Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Favorite Era: 1941 (1979)

As I said in the American Ninja 2 piece, not all the films in this series are necessarily good.  In the case of our subject today, it can be said the final result is horrendously crappy in fact.  Bloated, undisciplined and somewhat baffling, Steven Spielberg's 1941 is an impressive disaster of a movie.

Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis  (who would later collaborate on the much better Back to the Future movies) along with help from John Milius, it's based in part on an actual crisis that swept over Los Angeles in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The film follows several groups of people from the army to civilians as they basically panic for two hours and twenty six minutes.  We get an all-star cast, a good score from John Williams and, well, noise.  Lots and lots of noise.  Let's take a closer look.
  • Before we start, I just have to say the best thing about this movie is the DVD.  A direct port of the laserdisc edition, it has an awesome documentary on the making of the film that doesn't pull any punches.  Hell, there's even a selection of crummy reviews from the time the film came out you can look at!
  • Also, the main reason I wanted to put this in the series is because I figure if I'm gonna talk about some of Steven Spielberg's best films, I might as well examine the worst of them all, with the exception of The Lost World.
  • To the film itself, just so I'm starting things off on a positive note, the main title theme John Williams composed is quite good, a nice little military march that is certainly more rousing than anything else in the movie.
  • I do like the funny Jaws spoof that opens the film with the same woman (Susan Backlinie) and the same location only this time is it a Japanese sub manned by Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee that surprises her.
  • Not for nothing, but at the very least this film should get credit for getting Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee on screen together.  And yes, I am trying like hell to find nice things to say here.
  • The cast is really good here (that's not the same thing as the cast doing good work though) with a mix of Spielberg regulars, Animal House and SCTV vets and some notable character actors.  There isn't really what I would call a main character as everything is just drowned out by noise and wackiness.  Still, a few like John Belushi and Robert Stack manages to turn in amusing bits here and there with Stack acting as the straight man and Belushi basically just being funny by sheer force of will.  Others like Dan Aykroyd and John Candy just sort of get swallowed up by the whole thing.
  • Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen are okay as a horny general's aide and reporter respectively, though frankly Matheson is basically just doing his Animal House character in a uniform.
  • The stuff with Ned Beatty and his family is not as good, ditto for the stuff with the USO dance and ensuing riot.  The plots just never come together in a way that is watchable.  This film is just fascinatingly bad.
  • John Belushi is very funny as a pilot, however.  As much as Spielberg botched this film, he was smart to let Belushi just be funny.  Most of the time he is just flying around in his plane and each time he finds a way to be at the very least, amusing.  Actually, he's barely in the film but damn it all I need to find something here!  This thing is nearly two and a half damn hours long!
  • Slim Pickens has a relatively amusing part as a guy named Hollis Wood who is captured by Mifune's crew (they are looking for Hollywood, them's the jokes here).  Really, the only funny bit comes when he swallows a compass he has that the crew wants (their own compass is broken) and Lee orders him in German to "Shit or die" as he tries to crap the thing out.  I never said the humor was deep, did I?
  •  I do get a chuckle out of Mifune's sub commander gravely expressing a desire to "blow the shit out of something big".  He just gives the line reading such weight and gravitas.  The guy was a hell of an actor.
  • The USO stuff goes on for too long, there is far to much mayhem and chaos to really settle in and enjoy things.
  • Warren Oates is pretty funny as a crazy general.
  • The air combat stuff is actually pretty good, one of the few times the unrestrained mayhem of the film sort of works a little bit.
  • The end credits are just as loud as the rest of the film with shots of the cast members screaming and periodic explosions punctuating the credits as they roll.  Sound and fury signifying nothing, well at least they fit with the rest of the film.
The film just has way too many characters and not enough focus.  It's well made and all but as much as I love the guy, Spielberg doesn't do wacky comedy well.  Still, there's something insidiously watchable about the film.  It's just fascinating to see so much talent wasted in such a bad movie.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.