As with most of the films that eventually "caused" the death of New Hollywood, the reports of 1941's commercial and critical failure have been vastly overstated over the years. The film turned a profit and, while it certainly received its share of negative reviews, its reception never reached the abysmal levels of a Heaven's Gate. It does, however, validate some of the primary criticisms of the late New Hollywood period, in that it is several times too big, too fussed over and too much a slave to the whims of its director.
That 1941 is a comedy proves hairier than New York, New York or Cimino's infamous bomb. For comedy, despite being the broadest and most exaggerated of genres -- well, perhaps second to the musical, but if that's true it's at least partially because nearly all musicals are themselves comedies -- also relies on reservation in delivery. Yes, everyone remembers Buster Keaton whirling himself about and positioning himself just right so that the wall of a house could fall on him without harm, but it's Keaton's deadpan, or Chaplin's sincerity, or the quieter moments in the more recent Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow fare, that linger longest in our hearts and minds.
For someone as visually resplendent as Steven Spielberg, however, recreating those major sight gags with the added benefit of increased budgets and vastly improved effects technology made for better bait than the desire to bring back some of that old comic charm. Ergo, Spielberg attempted to make a comedy out of American fears in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack, using the techniques he'd learned from his blockbusters, and the result is a feature so loud, so grandiose, so unreasonably, unjustifiably huge that the comedy loses any hint of subtlety as it must shout incessantly to be heard over the din.
The audio track of 1941 bustles at all times with roaring planes, grinding tanks and exploding shells. Occasionally, you can hear some people talking. When they do, they speak in old-timey period voices, barring those instances where the actors simply don't feel like doing so. I can't blame them: Spielberg clearly placed the actors on the ladder of importance a few rungs below the effects. The situation brings to mind that old hypothetical: if an actor stops caring in the middle of an explosion, does anyone notice?
Well, the answer is yes. For all the distractions and the fundamentally mismatched pairing of Spielberg's formalism and a hyper-zany WWII comedy, the biggest weakness of the film lies in some of its casting. For every actor who delivers -- a sadly underused John Belushi, Slim Pickens, Dan Aykroyd, the ever-delightful John Candy -- and elevates the questionable material, there is a corresponding piece of dead weight -- John Di Cicco, the arguable protagonist; Treat Williams, more of a villain than the invading Japanese; Tim Matheson, essentially parlaying his Otter character from Animal House into the role of a more straight-laced yet irreverent captain and leaving behind all the charm in the process. Particularly noticeable is the woeful use of such legendary actors as Toshiro Mifune (in one of his few American roles and the first in which he spoke all of his own lines without relying on dubbing) and Christopher Lee (naturally playing a Nazi on account of being British), whose roles leave little room for comedy and largely mine racial humor when they're given lines meant to elicit laughs.
But is the film so bad? The picture slips into tedium from time to time, yes. Some actors are either saddled with poorly written characters (relatively speaking; they're all shallow) or simply to weak to pull of any of the one-liners or gags. But a fair amount works, more than you would expect in an infamous "flop," anyway. The idea that, with the threat of a Japanese invasion of Los Angeles looming, the local base commander would elect to forgo his duties to catch a screening of Dumbo is funny, more so when Spielberg occasionally returns to the theater to watch the man choking back tears and mouthing along with the words. There's a lovely piece of deadpan at the beginning when the Japanese submarine surfaces and the sailors search for targets. The commander (Mifune) asks if there are any honorable targets in L.A. to attack, and one of his subordinates excitedly shouts "Hollywood!" A running gag of the film involves Birkhead (Matheson) attempting to seduce an old flame, Donna (Nancy Allen), by playing on her erotic fixation on flying. The various double entendres and broader comedy that derives from this setup is not exactly clever but most of their scenes earn laughs despite neither actor bringing much to the film.
Some of the physical bits work as well, pushed as they are so far into the red that, if nothing else, you have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. The entire final hour of the film counters much of the leaden exposition of the first, and it plays out basically as one large fistfight/gunfight/explosion. Nothing in this lengthy stretch of film makes a lick of sense, but Belushi's madman shtick works well for the role of a pilot who might be every bit as loony and over-committed as the kamikazes, and the rapid crescendo of action across the last 55 minutes at once moves the film into even more insane territory as it finally gives the comedy a chance to catch up and join the madness instead of lagging behind. 1941 climaxes with the Japanese firing upon a Ferris wheel in an amusement park and a house falling into the ocean, and I find myself agreeing with no one in particular that it really is the only possible way the film could have ended.
It's also interesting as a Spielberg fan to watch the film and see the connection to the director's other films, particularly ones he hadn't made yet. The opening scene is of course a thorough parody of the director's own Jaws, down to the same camera shots and setup (Spielberg even brought back Chrissy herself, Susan Blacklinie, to play the skinny-dipper), only this time the woman is not dragged down by a hungry monster but launched from the sea as the Japanese sub rises from underneath her. The blazing neon signs and smoky air around the section of L.A. where the military men let off steam recall the fuzzy luminescence of A.I.'s Pleasure Island. For that matter, the use of Dumbo ties into the mention and even emphasis on the Pinocchio story in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I. The fight that breaks out inside the dance hall -- indeed, the interior layout of the dance hall itself -- brings to mind the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The pompous Sitarski (Williams) attempts to rape the beautiful Betty, the object of our hero Wally's desire, and Wally's masculine rescue would be pasted over almost entirely into the George McFly-Biff Tannen-Lorraine Baines triangle of the Spielberg-produced Back to the Future. Now, Robert Zemeckis wrote and directed that film and co-wrote this one, which begs the question: what the hell is it with Bob Zemeckis and his perception of rape as a means to lighthearted character development?
Ultimately, 1941 is not a good movie. A neat encapsulation of what to expect with the picture comes at the start, when Spielberg transitions from the terrifically funny Jaws spoof and formation of the plan to attack Hollywood to a mercilessly unfunny scene in a diner that introduces Di Cicco, Williams, Aykroyd and a number of other major character. There's also the matter of the gentle but noticeable racism, some of which you could argue is a reflection of the way people spoke back then, particularly only a few days after the Japanese attack, but there are racist caricatures on the submarine without any brash, white Americans around (it's interesting that a few of the clips from Dumbo that Spielberg show the crows that have been since cited as racist). Despite the flaws, however, there are enough entertaining moments here to justify spending the two hours to watch the film, and Spielberg's too-slick direction even aids him at times, such as the dance/fight and a series of rapidly editing together tracking shots from different POVs involving a motorcycle sidecar separating from the bike and careening through the streets. It's understandable that such a big film could see its minor disappointment magnified to match its grandiosity, but a mild disappointment is all it remains, undeserving of some of the pure hatred directed its way.