There are some good ideas here, but unfortunately, they are thin on the ground, and very few of them land properly.
Resonant Line: "General Joseph W. Stilwell: This isn't the state of California, it's a state of insanity."
The plot is an odd mixture really, set in 1941, it basically sees a Japanese submarine led by Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee (a Nazi), on course to try and hit the western coast again just after the recent Pearl Harbour attack. The US is on high alert after the bombing, paranoia is running amok but there is a real risk of another attack. During this time we follow multiple storylines involving various characters within the US military that eventually all combine at the finale. You have the unhinged John Belushi as Wild Bill Kelso who flies around in his Curtiss P-40 fighter and...errr little else really. I kinda get the impression Spielberg mainly stuck him in because he was a big star at the time and was virtually a package along with Dan Aykroyd. Meanwhile, a tank crew consisting of Aykroyd, John Candy, Mickey Rourke, Treat Williams and Frank McRae are on their way to a military base or just on patrol due to the recent attacks (not really sure), and getting into all sorts of trouble. Sitarski (Williams) is after a young girl who is also the target of the young whippersnapper Wally (Bobby Di Cicco), both of whom are trying to take her to a local dance contest.
Meanwhile!! Major General Stilwell (Robert Stack) is trying to control everything from the general public to his inane troops in the midst of this supposed pending doom from the far east. There is also a love story going on between Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen that flits in and out of the other sub plots, Slim Pickens is kidnapped by the Japs and interrogated on-board their sub, Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary get an anti-aircraft gun stuck in their backyard, and Eddie Deezen is stuck atop a ferris wheel overlooking the coast for the pending Jap invasion. In short, the entire thing is a horrific muddle of plots that intertwine with each other, and basically they all focus on one thing, the Japs invading the west coast and everyone going crazy with paranoia over it. The only twist is, the Japs actually are and do invade the west coast confirming everyone's paranoia, but it then leads to even more batshit happenings as everyone tries to combat them.
Apparently this mishmash of a plot was actually based on some real events from the era. This probably explains why its such a mess, because they based the movie on several different events. The first being the supposed and infamous 'Battle of LA' whereby LA apparently came under attack from a mysterious object in the sky. No one knew what it was, but they shelled it anyway, because hey...Merica! Other events were the bombing of an oil refinery in California, an incident where an anti-aircraft gun was indeed stuck in someone's backyard, and something called the zoot suit riots. Basically lots of migrants flooded the State from Mexico to help the war effort, as did lots of marines and sailors, aaand they all ended up fighting each other. Twas called the zoot suit riots because at the time zoot suits were trendy and many young Mexicans (and others) wore them.
In all honesty this movie is such a mess, you really have no clue what's going on and why half the time. Sure there are young blokes in uniform fighting over dames and other crazy blokes in uniform doing silly things, but that's it. The whole thing is like one long long large action sequence, or riot, it doesn't stop! The plot sinks below this constant barrage of high octane hijinks including a lot of fisticuffs, big dance routines, cockpit tomfoolery, sloppy romance, mass destruction of everything, lots of gunfire and loads of screaming into the camera. There is no way in hell you'd think this was a Steven Spielberg movie, not a chance, its like some cheesy, cheeky, high school flick filled with jocks and nerds in a constant raucous.
Now even though most of what you see is an absolute headache of noise, it all looks terrific. Overall it may not come across like your typical Spielberg movie, but in terms of visuals and special effects, it definitely has that classic old Spielbergian (dare I even say...Lucas-esque) vibe going on. All the period sets, props and costumes are wonderfully detailed and highly authentic looking. You have all the classic cars, planes, machinery, electronics and weapons spot on from the era too, everything from the radios, the local diners, to the decorations in the dance hall, it all looks gorgeous, far too good for such a throw away flick like this really. I must also give much kudos to the model work on display towards the finale, a full scale town mockup I think, also included were a lot of decent bluescreen shots (for the time), solid interior (exterior) plane and sub sets and I think some matte painting work going in places. The full gamut of special effects wizardry going on which you come to expect from these old action movies, but they still hold up very well.
The cast is clearly another big key element and hook with this movie, its like a who's who of the time. You have some epic actors like Lee, Beatty and Mifune alongside crazy comedians like Candy, Aykroyd and Belushi. Much like the movie its a real mishmash of talents that don't really gel together in my opinion. Mifune is clearly taking his role as a Jap sub commander pretty seriously, Lee is also coming across as an eerie Nazi officer (kinda like 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'), but then Spielberg sticks Slim Pickens in a scene with them. Its also evident that the studio wanted more of Aykroyd and Belushi because of their SNL fame at the time, unfortunately there isn't really anything for them to do and it feels like they are just crowbarred in for exactly that reason...their SNL fame. Seriously, Belushi doesn't need to be here at all, his character is good for like...one visual gag. Most everyone else is young and upcoming admittedly so it doesn't feel like overcrowding in that (big name) sense, but there is clearly way too much going on, too many characters jockeying for space, too many little plots going on. Also far too many silly cameos that just weren't needed, it felt like some kind of big variety show or Spielberg giving all his mates sweet little plum bit parts for no real reason.
In the end this movie really feels like a misfire, I'm honestly not sure if Spielberg really knew what he wanted to do here. Its suppose to be a zany comedy but its not really very funny at any point, although its zany enough. Plenty of action and pep as everything zips along but its so disjointed and uneven, I'm still not really sure what Wild Bill Kelso was supposed to be doing, or why he's even in the film, and apparently Christopher Lee's Nazi got killed by being thrown into the sea? I guess he couldn't swim? One issue that springs to mind is the fact everything this movie is based on (and sends -up) is the history of California, and virtually unknown to most. Sure you could say that about many things but the events this movie are based around feel even more minor than usual, as though its a big in-joke for the people of California (those in the know). Alas many probably haven't got a clue so it just comes across as a daft, meaningless screwball comedy that just isn't funny. I guess one last plus point now would be the nostalgic factor, looking back at this amazing ensemble cast, won't see anything like that again.
The only movie with both Dan Akyroid and John Belushi in it, as well as comedy legends John Candy (Spaceballs), Slim Pickens (Blazing Saddles) and Warren Oats (Stripes). You need to see this movie now!
Apparently, Spielberg and Zemeckis think it's hilarious! to have a "comedy" mocking Californians who would understandably be scared after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Would Spielberg think that it would also have been hilarious! to have a comedy mocking New Yorkers who were understandably scared after the Muslim attacks of 9/11?
As out of it as Spielberg is, I am guessing so. Many of his fellow Jews ranged from confused to horrified when he used Nazis as cartoon villains in the Indiana Jones movies.
Maybe "Schindler's List" was Spielberg's way of trying to regain credibility among his fellow Jews. But, here with "1941," he's clearly oblivious.