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‘Madness conquers Hollywood!’ said the poster for the French release of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film, 1941. It’s a bit unclear as to whether this is a description of the plot of the movie or a criticism of the thought processes involved in the thing being made in the first place; it’s arguably equally accurate as both. This is the early Spielberg movie that most people don’t think of and haven’t seen, and the one that tends to be described as a failure despite the fact it made nearly $100 million at the box office (three times its budget). Personally I always think of the film as a kind of folie de grandeur, for want of a better expression: it’s deeply mystifying that a film like this one ever got made, but I’m very glad it was.

Stanley Kubrick said the biggest mistake Spielberg made with 1941 was telling everybody it was supposed to be a comedy, and the film certainly doesn’t start like one, with a mock-grave caption describing the somewhat febrile mood of panic and tension gripping the United States in the days following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. It soon becomes apparent that this is absolutely not your typical Spielberg film about the Second World War – a young woman out for a swim in the Pacific Ocean off the southern Californian coast is startled to find a Japanese submarine surfacing beneath her – not only is the scene directed as a spoof of the opening of Jaws, but John Williams reuses the theme from that movie, and it’s even the same actress (Susan Backlinie).

We then proceed to a scene between the commander of the sub (Toshiro Mifune) and a German advisor (Christopher Lee) discussing their situation (in Japanese¬†and German respectively)¬†and the commander’s desire to strike at a significant target in the continental US so they can return to Japan with honour. Both these movie legends play the entire film almost completely straight, no matter what else is going on around them (in this scene, for instance, there is a naked woman clinging to the periscope above them while they talk). It certainly makes a change from the gurning and screaming which is the preferred style of performance of nearly everyone else in the film as it goes on.

Well, anyway. 1941 has a huge number of characters and nearly as many subplots. In addition to Mifune and Lee trying to work out where their sub is and deliver an appropriately crushing attack on America, the film also concerns a young man trying to stop a soldier from stealing his girlfriend, an unhinged fighter pilot (John Belushi) trying to track down non-existent Japanese planes, a mild-mannered homeowner who has an anti-aircraft gun deposited in his garden by the army, an army officer trying to lure his superior’s secretary into a plane for, ahem, personal reasons (she is an aviophiliac, for want of a better word), and a motor pool sergeant (Dan Aykroyd) and his crew who are trying to maintain some kind of order. Courtesy of some ingenious plotting (the script is by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who of course went on to write Back to the Future), all these elements bounce off each other as the film proceeds (it essentially takes place within a single day) and the situation in Los Angeles gets more and more chaotic.

It is, if anything, a disaster movie played for laughs, having the same kind of structure – the difference being that here the disaster is largely self-inflicted (the first time I saw Independence Day, itself an heir to the 70s disaster tradition in many ways, I remember thinking ‘This reminds me of 1941‘, and I was not the only one to spot the resemblance). 1941 takes all the technical advances of late-70s cinema and puts them to the purpose of trying to be funny.

Set in 1941 and made in 1979, this movie is of course now closer to the time it depicts than the present day, and it is perhaps inevitable that it feels a little dated in some ways. Much of the comedy is of a broad, early Saturday Night Live kind, unsurprisingly given Belushi and Aykroyd found fame on SNL – there is a lot of Belushi’s bull-in-a-china-shop slapstick, in particular. There is a wilful irreverence about the war in this film which is not at all what one would expect, and which indeed made it somewhat controversial at the time – Spielberg offered John Wayne a role in it at one point, and Wayne not only refused but told him he shouldn’t make the film at all as it was un-American and unpatriotic. With Spielberg so well established as a Hollywood grandee these days, it’s fascinating to revisit a time when he was still a subversive young rebel.

In other ways, of course, this is very recognisably a Spielberg movie – there is music from John Williams (he contributes one of his more rousing marches), a strong sense of nostalgia, and of course the usual technical mastery. The appearance of Backlinie, reprising her role from Jaws, isn’t the only in-joke in the film, either – Lucille Benson appears in virtually the same role she had in Duel, made nearly a decade earlier, playing a gas station owner saddled with an awkward customer.

Perhaps it’s this sort of thing which has led many people to label 1941 as self-indulgent – Spielberg, fresh from the massive success of Jaws and Close Encounters, being given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, with the result being an overblown mess (‘Spielberg playing with cinema like a child with a toy train set’ was one comment). I don’t think it’s remotely fair to call 1941 a mess, for it manages to tell a complex story with a minimum of confusion. If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it’s a comedy which is not very funny – at least, not consistently.

There’s a relentless, manic quality to the film which eventually becomes a little exhausting rather than completely enjoyable, and it does require you to accept that the characters do absurd and ridiculous things for no other reason than that they’re supposed to be funny (a character on air raid warden duty takes a ventriloquist’s dummy with him). It almost anticipates Airplane! in its belief that if you bombard the audience continuously with jokes, enough of them will be funny for the film to succeed – and I suppose this is true, for this is a movie which never fails to entertain me. This may partly be because I just enjoy the fact that so much talent and so many resources have been devoted to bringing such an absurdly silly story to the screen, but as well as being a lavish piece of movie-making, 1941 is filled with colour and movement and action. The hectic pace may be a problem, but if the film slowed down for a moment it would surely fail entirely.

As I say, 1941 is a film I have always liked, even if Spielberg considers it to have not completely worked, and steered clear of comedy as a result (a shame, especially as he was supposedly planning to do a movie with the Goodies before this one came out). It’s hit and miss as a comedy, but as a technical achievement and above all as a spectacle, it has lots to offer.

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