Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Universal has just released 1941 on Blu-ray. This movie has long been considered Steven Spielberg's worst film as a director, and it is also remembered as a costly bomb--but like several other films with bad reputations, 1941 now has a cult following.
1941 started out as one of the first scripts written by then-fledgling filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. The story was passed on to John Milius, who brought it to the attention of Steven Spielberg. After the mega-success of JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, Spielberg decided to do something different and make this "comedy".
The thing is, this comedy is based on the fear and paranoia Californians felt during the immediate aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. To put that in perspective....could you imagine someone making a comedy about the fear and paranoia New Yorkers felt during the immediate aftermath of 9/11? 1941 came out when I was just a kid, and I honestly don't recall any controversy over the movie, or a large group of anyone being offended by it.....but with the way that "The Greatest Generation" has become something of an overall brand name for anything World War II related, there's no way 1941 could be made today.
You would think that a movie combining the talents of Spielberg, Milius, Zemeckis, and Gale would be epic, and it is.....for all the wrong reasons. 1941 is the biggest, loudest, longest, and most expensive Three Stooges tribute ever made. If the Stooges had made their own version of 1941, say in....1941, it would have been about 17 minutes long and it would have worked perfectly. The real 1941 is so overblown and filled with excess that the viewer spends more time trying to take it all in instead of sitting back and getting any enjoyment out of it.
Every character in the film--with maybe the exception of Robert Stack as General Joseph Stilwell--is a buffoon, or a jerk, or a sex-crazed idiot. 1941 features just about a hundred of these characters, and while some of them are funny, the constant parade of silly behavior gets tiresome after a two-hour running time. I have a theory about epic comedies like 1941 and THE GREAT RACE and IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. Slapstick, in my opinion, works best when it is fast and quick, and the audience doesn't have time to think about it. The longer a comedy movie is, the more and more funnier the jokes have to be to keep up the momentum, and no film can be constantly laugh-out-loud funny for over two-plus hours. There's only so many ways you can watch someone fall over.
1941 attempts to be funny all the way through, with no breaks whatsoever. There's no "normal" characters, and there's no one the audience identifies with or roots for. Every time someone does fall down, that person knocks down something which knocks down something else, which causes a nearby gas pump to get knocked over, which causes the gas to spill, which winds up igniting and blowing up a huge building. (I'm exaggerating here, but not by much.) There's a hundred various large-scale gags in 1941, and any single one of them would have been the climatic topper in a Three Stooges short. Every scene is filled with what appears to be hundreds of extras--there are major serious historical war movies that don't have half as many people in them as 1941 does. (Please remember that 1941 was made long before CGI--all the extras are real, and many of the gags were done with real planes and tanks, or at least complicated models.)
The only other film I can compare 1941 to is the aforementioned IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD. That earlier film, however, did actually have a main plot. 1941 is just a series of comic vignettes strung together. The comparison works better when one looks at the cast list of both films. Just like MAD WORLD, 1941 has an amazing list of performers. Put aside John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd for a moment and consider some of the supporting players: Dub Taylor, Elisha Cook Jr., Slim Pickens, Warren Oates, John Candy, Ned Beatty....and don't forget the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee act alongside each other. Heck, even Dick Miller is in this movie (playing Officer Miller).
The problem is that such a great cast is mostly wasted. Aykroyd and Belushi don't even share a scene together (at least not in any official version of the movie), and Mifune and Lee spend most of their time trying to get Slim Pickens to take a crap. As I've mentioned, Robert Stack's General Stilwell comes off for the most part as normal (maybe because "Vinegar Joe" was a real historical figure), but even Stilwell spends most of his time on screen more worried about watching DUMBO than whether the Japanese are attacking Los Angeles.
One thing I will say for 1941 is that it features an astounding number of impressive special effects sequences. Because 1941 was a comedy, the FX done for it doesn't get much credit--but it should, because there's as much of it here as in any STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES film. I should also mention the music score by John Williams--it is one of his best, and it gets very little credit compared to the rest of the composer's work.
This Blu-ray of 1941 has two versions of the film--a two hour theatrical cut, and a two and a half hour extended cut. Needless to say, the shorter version works better. Both cuts have DTS sound, which is perfect for a movie filled with explosions and actors yelling and screaming.
The Blu-ray also has a feature-length documentary on the making of 1941, in which Steven Spielberg, John Milius, Robert Zemeckis, and Bob Gale are extensively interviewed. All four men regard 1941 as a fun time, and they seem to have no regrets about it at all. (It's obvious from the behind-the-scenes footage in this documentary that the 1941 shoot was one big party--this is definitely one production where the cast & crew had more fun making the movie than the audience did watching it.) Steven Spielberg reveals that he wanted John Wayne for the role of General Stilwell--and the Duke was really interested until he read the script. Wayne was one person who was offended by the story's take on WWII, and the actor even tried to get Spielberg to quit the project altogether. After Wayne turned the role down, Spielberg tried to get Charlton Heston to play it, but he didn't like the movie's tone either. Some might find the making of documentary more interesting than the movie.
There's also a stills gallery here, with a difference--the stills are shown in the order of the scenes in which they are from, and they are individually captioned. This gallery runs over an hour, and it is like watching the movie from an entirely new angle. (I wish more DVD and Blu-ray still galleries were like this.)
1941 is not a good movie, but it is an interesting one from a historical perspective. The on-and-off screen talent alone makes it worth a viewing. This Blu-ray is chock full of extras for film buffs and film collectors, and I got it rather cheap from Amazon.