A look at why Spielbergs most flawed film is one of his most important film making experiences
There is a scene close to the start of 1941, where two young men are working in a restaurant kitchen. One is preparing the food on the grill, whilst the other is pot washing. They are both dancing to early rock n roll in preparation for the big Jitterbug contest that evening. As they dance, their work becomes increasingly erratic, the cook smashes eggs onto the grill, letting them cook with shell, the pancake batter gets sloshed onto the heat plate with reckless abandon and the pot washer sends ornaments crashing into the soapy water without a care in the world. If ever a scene could be used as an example of art imitating production, then this perfectly encapsulates the total chaos that is 1941.
Filming on 1941 started in October 1978. Spielberg coming off two of the biggest commercial and critical hits of the 1970s with Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind made him one of the most bankable name in Cinema. Not since Alfred Hitchcock had a movie Director been on Cinema marquees. This was no matinee idol such as Robert Redford, or box office kings such as Burt Reynolds or Jack Nicholson, this was a movie nerd who knew that the record-breaking Jaws and the studio saving Close Encounters gave him pretty much free reign over budget, script, and cast. So when he announced to family and close friends that his next project was to be a comedy based on the Pearl Harbour attacks of 1941, more than a few eyebrows were raised. The material itself is not something that lies to comfortably with Spielberg, he never fully manages to get a handle on it, however, Spielberg’s bravado and self-confidence at this point knew no bounds. There didn’t appear to be anyone to say “no” to him.
The production itself went on for a staggering 257 days and it is reported that Spielberg shot over 1 million feet of film. Michael Kahn, who’s breathtaking work on Close Encounters will be revered for generatrions to come, struggles to weave the spaghetti like threads of plot together and on a film that is crying out for a steady hand on the Editing rudder this is a rare concept album curio performance from the usually dependable pairing of Kahn and Spielberg. Working on a script provided by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (who Spielberg would go on to greater success with Back to the Future in 6 years time), the screenplay was packed full of zany characters, each one displaying a cacophonic paranoia that drowns out any semblance of a cohesive story.
It’s quite stunning that 1941 was nominated for Academy Awards, but the nomination for Best Sound is beyond ludicrous. The one thing that 1941 is, is very loud. The montage cast call at the start of the end credits seems to emphasise this as each character is introduced with them screaming at the camera, only Robert Stack and Lionel Stander, who looks baffled throughout, get away without the scream.
The film opens with a completely misjudged homage to Jaws, with Susan Backlinie reprising her role as the doomed Chrissie Watkins, only instead of a Shark this time she gets caught on the periscope of a submerged Japanese submarine. This cheesy, self-referential nod to his previous work is something that has thankfully not found its way into Spielberg work since, (with the possible exception of the cringe-inducing pseudonym Steven Spielrock on the production credits for The Flintstones, where Spielberg acted as Executive Producer), Backlinie is not the only Jaws alumni to make an appearance with Murray Hamilton and Lorraine Gary making an appearance. Gary actually screams more into the camera in her 5 minutes of screen time here than in all 4 Jaws films put together. We then move to the previously mentioned dancing chefs, a scene that culminates in a fist fight in the restaurant that results in a soldier having his face plunged into a cream cake. We are then introduced to John Belushi’s drunk, loud American pilot who ultimately has to chase his plane off down the street firing his gun as he goes, and of course he’s shouting. This is all in the first 10 minutes and it is quite apt when Robert Stack, playing Major Stilwell first appears on screen and says, almost to the audience, “this is madness”. The film continues with one eardrum bursting setpiece after another, which more often not culminated in a character screaming wide-eyed into the lens. But, perhaps most criminal of all, it’s just not funny.
So why do I think this is an important film making experience for Spielberg? The free reign and lack of planning that hampered 1941 were eternally banished, never again would Spielberg go into production so ill prepared. One of the rare criticism I have ever heard labeled at Raiders of the Lost Ark is that some of the action sequences are over choreographed. Well yes, they are and for good reason. Raiders was meticulously planned, with each frame storyboarded and prepared, every fake snake and desert rock had its particular place, each battle-scarred truck had the exact amount of scorch marks, each piece of dialogue had a purpose to the plot. Spielberg was going in prepared, well and truly with no pedestal to preach from, he had to get this film right, on schedule and on budget, the result was an incredibly slick film that rose above its dusty landscapes.
Spielberg also realised his own limitations with comedic material and has stayed away from all-out, and in particular, slapstick comedy since. He came close in 2000 when he almost directed Meet the Parents, ultimately being persuaded against the idea by his wife Kate Capshaw. Spielberg films are packed with humour but it is never allowed to dominate or take over. Comedy, along with romance, shares a filing cabinet, labeled “only to be used in case of emergency” in Spielberg’s office.
There are moments of flair in 1941, but they are often displayed with a spiraling dizzyness that the camera battles in vein to keep up with.
Take the Jitterbug sequence that descends into an all-out brawl. At the end of the sequence the main protagonists, Wally and the downright disgrace of a character that is Stretch lie unconscious through pain and exhaustion, similar to how the audience feels at this stage.
However, lessons are clearly learned throughout. Here Spielberg, who let’s not forget has always wanted to make a musical, really throws caution to the wind with an energetic dance contest that lent more than a passing influence to West Side Story and the recent box office smash Grease. Until the chaos rains down on screen, you can see a keen eye for choreography, which was later displayed to a much greater extent but smaller scale in the “Anything Goes” prologue to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In fact, the opening to Doom is an interesting comparison here. Once again we have a musical number that soon turns nasty as Indy crosses and double crosses in negotiations with the treacherous Lao Che. Here Spielberg manages to keep a tighter reign on the fisticuffs, carefully positioning the main protagonists. The utilisation of props to remove the attention away from the many kung-fu extras who have been brought in to swell the melee is expertly done, in particular, a giant gong doubles as a protective shield as Indy makes his escape through a nearby window. This blog was first written in March 2019, when the upcoming West Side Story was still in pre-production, I would like to think when we eventually see that film in December 2021 that it will be more Anything Goes than 1941.
There are moments where things work well in 1941. The scenes involving Robert Stack as Major Stilwell watching Dumbo in the cinema are very affecting, a nod to a rediscovery of childhood innocence, a quiet moment of respite, an escape from the horrors of the outside world, a safe, secure environment, as an audience member, there is a desire to pull down the seat next to Stilwell and sit and watch the rest of Dumbo with him. Spielberg’s more energetic films away from 1941 would often include such a scene, e.g. Quint and Hooper comparing scars on the Orca, or in Saving Private Ryan the squad sit in an abandoned church and tell stories of lost lifestyles back home, or Ray and Rachel share a lullaby in the cellar during a quieter moment in the terrifying War of the Worlds. The Major Stilwell/Dumbo scene was possibly a reminder to Spielberg moving forward that there needs to be a quiet time even in the most crash, boom, bang of films. You need to give the audience an opportunity to catch their breath.
Most importantly, perhaps, is what Spielberg learned as a result of 1941. He was not infallible, he couldn’t surround himself with “yes” men who would fail to have an opinion. He would know what it was like to not fully prepare beforehand and see the results as a consequence. He would know his limitations, and he would never again have a cast member scream into the camera.
For more reading on 1941 and all of Spielberg’s cinematic output please take a look at my 1970s blog.
Thanks for reading.
My name is Dominic Holder and I like to promote the beauty and wonder of Cinema in my writing. I spend a lot of time promoting the power of Cinema as a tool of wellbeing to anyone and everyone. I love all kinds of films but in particular, I am a devoted fan of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, John Williams, Star Wars, Disney and Marvel. My love of Cinema stems from a trip as a 4-year-old to local cinema in Bolton to watch a Star Wars/Empire Strikes Back double bill, it was the first in a series of life-changing moments, I knew from the moment the Imperial Star Destroyer engulfed the screen at the start of A New Hope I was hooked. Thankfully nearly 40 years later I still get excited and still find escapism and happiness within this wonderful medium.
You can follow me on Twitter @DomHolder and read some of my reviews on Letterboxd at letterboxd.com/DomH
You can read more of my blogs on Film at www.dominicholder.wordpress.com