Viking Night: 1941
By Bruce Hall
February 25, 2014
Question - how do you spell “hubris” in decimal notation? Answer - “1941.”
It’s a good thing Steven Spielberg kept making movies. If 1941 had been his last project, it might not have been enough to diminish the greatness of Jaws or Close Encounters, but it would have made the Posthumous Lifetime Achievement award a lot harder to hand out. It doesn’t exactly take a brave man to pile on this already much maligned cinematic atrocity. That trail has been blazed, and the ruts are worn deep. But you know what? I had to sit through the damn thing last night, and I swear on all that’s holy - I will not suffer alone.
The story is (very) loosely based on something that actually happened during World War II, adding the fundamental concept of a Japanese submarine surfacing in Los Angeles harbor and causing a citywide panic. It’s not exactly gold, but if it were pitched to me as a comedy starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, with special appearances by Robert Stack, Ned Beatty and John candy - I’d have listened. And had Universal Pictures been able to look into the future, they would also have known that the eventual writers of Back to the Future and Conan the Barbarian were responsible for the story. They’d have listened, too.
And who knows, maybe they did. Maybe they had a psychic on hand, or a crystal ball or magic mirror that allowed them to see this, along with Raiders of the Lost Ark, and they considered this to be a slam dunk. But of course we know this can’t be true because if it were, they’d also have seen what a colossal piece of shit this film was going to be. In fact, what surprises me most isn’t the 32% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. What surprises me is that this many people liked it at all. But please - don’t rely (entirely) on my sparkling wit to decide how much you will also hate 1941, because I want to explain it to you in loving detail.
It saddens me that between this movie and Airplane, the non-Spielberg movie does a better job referencing Jaws as it opens. The same actress runs down the same stretch of beach and into the same span of water, but instead of getting mauled by a shark, she gets to ride bareback on a Japanese submarine as it surfaces in Los Angeles harbor. The scene that follows introduces her captain (Toshiro Mifune), the crew, and a conspicuously out of place Nazi conspirator (Christopher Lee), all looking for glory just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They decide that the best place to strike the enemy would be Hollywood, so they set out to find it in order to blow it to bits.
And well they should, based on the rest of the film. It’s supposed to be a comedy but most of the jokes either don’t land, or stay in the air longer than they should, only to land miles off target. So for 118 minutes, we follow approximately 118 characters around Los Angeles while they engage in a wide variety of shenanigans largely unrelated to Japan, or submarines, or anything remotely resembling comedy in general. It’s not hard to imagine how quickly invasion rumors could get out of control, and how (given the passage of enough time) you could mine that for something funny. But the only place 1941 is interested in digging are the go to spots for most ‘70s ensemble comedies – obvious sight gags, rampant sexism and racial humor more awkward than an elephant on roller skates.