircraft gun. Rather than timing the shells and throwing in a few witty edits, the punch lines are shoved in our faces before the joke has got its boots on, and the whole piece is paced so poorly that we really couldn't care less about the house or anyone in it.
Faced with this constant inability to construct a joke, or maintain any kind of focus, 1941 becomes nothing more a boring procession of special effects. Despite the involvement of Robert Zemeckis at both a script and production level, there is no integration of the effects into the narrative, something that Zemeckis has made his trademark. The explosions, the property destruction, even rolling the ferris wheel along the pier - all of them just pass us by like noisy and annoying tumbleweed.
The only sequence in 1941 which is even faintly on the money finds Major General Stillwell (played by Airplane!'s Robert Stack) sitting in the movie theatre watching Dumbo. Throughout the screening soldiers come up to him to warn him about the carnage outside, but he just wants to sit and watch the film until it's over. It's not a great joke in and of itself, but it's the one time in the film where a joke is used to build up a character and carry part of the plot forward. Or it could just be a case of desperation on our part: seeing Dumbo on screen reminds us of how good it is, and we focus on that to distract from the mess surrounding it.
1941 is a two-hour headache of a film and a shoe-in for the title of Spielberg's worst film. No matter how much goodwill we have towards him as a director, or how bad sections of Hook are by comparison, there is so little here by way of redeeming features that the only sensible responses are anger and depression. Both of these are lessened by the quality of what came before, and the knowledge of what was just around the corner. But on its own terms, outside of this context, it is a disaster of epic proportions.