Unquiet Americans: 1941, by Aaron Pinkston
A beautiful young woman disrobes and runs into an empty ocean. All of a sudden, the serene waterscape is interrupted by something familiar on the soundtrack… ba dum ba dum baadum baadum… Panic begins to wash over the young woman’s face as she realizes she is not alone in the water. For a second, one might think they started watching the wrong movie. Nope, this isn’t Jaws, but another Steven Spielberg film made just two years later. This one is a comedy about the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
There is something about war that brings out the most broad comedy. War isn’t funny (I think that’s obvious), it is perhaps the antithesis of comedy. This brings out a natural potential for dark humor, but many of the most popular war comedies go in a completely different direction. I suppose there will always be something inherently dark about getting laughs from real-world tragedy, but the shenanigans of M*A*S*H or the 13-year-old-boy appeal of Hot Shots (which, granted, is a parody of a specific “serious” war film and its bulked-up genre) approach war more silly than stark. Dr. Strangelove, the highest achievement in war lampooning, is a bit different as a fantasy extension of a war that never actually happened. Kubrick was able to analyze a tense situation while it was unfolding and approach the subject on a deeper intellectual level. Dr. Strangelove has an obvious influence on 1941, though Spielberg’s film seems more like an aped reaction than an homage. The most entertaining and frustrating aspect of 1941 is that it leaves its smarts in pre-production, trading them in for a big, loud, zany mess.
If you want to make a good war film, your best decision may be staying away from Pearl Harbor — it’s not even conceivable that you’d want to approach this as a madcap comedy. Because it is such a hot trigger topic, even a well-meaning script can easily slip into maudlin, manipulative ground. This makes the mere existence of 1941 unbelievable, and after finally seeing the film, I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. The film takes place a few days after the attacks (which we thankfully do not see) as a Japanese submarine crawls along the California coast-line, looking to attack Hollywood, if only they could find it. With America on its heels, a chain of overreactions and miscommunications leads to widespread panic, localized at a USO dance competition, an empty amusement park and the home of a bumbling suburban family.
The comedic style of 1941 most closely resembles the parody films of the 1980s. Though I doubt the film had much of an influence on films like Airplane! and Spaceballs, this joke-a-minute style would certainly come en vogue just a few years after its release. The humor is crude to say the least, with Spielberg trying absolutely everything he can for a laugh. And if the idea of lampooning the events surrounding the second most horrific attack perpetrated on American soil doesn’t already offend you enough, there is also plenty of racial and jingoistic humor to pass around. This isn’t to say that 1941 isn’t funny, because it certainly is, though you can’t deny it is a bit unfocused while also trying so desperately hard. While watching the film, I was enjoying myself immensely, laughing at many of the over-the-top gags and unruly nature of the film. Apparently, the DVD release of the film is about 20 minutes longer and supposedly adds in more character building and continuity, but this seems like correcting a strength. There is definitely a shaggy appeal to the movie, which works well partnered with its untouchable content.
The more time away from the film, however, the more I understand its reputation. The biggest flaw with the film is its surprising lack of genuine satire. Though the film is technically about mass hysteria caused by the threat of war, it should have some bite. Living in our cable news society, where every day sparks a new potential for ISIS or Russia or North Korea or unknown foes in the shadows to start World War III, the film should feel even more prescient. Even the scenes with the Japanese submarine crew (some of my favorite in the film) don’t make a point other than these guys are dumb and don’t know where to find Hollywood. Overall, 1941 doesn’t have much to say about war or hysteria or the military or Pearl Harbor. It’s funny, but pointless. Considering this as a parody, this isn’t a very good one.
Perhaps the best thing about 1941, though, is the group that made this crazy film exist. It starts with Spielberg, who was already the biggest filmmaker in the world coming off of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. With that clout, he could have made any film he wanted, but he chose this one. 1941 is a strange outlier in his career, perhaps his only pure comedy, though it does have his trademark nostalgia and energy. Then there is the amazing cast, including John Beluschi, Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Lee, Robert Stack, Ned Beatty, Slim Pickens, John Candy, Warren Oates and Toshirô Mifune (I could keep on going, but I’ll leave it there). It is a beyond impressive collection of traditional comedians and serious actors, though just about everyone is funny in the film. The film was written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, who would later create the Back to the Future franchise, and produced by John Milius, who wrote one of the greatest and most intensely serious war films ever, Apocalypse Now. Throw in the classic war score by John Williams, and altogether you have a ridiculous amount of film talent, both up-and-coming and scorching hot. The idea they all came together to make 1941 only adds to its mystique.