1941 at first seems like a big deviation from Spielberg’s previous films. Whereas the others ranged from drama to action to horror, this film is an incredibly broad comedy. The more I thought about it, though, this film is epic just like those ones, particularly Close Encounters.
1941 is set on the day and night of December 13, 1941, less than a week after the bombings at Pearl Harbor. The story jumps across a few locations, all set in California and ends in Hollywoodland.
The film begins like Jaws, with the same actress, in fact, running naked into the ocean and being surprised by something coming up from beneath her. In this case it’s a submarine, not a shark. It’s a Japanese submarine, apparently a rogue crew of soldiers who, inspired by the “successful” attack on Pearl Harbor, want to inflict similar damage on the mainland. They settle on Hollywood because it’s a symbol.
The story jumps between a few storylines, including this one. The submarine ventures down the California coast but continues to get lost. They take a brief detour to kidnap a farmer and ask for directions. He refuses to help them out, but then they find a small compass in the man’s cracker jacks. The farmer quickly snatches the compass and swallows it. Naturally they force him to drink prune juice and wait for nature to run its course. This storyline ends with the farmer somehow escaping, but he’s left in the middle of the ocean, unable to see the shore.
Another story, possibly the bulk of the story, introduces us to Wally, a dancing cook at a small establishment. He’s excited for the dance that night, but his enthusiasm is quickly dampened by the soldiers who take offense at his cheery disposition and Pearl Harbor t-shirt, reasonably concluding that it is in poor taste.
One of these soldiers is named Chuck Sitarski, and he hates Wally immediately. Later, Wally shows up at the home of Betty Douglas, the girl he’s dating. Betty’s father, Ward, doesn’t like Wally so he’s forced to hide when Ward shows up. That’s when the soldiers from that morning in the restaurant also show up, and Sitarski immediately sidles up to Betty. When Wally falls from his hiding place, Ward kicks him out as the other soldiers set up a gun turret at the Douglas home because of its advantageous location on the Santa Monica coast.
The other storyline follows Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi). He’s a very physical character, imposing himself on everyone and everything around him. We meet him in Death Valley when he lands his military plane on the road to get gas. When the plane begins to drift down the road, Wild Bill drops his cigarette to run after it. The cigarette lands in the spilled gasoline and causes a big explosion. Wild Bill has arrived.
The last story to be aware of is that of Captain Loomis and his attraction to Donna, whom he knows loves planes. Loomis failed out of flight school but he tries to get her in a plane with him so they can fool around. Later he convinces his general to let him go to a unit that has an aircraft and requires inspection of some kind. He brings Donna with him, and once there he is able to use the gun-less plane under the guise of leading a reconnaissance mission, which others consider to be suicidal, particularly since the plane has no radio.
This causes problems because everyone is on high alert and assumes the plane to be a Japanese plane. Instead of waiting on a visual when they see the plane on radar, everyone becomes trigger happy.
Wild Bill Kelso pursues this plane and shoots it down. This is a very long, destructive sequence, but when it ends the Japanese submarine finally arrives, and all hell breaks loose again.
Ward Douglas spots the sub and attempts to shoot it with the turret lent to him. In doing so he all but destroys his own house. The Japanese soldiers are about to return fire, but then they see the lights turn on (by mistake) at a fairground near the ocean. A ferris wheel lights up, and they shoot at it, believing it to be Hollywood.
Oh yeah, and before this, Wally wins back Betty from Sitarski, and they both fight and dance during the USO ball. It’s a wild sequence and very grand in nature, with all the dancing, falling and crashing.
Sitars eventually finds himself leading the soldiers he and we met earlier as their captain (played by Dan Aykroyd) has suffered a head injury.
So the Japanese soldiers on the submarine have accomplished what they set out to do, so they prepare to head home. That’s when they are greeted by Wild Bill who has swum out to them. They take him prisoner with ease.
The next morning everyone meets at the Douglas home as Ward’s house slides off the edge of the cliff.
There are a lot of explosions and things crashing. Planes crash, houses crash, bombs explode, bullets are shot, giant santa sculptures fall over, etc. It looks like a very big budget movie, which makes sense given the financial success of Jaws and Close Encounters for Spielberg.
I’m not sure what compelled Spielberg to pivot and make a comedy, but I’m guessing it’s similar to the drive that made Woody Allen make Interiors. Even Kubrick made a comedy, Dr. Strangelove.
The common theme, though, in Spielberg’s work until this time is a sense of escapism. Though there are some horrifying things going on in his films, they generally end well, and the challenges are all kind of out of this world. This film is escapism too, and it’s about a period of time full of escapist movies. We even see Major General Stillwell (the military leader in the LA area) sitting out most of the film’s craziest sequences, instead watching the film Dumbo and crying too. He’s ignoring everything going on in order to feel something new or to at least take a break. When he hears of all the commotion, he’s annoyed rather than concerned. He just wants a time out.
This film also feels like a golden era Hollywood film, like the ones made in the 20s or even the 40s. Honestly, I don’t know what decade, but whenever the culturally-accepted idea of Hollywood first arose, that’s when it feels like this movie was made. As a kid, when I thought of Hollywood, I pictured sound stages outside of which people in crazy costumes were walking around, maybe taking a smoke break. People are rushing around, lights are being built and there is just a lot going on. In 1941 there is certainly a lot going on. There’s a giant cast and giant set pieces. I can picture them calling “action” and hoping all goes according to plan during a big explosion. This felt like a film that would have been fun to make, maybe a bit stressful too, but definitely fun.
It’s also very outrageous in a way that feels more influenced by the sense of humor of Aykroyd and of Belushi. It feels like a vehicle made for those two emerging talents more than a Spielberg movie.
It’ll be interesting to continue watching Spielberg’s films and see how this relates to or has influenced his other works. I know he returns to the world war II era multiple times but in very dramatic films.
*Another way to look at this film is how it was probably marketed at the time. In the poster at the top of this write-up, it says “soon the screen will be bombed by the most explosive barrage ever filmed” (minus the word I’m unable to translate). So the studio sees this as another Spielberg epic, and that’s all they need because that’s what sells tickets.