“What a mess! What a goddamn mess!”
Real-life army general Joseph Stilwell (Robert Stack) says this, right when a car veers off the road and flips over on its side behind him, in the wild-as-hell second world war comedy 1941. While he’s describing the pandemonium that’s taking place on-screen, he’s also perfectly describing the movie as a whole.
Fresh from inventing the summer blockbuster with Jaws, and following that up with the sci-fi mega-hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg was officially the golden boy of new Hollywood. It seemed like as long as Spielberg was behind the camera, whatever he’s directing was gonna be an instant box office success.
Working from a juvenile-on-purpose script (that was, believe it or not, based on real events where Americans raised a ruckus during the war) by longtime buddy John Milius, Bob Gale and future A-list film-maker Robert Zemeckis, Spielberg thought he would be doing an $11m comedy. The budget eventually ballooned to $35m (that’s $135m in today terms). Most of the cast – not just the actual funny people – wanted to play their characters loud and crazy. He soon found that making a bombastic comedy was something he was not equipped to do. “It’s too [expletive] tough,” he flat-out told Rolling Stone shortly after the movie’s release.
When this self-proclaimed “comedy spectacular” was released in December 1979, it was greeted with savage reviews and meager box office receipts. Although it would go on to make $95m worldwide, it will forever be known as Spielberg’s first theatrical failure.
As much of a comic pileup 1941 is, it’s still my favorite Spielberg. Maybe it’s because I discovered it at a young age where I watched Looney Tunes cartoons and Three Stooges shorts religiously and, when I wasn’t doing that, I was smashing toy cars together during playtime. As someone who got a kick out of witnessing the most hilariously cartoonish, destructive stuff, 1941 was right up my alley.
Unlike most of Spielberg’s work, which is often earnest and serious, 1941 is straight-up silly. The movie begins in smart-ass meta fashion, with Susan Backlinie, aka the skinny-dipping girl who was the first victim in Jaws, skinny-dipping again, but this time being picked up by the periscope of a Japanese submarine, en route to Los Angeles. Six days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the commander (that iconic Akira Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) of this sub is looking for something stateside to hit. (Kudos to Spielberg for avoiding vilifying the Japanese, making them look just as lost and clueless as the people they’re going after.)
Meanwhile, all the Angelenos are on edge, fearing they’ll be the first to get attacked. The most paranoid of them all is “Wild” Bill Kelso (John Belushi), a very unhinged, US army air corps captain flying his P-40 Tomahawk plane all over California, looking for the enemy and becoming a bigger menace than those guys on the sub. Honestly, most of the character, especially those who are supposedly fighting for Uncle Sam, are a bit off their rockers, from Treat Williams’s egg-hating corporal to Warren Oates’s trigger-happy colonel to Nancy Allen’s military secretary, who gets off getting it on in warplanes. The only one who seems to have some marginal sense is Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd), who leads a tank crew (which includes future stars John Candy and Mickey Rourke) and tries to calm down a street full of fighting soldiers and sailors because he hates seeing “Americans fighting Americans”. That sense literally gets knocked out of him when a plastic Santa lands on his head, giving him a rather amusing concussion.
The manic, satirical mayhem of 1941 seems more metaphorical and prescient now than it did when released. It shows Americans running around losing their minds when they think a threat is imminent, something you could say Americans have been doing ever since 9/11.
For the past two decades, America has been filled with people worrying about outside forces taking over. Egged on by fear-mongering politicians and Fox News propagandists, MAGA hat-wearing men and women have continually prepared for some sort of invasion to show up and destroy democracy, the American dream, Christmas, etc. However, as the embarrassing storming of the Capitol – with clueless Trumpers wandering around, stealing stuff, smearing excrement on the walls and scaring many members of Congress into hiding – showed just a couple of months ago, the biggest threat to the United States is actually us.
1941 may be seen as a nonsensical farce to some, but it also may be the most fearless, American movie about national fear and panic ever made.