War Movie Mondays: ’1941′

This week’s pick is the 1979 least known and only comedy from director Steven Spielberg, 1941 which stars Saturday Night Live originals Dan Aykroyd (Sgt. Frank Tree), and the incomparable John Belushi (Capt. “Wild” Bill Kelso, U.S. Army Air Corp.) Other supporting actors include Bobby Di Cicco (Wally Stephens), Ned Beatty (Ward Douglas), Lorraine Gary (Joan Douglas), Murray Hamilton (Claude Crumm), Christopher Lee (Capt. Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt), Tim Matheson (Capt. Loomis Berkhead) and Toshiro Mifune (Cmd. Akiro Mitamura).

Also on hand are Warren Oates (Col. Maddox), Robert Stack (Maj. Gen. Joseph W. Stillwell), Treat Williams (Cpl. Chuck “Stretch” Sitarski), Nancy Allen (Donna Stratton), John Candy (Pvt. Foley), Slim Pickens (Hollis P. Wood), and Count Floyd himself, Joe Flaherty (Raoul Lipschitz).

The opening of the film informs the audience about the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 which hurtled an unsuspecting America into World War II. The West Coast of the United States was fearful that the Japanese would attack California next. These were actual fears that were quickly realized by its citizens, and that extreme caution and observation was needed to thwart any attempt which made invasion possible. The film is set just six days after the Pearl Harbor attack.

In the first few opening minutes of the film, Spielberg, and writers Bob Gale, John Milius, and future director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy) fantastically lampoon Spielberg’s Jaws opening by using the very same actress to re-create her skinny dip scene in the early morning hours. Veteran Spielberg composer John Williams even re-creates his famous theme music. The female swimmer is instantly caught on the periscope of a Japanese submarine which is prowling the California coastline for a worthy military target.

The commander of the sub crew (Mifune) wants to return to Japan after destroying a valuable American target in hopes to further demoralize America from fighting. One of his aids believes that such a worthy target would be Hollywood. Captain von Kleinschmidt (Lee), is a German advisor aboard the sub who informs the Cmd. and his men that Hollywood is inland and can not be destroyed easily. As they prepare to dive, one of the crew notices the naked woman atop the periscope and yells in excitement “HOLLYWOOD” while performing the Banzai maneuver. Even at age 9, this scene had me falling off of the couch in hysterical laughter.

The film is a great throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940’s, with its razor sharp wit, pinpoint delivery, and terrific cast. Other great notable performances are Dan Aykroyd (Sgt. Tree) who leads a squad of tankers who help to defend downtown Los Angeles during a spectacular air raid sequence. The M-3 Lee tank “Lulubelle” was the actual tank from the 1943 Humphrey Bogart classic Sahara.

John Belushi’s role is quite possibly the best in the whole film as crazy Army pilot Wild Bill Kelso who has been trailing a squadron of Japanese fighters which tried to bomb San Francisco. Wild Bill has lost his unit and ends up in L.A., and helps to prevent the Japanese sub from carrying out its mission of sabotage. Belushi’s pratt fall off of the wing of his P-40 Tomahawk fighter was an accident that was left in for its slapstick brilliance.

The film has many terrific scenes which make the film truly unique and a comedy cult classic, whether its Tim Matheson’s character who is trying to seduce an old flame (Allen) who is only aroused while in flight, to a family man (Beatty) who receives his own anti-aircraft gun to shoot down low flying Japanese planes, yet ends up destroying his own home in the process. They’re all great.

My favorite scene has always been the interrogation scene between the Japanese sub crew and a Christmas tree farmer who has been abducted by them because his name is Holly (short for Hollis) Wood who is played by the ever great actor Slim Pickens. As they bring him aboard the sub, they try to also bring his radio aboard but can’t fit it down the ladder into the sub. In a moment of frustration one of the Japanese sailors mumbles “We’ve got to find a way to make these things smaller.” A fantastic line which still makes me laugh out loud.

The compass aboard the ship is malfunctioning and the Japanese are lost. They find a compass in a box of cracker jacks which they took off of Wood and try to use it to find their bearings. Hollis grabs the compass and swallows it. In retaliation, the Japanese force feed him prune juice in hopes to regain the compass and find Hollywood.

A fantastic scene, which Spielberg has used certain elements in other films e.g. in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the character Toht (A Nazi party official) played by veteran British actor Ronald Lacey pulls out an object which looks like a torture device, but is a coat hanger. A similar prop was used in an outtake with Lee’s character who tries to impose a harsher method for Wood to…get the compass out of his system faster. Spielberg himself said that he tried many times to use that gag prop, but it wasn’t til Raiders of the Lost Ark two years later that it would work most effectively.

Other great scenes include a fantastically choreographed USO dance at a club on Hollywood Boulevard, to a full blown riot which erupts on the streets due to fear of a Japanese attack, to a runaway Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. It is a film which has it all and is a very funny film with some outstanding performances from an impressive cast.

1941 had somewhat of a decent box office run in the winter of 1979, but failed to add up to many critic’s expectations that this was to be better than Spielberg’s two previous giants, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Jaws (1975) which marked the dawn of the summer blockbuster. 1941 did especially well in Europe which was still a fan of slapstick comedy. When the film was released in theaters in December 1979, it was labeled as “Spielberg’s Christmas Turkey” due to the ham handed nature of the film. I on the other hand have always appreciated the film and have always considered it one of my top ten favorite comedies of all time.

It is a film that did especially well when it was first released on VHS and later the extended cut was made available on DVD in the late 1990’s. 1941 was even nominated for three 1980 Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It won nothing.

1941 is a very funny comedy that continues to find new audiences who love it’s brand of humor and many references to other films and pop culture of the 1940’s. It is a comedy but is also a war movie which deals with actual events which plunged the West Coast into panic after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a film that needs to be re-examined and appreciated with a new generation of film goers who like myself, have added it to their collection.

Favorite quotes: “I can’t stand to see Americans fighting Americans.” “You have a really serious wardrobe problem kid.” “Holy shit Herb the dummy is right, Japs. It’s a full scale invasion.” “Kid ya gotta get that sub.” “Where?” “The ocean lamo.” “TURN OFF THOSE LIGHTS YOU LITTLE ASSHOLE!” “Jesus Christ Angelo, they gave him a gun.” “Turn this tub around you’re taking me to Tokyo. Anybody got  light?” “Look out the window of course we’re airborne.”

“We are but you’re not.” “Interceptor command do you see any Jap Zeros?” “No sir but we’re shooting at them.” “Check him for stilts.” “Hey they got a Kraut on board too. We got the whole damn Axis here.” “The Army gave me a gun I think it’s high time we used it.” “Hold the block. You can hold one block can’t you?” “Oh look a baby wolf.” “Where?” “It’s gonna be a long war.” “A Nazi! I knew it, you’re all in cahoots.” “Directly in front of me I see a flying blond floozy.” “I think the really big year of the war is gonna be 1942.”

1941 is available on DVD from Universal Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.

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