Why Steven Spielberg's 1941 is a model film
Recently, I signed up with Netflix. It’s a great concept, with plenty of movies and TV shows playable on-demand, any time day or night. Sure, the choice of recent releases is pretty lean, but hey, what do you expect for eight bucks a month?
Having exhausted all the A-list choices, I’ve recently started re-visiting some movies from my younger days, including 1941, director Steven Spielberg’s comedy epic about war hysteria in California after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
For a long time—and some legitimate reasons—1941 hasn’t received much respect, if it’s even remembered at all. A product of the decadent 1970s, it’s something of an overblown vanity project, an Ocean’s Eleven for the Me Generation.
And, as such, it’s very definitely a product of its era: full of coke-fueled manic comedy (Pauline Kael said that watching it was like “having your head stuck inside a pinball machine for two hours”), self-referential jokes, and timely (for then) references. Indeed, the sparse plot barely provides a thin 1940s veneer over 1970s sensibilities.
To whit: in one scene, as a Japanese sailor struggles to get a huge cathedral radio through the hatch of his submarine, he remarks, “We’ve got to figure out how to make these things smaller!” When I saw this movie brand-new, at the Vogue Theater in December of 1979, it got the biggest laugh of the evening—so much so that I still vividly remember the crowd’s response almost 35 years later. Nowadays, it probably wouldn’t even register with most moviegoers.
Still, 1941 holds up surprisingly well. There are some solid gags, an all-star cast (Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, John Candy, Christopher Lee, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Robert Stack, and Treat Williams, just to name a few), a great dance sequence, and dumptrucks full of money up there on the screen.
If nothing else, 1941 is an important historical document as it marks a high point in practical special effects, with an astonishing amount of miniatures and composite shots.
The film’s incredible visuals—and there are many—are old-school all the way, created by huge team led by Academy Award winners L. B. Abbott (Planet of the Apes, The Poseiden Adventure, Logan’s Run) and A.D. Flowers (Tora Tora Tora, Apocalypse Now).
The finale, with an aerial dogfight (of sorts) through the streets of downtown Los Angeles and a Japanese submarine attack on a seaside amusement park are true marvels of the modelmakers’ art.
Supervised by industry legend Greg Jein (Dark Star, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, multiple Star Trek movies plus TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation), the miniature sequences are breathtaking in both their realism and sheer grandeur. After all, this is not the cartoony CGI of today’s blockbusters; these are the special effects of true masters—an elegant product of a less digitized age.
1941 may be noisy, bloated, and self indulgent, but there are few better examples of the true artistry involved in practical special effects.
So throw on a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and ponder it as film history while stroking your Van Dyke, or simply crack open a brew and enjoy Belushi going volcanic.
Either way, it’s a type of cinema spectacle we’ll never see again.