Tuesday 25 June 2013

Movie Review: 1941 (1979)

An attempted war comedy, 1941 is a debacle of almost unimaginable proportions. Steven Spielberg momentarily loses his touch and presides over an obnoxious bomb.

It's December 1941, one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In Los Angeles, civilians and the military are both on the edge of disorganized hysteria, anticipating an attack on the west coast. Indeed, a Japanese submarine is prowling the waters off California, and sub commander Akiro Mitamura (Toshiro Mifune) wants to make a name for himself by bombing Hollywood.

The US military men stationed in the area include Major General Stilwell (Robert Stack), more interested in watching Dumbo than leading his men; the slightly crazed Captain "Wild" Bill Kelso (John Belushi), randomly flying his fighter plane over California seeking phantom enemies; tank commander Sergeant Frank Tree (Dan Aykroyd), who knows how to inspire with words but not with actions; Captain Loomis Birkhead (Tim Matheson) who desperately wants to get Stilwell's assistant Donna (Nancy Allen) into an airplane to get her motor running; and the hot head Corporal Chuck Sitarski (Treat Williams), who is desperately vying with dance-loving waiter Wally Stephens (Bobby Di Cicco) for the attention of hostess Betty Douglas (Dianne Kay).

Spielberg's first and perhaps most serious major flop, 1941 is a thunderous failure, a remarkable calamity considering the talent on both sides of the camera and a budget of $32 million. There really is no plot to speak of. The screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale fails miserably to create any characters or events worth even remotely caring about. With astounding speed the film degenerates into an excuse for excess in search of broad slapstick-style jokes, with most of the attempted humour falling embarrassingly flat. The whole exercise takes on the unmistakable air of an unmitigated disaster.

The opening scene, a funny take on Spielberg's Jaws, deserves recognition as the only idea to hit the target in the entire two hour running length. Otherwise, long minutes that feel like hours pass by with no meaningful laughs, as an enormous amount of destruction is thrown at the screen to no effect. With a cast that also includes John Candy, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Ned Beatty, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee and Lionel Stander, 1941 achieves quantity over quality in all respects. Characters scream, over-act, fight, punch, riot, brawl, shoot, and frantically wave their arms in the air, all to no avail. The events on the screen bear no resemblance to rational film making, and a weird disconnect settles over the film. Someone actually thought that all this would be funny. Instead, it's just humiliating for all involved.

1941 features an orgy of wanton destruction, Spielberg mistaking a child's tendency to spectacularly annihilate stuff with good farce. Never has so much on-screen hardware been so spectacularly destroyed to so little effect.

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