1941 (1979)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, John Candy, Elisha Cook Jr., Bobby Di Ciccio, Dianne Kay, Slim Pickens, Joe Flaherty

Somehow I doubt that anyone in the late 2030’s will be brazen enough to write up a satirical comedy set in the weeks following 9/11. In fact, no amount of time would be good enough not to count as “too soon” for something like that. We do have this comedy set just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and there were those in 1979 who found it distasteful, disrespectful, and otherwise just plain wrong. Some who weren’t offended simply didn’t find it very funny. As a result, “1941” was neither a critical success nor as much of a financial winner as it was hoped to be. Yet the talent both in front of and behind the camera combine to make it the cult classic that it deserves to be.

Beginning on the morning of Sunday, December 13, 1941 (i.e. six days after Pearl Harbor), “1941” opens with a hauntingly familiar piece of John Williams music. Sure enough, there’s actress Susan Backlinie, spoofing her role as the girl who gets eaten by the shark at the beginning of “Jaws.” This time, she is lifted out of the water by an emerging Japanese submarine, which is commanded by Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune). The Japanese think they’ve arrived off the coast of Hollywood, their assigned target. Close, but no cigar. With an equally inept Nazi (Christopher Lee) along for the ride, they eventually capture a man by the name of Hollis Wood (Slim Pickens), but find him most uncooperative.

The storyline within “1941” which connects most of the others together is the love story between lowly dishwasher Wally Stephens (Bobby DiCiccio) and reluctant USO girl Betty Douglas (Dianne Kay). Wally gets into it with an Army Corporal nicknamed “Stretch” (Treat Williams), who also has designs on Betty. Wally has also done nothing to impress Betty’s father Ward (Ned Beatty), who is in some hot water of his own with his wife Joan (Lorraine Gary). She’s pretty pissed that Ward has allowed the Army to position a tank on their front lawn. Joan doesn’t like the idea of her house being on the front line of a potential Japanese offensive. It should come as no surprise that the house will not survive the entire film.

Another pair that I enjoy “1941” for are Tim Matheson and Nancy Allen. Matheson plays Captain Loomis Birkhead, a role similar to his “Animal House” character in that he’s hopelessly obsessed with getting laid and can only come up with the most harebrained schemes imaginable to get who and what he wants. His current object of desire is Donna Stratten (Nancy Allen), secretary to Major General Stillwell (Robert Stack). Birkhead knows all about how Donna becomes sexually stimulated by airplanes, and makes it his mission to get her into one. The only factor he hadn’t considered is that she needs for the plane to be in flight, meaning that he’ll have to fake his way through piloting one.

The wild card comes in the form of Wild Bill Kelso (John Belushi). The first time I ever saw “1941,” I did so because of Belushi, having enjoyed him immensely from “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” If there were as many as I expect that there were who did the same, I have to wonder if they were disappointed to find that “1941,” while highly satirical, isn’t half as loony tunes as “Animal House.” That should not be a mark against it, however, and Belushi does a great job as always. The guy could make you laugh just by raising an eyebrow. As Wild Bill Kelso, he’s the one who comes charging in all gung ho, leaving a path of destruction everywhere he goes. If not for his antics and keen observation, it’s entirely possible that the Japanese might succeed in their mission in spite of themselves.

There are two scenes in “1941,” co-written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, which always seem to stand out. One takes place inside a movie theater, where tough guy General Stillwell won’t allow anything that’s going on outside to interrupt his enjoyment of “Dumbo,” during which he is openly weeping and singing along with the songs. I’d never seen Robert Stack in a situation like this before, and it has always stuck with me. The most elaborate and impressively choreographed scene in “1941” has got to be the USO dance hall, which descends into all-out chaos by the end of it, with everyone fighting everyone else and Wally, Betty, and Corporal Asshole in the center of it all.

I can understand why some might not find “1941” all that funny. National tragedies like Pearl Harbor are always going to be a touchy subject. At the time, some of the more patriotic members of the Hollywood community such as John Wayne and Charlton Heston urged Spielberg not to make the movie. It would have been yet another tragedy had Spielberg listened to them, because “1941” is a satisfying film in many respects. Perhaps not an all-time classic but in the grand tradition of epic comedies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” it’s a terrific example of a spot-the-stars movie. By the time it’s over, you’ll want to volunteer for repeat viewing.


  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Exactly right, and even more so now since many of those stars are already gone. Definitely worth viewing. Great review!

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