Tuesday, June 7, 2011

1941 (1979)

          After scoring two ginormous hits in the mid-’70s, director Steven Spielberg fumbled with his epic World War II comedy 1941, which was considered a major commercial and critical disappointment upon its initial release. The wildly ambitious (and wildly uneven) film has since gained more public favor thanks to wider exposure on television and video, and that’s all to the good—1941 isn’t a masterpiece, but it isn’t an outright disaster, either. In fact, the picture boasts some of Spielberg’s most audacious filmmaking, from expertly handled miniature effects to outrageously ornate crowd sequences, and it’s also filled with entertaining performances. The whole thing doesn’t hang together, and the film is far too long, but 1941 overflows with beautifully executed episodes.
          Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis in a madcap style that borrows from the Marx Brothers and Preston Struges, among others, 1941 tackles unique subject matter: the paranoia that gripped America’s West Coast immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the story, civilians and soldiers alike ramp up defensive efforts like placing armed lookouts in the Ferris wheel of the Santa Monica Pier and situating gigantic anti-aircraft guns on the lawns of beachside homes.
          The all-over-the-map script is stuffed with subplots and supporting characters, and some of the threads are more interesting than others. The business of a German U-boat commander (Christopher Lee) and his Japanese counterpart (Toshiro Mifune) incompetently searching for the California coast is very silly, despite the caliber of talent involved, but when the Axis duo captures and interrogates an American redneck (Slim Pickens), enjoyable lowbrow comedy ensues. A wartime romance between a fast-talking soldier (Tim Matheson) and a sexy military secretary (Nancy Allen) is amusing and spicy, especially during an elaborate seduction scene that takes place in a plane that’s still on the tarmac.
          The goofy stuff involving two Saturday Night Live comics is okay, with Dan Aykroyd playing the leader of a buffoonish tank crew and John Belushi mugging as Capt. “Wild” Bill Kelso, a pilot zooming around the West looking for targets. Some of the best material involves a patriotic family headed up by Ward Douglas (Ned Beatty), since this stuff slyly mixes domestic shtick with wartime high jinks. For sheer absurdity, however, it’s hard to beat the scenes with Robert Stack as a dopey general who cries watching the Walt Disney movie Dumbo.
          From start to finish, 1941 is unapologetically excessive, throwing explosions or hundreds of extras at the audience when simpler visuals would have sufficed, and things like narrative momentum and nuance get bludgeoned to death by the opulent production values. Still, the cast is filled with so many gifted actors (in addition to those already mentioned, look for John Candy, Eddie Deezen, Joe Flaherty, Murray Hamilton, Warren Oates, Wendie Jo Sperber, Treat Williams, and more) that even uninspired scenes are performed with consummate skill. The movie also looks amazing: Spielberg’s camerawork is intoxicatingly self-indulgent, since it feels like entire scenes were filmed simply to justify cool visuals, and peerless cinematographer William A. Fraker gives the whole thing a glamorous look. There’s even room for an energetic score by regular Spielberg collaborator John Williams.
          1941 is a mess, but it’s also a true spectacle.

1941: FUNKY

1 comment:

The Mutt said...

This movie has my single favorite sight gag in movie history: a runaway army tank crashes through the wall of a paint factory. It smashes through huge vats of paint. It crashes through the other wall drenched in bright blue, red and yellow paint. Then it crashes through the wall of a turpentine factory. When it crashes out the other side it is as clean as a whistle.

Pure genius. Was it worth the million bucks it must have cost to shoot? It was to me.