Contemplating this blogathon’s subject at hand, my mind was made up immediately. With a career as lengthy and critically impressive as John Williams‘ there are always plenty of options. He did everything and he did it with style. However, there is one movie that sticks out as a bit of a sore spot in not only his but director Steven Spielberg’s filmography. 1941 has lived in infamy (to pardon the expression) as a resounding critical dud. Yet, this is me we’re talking about! If anyone is able to see the good in a glossy, 1940s period piece, it’s me, right? Right? Well, I dove into this first-time watch with both feet to see exactly what I was missing. Read on kids, just read on.
1941 is a supersized comedy following the comic hijinks of various characters in California when it appears a Japanese invasion of the coast is imminent. The film features an all-star cast with names like Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, Ned Beatty, Murray Hamilton, Robert Stack, Toshirô Mifune, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, and many, many more. Steven Spielberg directs the film from a script by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
We are of course here, for one thing, John flipping Williams. When I opened up my Letterboxd statistics out of curiosity, I wasn’t surprised to see that John Williams topped my “Composer” statistics with 47 films watched. With a career spanning more than sixty years, Williams is one of the truest titans of the industry. He is the best at what he does. From Jaws, to the Star Wars franchise to the Indiana Jones series, Williams’ scores are iconic and capable of elevating a film on their weight alone.
In fact, when contemplating my feelings on 1941, this felt like part of my struggle with the period comedy. As the ending credits rolled, 1941 wants to be a number of different things and none of them quite work well together. This movie does feel very much at home in the comedy scene of the late 1970s. To draw a very specific comparison, I found myself repeatedly reminded of National Lampoon’s Animal House, which hit theaters just a year earlier. One can certainly also point to the presence of Matheson and Belushi (both of whom starred in the classic frat-house comedy).
At the same time, I found myself checking the script credit repeatedly for Pat Proft (he isn’t involved!). At many points, this movie felt like his work. Proft is best known for many of the parody comedies of the era like Hot Shots!, The Naked Gun series and the Police Academy franchise. This sounds like a negative (believe me, it isn’t meant that way, dear readers). Proft brings a very silly and sometimes juvinile comedy. His work has a distinct voice and is very of this era. This fact demonstrates the tone this movie desperately wants to hit. 1941 is supposed to be a zany comedy.
Herein lies my struggle with 1941. While the film is a standard comedy of the period it is also unapologetically a Steven Spielberg picture. At this time, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws hit theaters within the last four years and remained still very much in the cultural memory. With Spielberg (even then) comes a certain amount of glitz and polish. His skill as a filmmaker is unmistakable and this is on display in 1941 which is a visually gorgeous movie.
It is at this point that I must double back to talk about the ‘Man of the Blogathon’… John Williams. As I mentioned earlier, Williams’ compositions bring the ability to elevate a movie and his iconic scores bring a definite prestige. When looking at Williams’ career at this point, he moved to this film after composing the score of Superman (1978).
The next year, he would jump to The Empire Strikes Back:
John Williams composes big, brassy sweeping musical scores. So many of his works have transcended the decades and it is often possible to name the movie by listening to his score alone.
While 1941 is certainly not as well remembered as some of these bigger compositions, as the opening credits roll in 1941 it is not only recognizable as a John Williams score, but it feels utterly at home in the pantheon of Spielberg/Williams partnerships. Very few filmmaker/composer pairings reach this level of recognizability (with the exception of perhaps Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann). Their work just fits together, like peanut butter and jelly… or bacon and eggs.
This is, I suppose the long way of saying that I struggled in the melding of tones Spielberg hoped to achieve. As it currently exists, 1941 feels like a super-sized period epic. It’s sprawling, there are a lot of characters and it looks (and sounds) absolutely amazing. Of course, it does, this is a Spielberg picture. The Los Angeles Times dated 21 December 1979 provides a quote from actor Robert Stack which exemplifies the struggle happening up on the screen:
I play another authority figure in ‘1941,’ a general in the U.S. Army, but Steven Spielberg gave me an absolutely inspired piece of direction. In one scene he told me, ‘Play it like Oliver Hardy’
Robert Stack… Oliver Hardy… the mind boggles.
It’s difficult to say just where the comedy falls flat for me. Could my struggles partially come from watching 1941 through a 2022 lens? That’s always an argument. As we look back on Spielberg’s work, he is chiefly known for prestige pictures and popcorn flicks. His direction (and with that Williams’ score) “classes up the joint”. Yet here we find the problem. At its roots, 1941 is not a classy picture. Scriptwriters Zemeckis and Gale have crafted a silly almost-sex comedy and the ultimate result leaves the film feeling confused. It isn’t outrageous enough to match wits with the other comedies of the era, but it looks better than almost everything. It’s truly a befuddling blend.
Press clippings show 1941 as certainly a hotly anticipated movie leading up to its 1979 release. An article in the Press Democrat out of Santa Rosa Californa dated 16 May 1979 writes:
Aside from the 27 million (dollar budget), 1941 is Spielberg’s most ambitious picture. He has employed 100 stuntmen for a spectacular stunt every four minutes in the two hour and fifteen-minute film.
Ultimately, 1941 is known for being a rare flop in the lineup of juggernauts in Steven Spielberg’s career. The Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote on 23rd December 1979,
Spielberg, the whiz kid director of “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is trying his hand at comedy this time out…. The results don’t work very well, and the film isn’t very funny- but it sure is amazing to watch…
Meanwhile, the review in the San Francisco Examiner (14 December 1979) calls it a “… loud, frantic, crashing bore”.
Despite all the power behind 1941, much of the movie’s critical reception is very much the same. It just didn’t work. Everything on paper really should yield an amazing result. Spielberg and Zemeckis were two of the young titans of New Hollywood. John Williams’ compositions speak for themselves. Meanwhile, with a cast including some of the brightest spots in not only New Hollywood (John Belushi and Dan Akroyd) but in classic cinema as well (Robert Stack and Toshirô Mifune) everything should shine. It’s truly hard to peg what doesn’t work.
Recent writing on the film shows many seem to be coming full circle as it relates 1941. Does it deserve its flop reputation or is it really the misunderstood cult classic many in the critical community are starting to see it as? Let me know your thoughts.
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