By Pete Vonder Haar | March 15, 2004

The (Not So) Good War

Permit me to go out on a limb here and assume everyone reading this is familiar with Steven Spielberg, the venerable director of blockbuster films like “Schindler’s List” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Spielberg has become, since his Academy Award wins, one of a treasured few icons in the pantheon of American directors. Like Martin Scorsese, Roger Corman, and…uh, McG, Spielberg is that rarest of directors whose name elicits instant respect for his résumé of popular, well-crafted films.

Well, most of them anyway.

Like any director, Spielberg has made some missteps. Scorsese got lost in “New York, New York,” after all, and Francis Ford Coppola didn’t know “Jack.” Spielberg had to answer for “Hook,” and “AI,” even though the former actually grossed over $100 million. A few chuckholes in an otherwise respectable career aren’t too surprising, until one considers the sucking chest wound that is “1941.”

Set in the side-splitting days immediately following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, “1941” takes what Spielberg must have thought would be a comedic look at the hysteria surrounding a potential West Coast invasion near Los Angeles. Boasting a star-studded ‘70s cast and Spielberg’s biggest budget to date, “1941” should have been the glittering jewel in a three-cornered crown of critical and financial triumph, completing the set started by “Jaws” and “Close Encounters.” As Al Gore once said, you can’t win ‘em all.

It isn’t difficult to understand Spielberg’s line of thinking. The guy was Hollywood’s newly anointed golden boy, milking huge box office numbers from two genres – horror and sci-fi – not traditionally known for their moneymaking potential. Yet even while his bank account was swelling, it was whispered that Spielberg had yet to successfully produce a more traditional type of picture. Most felt he would eventually succeed in this, but Spielberg himself wasted no time tackling his first comedy project. In retrospect, he probably should have taken more of a breather.


Calling “1941” a bad movie is ignoring a salient fact: namely, that it’s a stupendously bad movie. The director’s cut of the film clocks in at almost two and a half hours, and I counted the number of actual laughs on the one hand I wasn’t using to fling the DVD case at a neighbor’s dog. That Spielberg was able to recover from the nightmarish production of “1941,” the absolute hammering it received in reviews, and its dismal box office is testament to the man’s resiliency. It also goes a long way toward explaining why he has yet to direct another comedy.

For those of you who don’t remember/slept through/got high during your high school history classes, let’s recap. See, in 1941, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was bombed by the Japanese. In the days that followed, citizens on the Pacific coast of the United States grew increasingly fearful that an invasion was imminent. War nerves and rumor mongering led to near hysteria before things eventually calmed down. It is in this ripe comedic atmosphere – six days after the attack on Pearl Harbor – that “1941” takes place.

Granted, Spielberg had the luxury of a near 40-year separation between the events of December 7 and the making of his little movie. Even so, one can’t help but wonder how well a slapstick comedy set in NYC a week after September 11 would play, especially if it was directed by a guy who wasn’t even alive at the time (Spielberg was born in 1946). Somebody remind me to revisit this question in 2050. Provided we aren’t all underwater by then, that is.

The first scene is an almost shot-for-shot reworking of the opening tableau from “Jaws:” same naked blonde woman (actually Denise Cheshire, who – depending on who you ask – was body double for Susan Backlinie, who played the doomed Chrissie Watkins in “Jaws” and who also has a bit role in “1941”), same music, same camera angles. Only this time, it’s a Japanese submarine that rises from the depths, snagging the woman on the periscope while the commander of the submarine, played by Toshirô Mifune, no less, surveys the coastline. He’s joined by Christopher Lee (playing the token historically inaccurate Nazi on board), and in the best tradition of Axis villainy, they decide to make a symbolic attack on that most hallowed of landmarks: Hollywood.

The story continues in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: “1941”>>>

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